The journey of pilgrimage will invariably involve a decisive step – a step across a threshold. The threshold might be thought of as the beginning of the journey. In retrospect, it’s clear there have been other critical steps leading up to the threshold moment. A threshold, however, marks a clear line where “before” shifts into “after.”
Franco Zeffirelli’s film “Brother Sun Sister Moon” depicts the story of St. Francis of Assisi. If you know anything of Francis’s story, you’ll recall he started out anything but a saint. A spoiled rich kid, he outdid his frat-boy peers in the wild life. He adventured his way to war, but returned home wounded and sick. Stuck in bed, he began a slow conversion that involved mystical visions of nature (brother sun, sister moon) and of Jesus. Importantly also, Francis for the first time took special notice of the downtrodden of society. Troubled by the exploitation of workers in his father’s textile mills, he renounced his inherited wealth and proclaimed his solidarity with the poor. Embarrassed and distraught, his father in turn renounced and disowned Francis.
In retrospect, it’s clear there have been
other critical steps leading up to
the threshold moment. A threshold, however,
marks a clear line where “before” shifts into “after.”
In a pivotal scene of the film, the father beats Francis and drags him into the town square. In front of the church, he implores the bishop to put sense into his “lunatic” son – as a last ditch effort to save the family’s dignity. In response to the bishop’s questioning, Francis expresses his earnest desire to live in freedom as the birds of the air and the beggar Jesus. In a dramatic act both humble and shocking, Francis proclaims he is born again to new life. He then steps slowly toward the threshold of the city gate, and pauses.
Francis is at a threshold. Zeffirelli, an Italian director who brought opera to film, has Francis slowly lift his arms, palms open to a future of liberation. “You will be free indeed,” Jesus promised his followers, and Francis intends to follow. The scene culminates with a choreographed embodied image of the expansive life into which Francis will now step.
Can you think of a threshold experience in your life? This simple question, posed to a group of friends last fall, led to a whole season of fruitful discussion and growth for us. It called upon memory, a backward look, as a meaning-making activity. It so happens that Franco Zeffirelli hasn’t been on hand to choreograph our actual lives with a dramatic musical score and a medieval gateway. Our own life thresholds weren’t necessarily obvious at the time. We think, think, and then someone tells the group a story that comes to her mind.
Hmm it’s true, my life wasn’t the same after that. Not that it was all better… just different. Maybe, come to think of it, there was a newness, a freedom, a whole new quality. I was scared but found courage. Afterward possibilities I never imagined opened up.
Yes, I had a decision to make. I did take a step. I wasn’t sure I could, but I did!
The story reminds someone else of threshold experience, which reminds someone else. We plan a day trip revisiting these memories together, which becomes its own sort of pilgrimage. It brings the past into the present. With more reflection and attention, the markers of memory become signposts for a future to step into.
Reflection upon reflection. Steps. Choices. Pauses. This happened, then that. Didn’t seem big at the time. Or, it really did.
Kind of does look like I was on a path, in retrospect. Telling the story from here, it’s like it was choreographed – though I wouldn’t have thought of it that way then. I can see it only now. Like a musical score was being written for my life. Re-enacting the threshold now, I might in fact shed all that holds me back, bare as birth. I’d spread my arms wide, heart and palms open.
Or not. Could just be that stuff happens, and more stuff. Back to reality, sigh.
At some point in our lives, this very thing – this wide release of heart to transcendence, to a realm beyond, to divine choreography - is the great threshold. “I will not break faith with my awakened heart,” says mystical teacher and trauma therapist James Finley. Or will I?
The classic spiritual practice of pilgrimage, in its many forms, guides our faith-keeping. Physical steps mirror steps of spirit. Following along a way reminds us how our past present future threads into a Way. Not simply wanderers, we are way-farers, led.
For Soul Tending
Can you think of a threshold experience in your life? What opened up? If your heart was awakened in some way, how will you not break faith with this awakening? Take a walk to reflect.
Scott Dewey director of Centering Way, is a spiritual director and community chaplain.