Life is a trapeze

Maude Banvard, The Catch, Brockton Fair, Massachusetts, 1907

Life is a trapeze.
It may be scary to jump off
but if you let go,
take a risk and trust,
you can revel in the heady excitement
of the leap
and learn to fly.

Shannyn Steel

This image captivated me this week.  When I saw it I drew a deep breath and sat up entranced.  It crept back into my thoughts constantly. I wasn’t sure why it enthralled me so until I sat down just now to write about it.

The image is a beautiful metaphor for so many aspects of life.

Jumping off – you can’t begin anything until you take that leap of faith.  We all know the adage that reminds us that if we don’t jump, we can’t fly.  If you haven’t jumped, and you are pushed, take it as a sign you should have jumped and embrace this new chance to fly.

Letting go – jumping off requires letting go. You can’t grab hold of the next bar until you let go of the one you are holding.  Who knows what’s next but a friend of mine regularly reminds me to choose the exciting nerve-wracking option (can’t get any more nerve-wracking than trapeze. Well, there’s skydiving I guess).

Transitions –  all transitions require jumping off and letting go. It’s in that space in-between that we reassemble and redefine ourselves, so we can fully embrace the next opportunity.

Living a happy and fulfilled life – do something that scares you every day , or so say today’s life coaches.  Jumping, letting go, choosing the nerve-wracking option will cover that objective pretty much. Living a happy and fulfilled life is also, for me,  about not tying happiness to a person or things but to goals.

Then there is vulnerability, trust and risk. You can’t gain anything without an element of risk, sometimes you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable to attract the good in life and even when trust has been broken, you can’t live life without it. To get the best out of people you have to expect the best and offer your best. It’s a simple, elegant yet uneasy equation but one that will pay off.

I am sure there are many more elements to be captured from this stunning image. I’m not sure I’ve exhausted every reason this photograph delights me. I shall continue to ponder its magic and messages. In the meantime, take a leap of faith – see where you land. I will be, you can be sure.

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Scaling new heights in Rome

Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world the way they’ve been told to.  Alan Keightly

I’ve climbed a few mountains in my travels. I’ve scaled the 1237 steps to the Tiger cave temple in Thailand and made my way up several other steep staircases to magnificent temples, castles and rooftops all around the world, but the hardest climb I’ve ever made was up just 28 wooden steps in Rome.

My journey up the Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs, also known as Pilate’s Stairs was one made on my knees.

The Scala Sancta are housed in one of the most important papal sanctuaries in the Roman Catholic Church. I grew up indoctrinated in the Catholic faith but was never aware these stairs existed. By luck and a Lonely Planet guide-book, I discovered them on a trip to Italy some years ago.  Early one morning I set off on foot to locate the very unassuming building that houses this treasured relic.

It is thought Jesus climbed these stairs, once part of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, on the day he was sentenced to death. The stairs were later transported to Rome by Saint Helena, she secured a number of other holy relics also. The Holy Stairs were housed in a few places before the current sanctuary. The marble has been covered with wooden treads to protect them from wear and at certain points there are little glass windows that offer a view to the marble beneath and to stains, thought to be the actual blood of Jesus.

The truly devout will think poorly of me, for I had not worshipped in a church for many years nor had I knelt in prayer for some time, though my faith was strong. Having travelled across the world and appreciated the peace and quietude of other sacred and blessed places, I felt moved to join a small number of morning visitors up the stairs.

What I didn’t realise, despite my sincerity and solemn approach, was that to truly pay homage, to honour and respect the sanctity of the chapel and the man to whom it stands in remembrance of, one had to go slowly, with deep reverence. Each of the faithful climbers offered a prayer on every step. Not a short and sweet prayer but a decent, well-considered prayer. Many worked rosaries in their hands. I later discovered many climb the stairs to be forgiven for sins and seek favour with God.

With a genuine respect I proceeded, offering some long memorised prayers alternating with personal prayers of gratitude and thanks. It was a humbling and moving experience.

At the top of the stairs is a private, papal chapel adorned with 13th Century frescos and a 4th century painting of Christ, thought to have been begun by Saint Luke and completed by an angel. This Sancta Sanctorum, is viewed through a grated opening.

Descending is much easier with a set of steps on either side of the Holy Stairs. These can also be used by those interested in viewing the chapel who do not wish to or cannot ascend the Holy Stairs on their knees.

Once reserved as a place for popes the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanatorium are now open to the public for a small entrance fee. When visiting ensure appropriate and modest attire is worn. Arriving early in the morning there were no tourists in sight. In fact the whole piazza was empty.

It is easy to be critical and questioning when faced with monuments of faith. Is the story true? Did a man called Jesus climb these stairs? Were they once part of a palace in Jerusalem? Are they stained with blood? Whose blood is it? Regardless of faith, regardless of belief or facts; historically and anthropologically this experience made my mind buzz with intrigue. It served as a gesture in humility a chance to count my blessings and reflect on the sweetness of life. I hobbled away more enamoured with life than before my visit, which is saying something — I was in Rome after all.

Have you been somewhere that moved you to experience the world in a different way?

The great human endeavour

purpose

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.  Albert Camus

Have you noticed a preoccupation with discovering the meaning of life? Meaning making is a great human endeavour. We witness people go on soul journeys, sea changes or pilgrimages to discover themselves and their place in the world, to seek answers and meaning.  We hunger to be part of something. There exists a gnawing unrelenting need when we lack community, a sense of belonging and purpose. The sense that life is meaningless could be the most desolate of thoughts. Desolate is the one who finds themselves alone, unattached, adrift in life.

This phenomenon, I imagine, has always existed though there seems to me to be an intensification in recent times, a swell of seekers.  My limited view and observations lead me to believe this is a side effect borne mainly by those in western cultures. Could it be due to a lack of traditions, of ritual, of religion, of an intimacy and belief in story and myth? Professor of sociology, John Carroll suggests there is an emerging poverty in western cultures due to a move away from myth.

Myths have been central to all cultures. I recently listened to Saga Land, a radio podcast by Richard Fidler, about the Icelandic sagas. These stories have endured for centuries and link the people to their ancestors and heritage. My childhood was full of the stories of the Australian Dreamtime. The stories, songs and dance of the traditional owners of the country I call home still captivate and educate me.  I was educated in catholic schools and am familiar with many Christian myths.

Why are myths important? Why might a lack of myth in our life affect us so very much?

Myths are enduring, they are rich with metaphorical weight.  Myths give us a sense of ourselves in relation to others. Hugh Mackay, author and social researcher, deduces that myth and story help us identify where we place our faith and that faith unites us and equips us to live with doubt and uncertainty. Through his research he has found that humans yearn something beyond the material, something other than themselves to use as a reference point to draw strength from, something that inspires them.

Religion and attending church used to fill that yearning, satisfy the hunger, give us something to inspire us and provide a sense of community. The role of religion has been to provide potent narratives to guide us along our journey to discover meaning. Interestingly only 8% of Australians are regular church goers. Why have so many turned away from the church? Perhaps it’s because the myths and narratives are served up as doctrine and often expected to be swallowed whole. For me, my move away from the church was the incongruence between doctrine and the behaviours of those most strongly advocating it. Mackay has found that dogma definitely divides us. He advocates faith beyond dogma.

I can attest that faith can exist without a literal adherence to dogma.  I can also attest to the desire for community. While my faith is strong I do not worship in a church and I do at times crave to be part of a community.  For a time I found it in a group of like-minded souls. We learned together, we practiced ritual, we communed and we grew individually and as a group. It was quenching. It was so deeply satisfying I wanted for nothing more. We eventually drifted apart, each to go their own way to continue our individual journeys. I miss that gathering of minds and souls. I miss the kinship.

It’s fascinating this hardwired need in humans to have a story that keeps the darkness at bay and to satisfy our longing to belong.  It is, I believe, the impetus for the great human endeavour – to seek meaning and purpose in life.