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Praying With Feet- Ruminations On A Walking Pilgrimage

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BELLARY, SEP 16 (Swami Bobby ofm): Four of us walking at different pace had covered hardly 10 km in two and a half hours, at the first day of our pilgrimage on foot. Yet another 120 km awaited us to reach the destination – Our Lady’s shrine situated at Harihar (known as the Kashi of South India, on the banks of Tungabadra). Waiting for three more to join us from another village, we had been trying to find a way to keep us all moving in unison.

Early morning we got up at 02.45 am, so as to begin our walk at 03.00 am. As we were about to set out, we struck upon the idea of Nama Japa (repetitive prayer) and formulated the following Nama japa “Harihara mathe, Sharanam sharanam; Ellara Thaye, Namo namaha” (Mother of Harihar, we take refuge in you; Mother of All, we revere you). The leader intoned the first part and the rest of the group responded Sharanam sharanam. Again the leader said aloud “Ellara thaye” and the group replied “Namo namaha”. After 40 odd repetitions another person took lead and the group followed with their respective part of prayer. We went through the hills and valleys, forests and open fields of Sanduru and reached Kudligi, covering 30 km in 6 hours time! It was incredible. Of course this was only the initial phase. We had to reduce our speed to 4km/hour with our aches and pains for the rest of the journey.


Learning to pray in a new way, embracing simplicity, forming community, living each day centered and focused, depending on God to provide, were some of the gifts we received as we progressed in this pilgrimage. Did I say learning to pray in a new way !? Nama Japa  is the old traditional method of repetitive prayer. The newness is what we discovered as we applied it to face the situation we were struggling with.

The less educated among us were the most creative in leading this prayer. Srinivas added his own rhyming words, which inspired others to build up in similar ways. As each one took their turn to lead, the varying tones added to the symphony. We could sense our breathing and walking getting into a rhythm. The Nama Japa kept us bound together as a group mutually supportive with the same focus – physical, mental and spiritual. Interestingly wind, rain, sun and the uneven terrain did not hinder our determined steps forward.


Pilgrimage on foot demands disciplining of body, mind and spirit. Nama japa provided us with this discipline and the fruits it bore in us were numerous. Thanks to the pilgrimage, we all developed the habit of sleeping freely in the open, beside the road surrounded by animal dung. It gave us the ability to accept everything and not to be overwhelmed by what life throws at us. Once the worries, attachments and self-indulgence, disappeared there was nothing more to distract our minds from praying genuinely.

As Christian pilgrims on foot from Bellary to Harihar, we were welcomed to stay for night at various Hindu and Muslim shrines at Taranagar, Kotturu and Telagi. We marvelled at the wisdom of those who constructed those shrines. They have been built in such a way to welcome strangers and pilgrims. Another significant thing we noterd, was that the resting places offered to us were very close to the worship place. It was a pleasant revelation of the integration of worship and life in our people-centered religious traditions. The adage “Athithi Devo Bhava”,  the guest is God sounded true.


Our hosts cared about our food and served us with warm meals irrespective of the creed! We were moved to tears when a man prostrated on our feet and kissed! We melted in front of such reverence and recalled the bible verse, “How beautiful are the feet of those who carry the good tidings!” and asked in our minds if we were bearers of the good news. Possibly it is only on foot, one gets in touch with the heart-beat of our local cultures which value Sarva Dharma Sambandha (relating to all religious traditions with respect). If only our religious leaders stooped low to feel the inter-religious heart of our common people far from the sectarianisms and schisms propagated by groups with vested interests!!


We noticed how gradually the barriers between us had begun to break down, through the sharing of our food packets, oil, washing soap etc, and eventually our stories shared around the breaking of the word and bread. Being on the road together relying on divine providence takes away all our self-serving logic and free us from our petty secure zones. Left alone without distractions, we had time to observe ourselves from a different point of view, thus enabling us to genuinely re-evaluate our taken for granted life-style. 


Walking every day carrying all our belongings tucked on our backs, deprived of our so called things which we can't seem to do without- the warm, comfortable bed, tasty food, the convenience of motor vehicles, and helpers to assist us with our daily chores- we realised just how trapped we were by these things!  The very things we owned, in fact owned us!


It was so good to breathe free devoid of the things which almost became additions (or addictions) to inflate our egos. Having relished this new liberty, we did not mind losing a shoulder bag left behind at a resting place with some fruits stored in it. After some initial complaints with body aches another companion found a way to continue the trek, and said, “I feel lighter within!” Two among us who were sure of finding short cut to reduce our stroll, gave up after a blunder and reconciled with the usual long route, humbly accepting and enjoying what came on the way.


When one walks, life shrinks to make you see even the tiny little things which otherwise we do not care for. During a pilgrimage on foot, one rarely thinks more than 30 km ahead. It teaches one to slow down and live one step at a time. Most of us adults caught in a world of efficiency, to get things done, tune out everything except what we think is important. As children we were conscious and aware of what was going around us than getting things done. There is so much to notice when we are walking. We feel ourselves awake to take in more of reality.  Some of us felt that we were recapturing something of that capacity to marvel and live more deeply through this walking pilgrimage.


As we reached the destination, we paused for a wash by the banks of Tungabadra. Shocked by the polluted condition of the river, Kiran made a quiet resolve. The spontaneous intercessory prayer during mass reflected his eye-opening experience. He took the first step at his home, where his Hindu relatives welcomed his new found zeal for creation.


Uday remarked that the pilgrimage had taught him how to convert his pains into prayer. We met many such pilgrims who had similar stories of pains transformed into prayer as they walked. The most notable ones were two women pilgrims from Sandur who had walked 120km all by themselves to Harihar shrine as thanksgiving offering to Mother Mary. We felt so small before them.


A Spiritual writer penned, “Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere.” Our own and the experience of other pilgrims who prayed with their feet, have led us to get a glimpse of the eternity. When we are awakened to the truth that we are mere pilgrims on this earth, the pray-ers begin to take the shape of their prayers which connect them to eternity.


(Pilgrims: Friar Bobby OFM, Kiran Kumar, Uday kiran, Vengopa, Srinivas, Sadaksari and Br.Joseph OFM)

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