Living Better With Blisters
Blisters form like pearls. An irritating, foreign object lodges itself into the flesh of an oyster, which, in self-defence, tries to neutralize the vexation by smothering it with successive layers of soothing nacre. After three years, what began as a bloody pain in the figurative neck of the sea-bottom clam becomes a lovely pearl around the literal throat of une dame de la haute societé.
Blisters also often commence with a stray, pernicious particle intruding into the boot of the hapless hiker, whose repeated, unsuspecting steps result, by the end of the day, in another spherical surprise, albeit less pleasant to the eye, not to mention the tootsies, than its aquatic counterpart.
Remarkably, blisters can also perform like pearls. That is, they can attain a value that far exceeds their origin as a miserable nuisance. Precisely this kind of runaway inflation happened to the blisters rubbed into existence during the Guelph Walking Pilgrimage of 2017.
In early August, some 85 pilgrims stepped out of the chapel at Loyola House in Guelph and began trudging to the Martyrs´ Shrine in Midland, Ontario. Along the way, the painful pearls of the feet accumulated sizable spiritual riches for their hosts.
Apart from the sympathy, generated by these ulcerating jewels, for Jesus on his rocky way to Calvary, and for the innumerable unnamed migrants plodding through deserts, jungles and snowbanks in search of security, the blisters on individual toes and heels became a collective source of intramural compassion. Pilgrim X understood pilgrim Y’s hurt, as both hobbled around camp sharing Band-aids, Epson salts, and baby powder.
The value added, however, did not stop at the inner wall of the membrane of the group. Our minced footsies forced us to walk tenderly everywhere, to step gently on the much more severely bruised earth, to place our sole with care, proceeding with attention and due reverence so as not to aggravate the already delicate going. As a consequence, our pilgrim compassion began walking among others who did not share our road-wounds.
One mother confessed that she started the pilgrimage praying fervently to God that he change her teen-age son, whose conduct made her heart feel like the swollen flesh inside her sweaty socks. Nearing the graves of the martyrs’, she discovered her prayer had spontaneously changed. Suddenly she was praying that she be the object of God’s change. Where for so long she had been righteously stomping her feet and likely the toes of her son, she began to step more lightly.
Another pilgrim had attempted to annul his participation a few days prior to exodus. Upon receiving notice that his fee would not be refunded, he returned to the fold, but soon found himself pulled unwillingly back into his normal, non-nomadic life. A previously scheduled meeting with a tenant family deep in rent arrears could not be postponed. Before hitting the road, his intention had been to evict the dead-beats, who happened to include four children.
It turned out, to his surprise, that the miles had done quick work to soften him. He entered the predictably conflictual encounter treading gently, feeling himself a little more in the shoes of his erstwhile adversaries. Compassion from both sides graced the negotiation, and a mutually agreeable payment plan was signed. The family didn’t lose their home, and the landlord didn’t lose his peace of mind. He attributed this hopeful exit out of a former, ugly impasse to the tutelage of the pilgrimage.
The most exotic of the pilgrims was a business man on vacation from India, whose final days in Canada happily coincided with the first leg of the walk. Over a couple of hours he and I discussed the cultural laboratory that is contemporary Canada. His was the distressed conviction that in fifteen years the nation would be nearly unrecognizable, overrun with Muslims who would in turn run roughshod over the rights and liberties of the rest.
A simple game of numbers, he insisted. Given the swell of Muslim immigrants and their penchant for large families, they would constitute the voting majority in the not too distant future. Then they would come to control the parliament, the media, the schools and the rest of Canadian society. He could only see disaster in his smoky crystal ball. Although reticent to explain to me how, he avowed that this dangerous trajectory had to be stopped.
For my part, I tried to explain that history contains proof that Muslims and Christians can live together harmoniously. I cited Islamic Spain between the 8th and 11th century. While acknowledging the problems of inter-religious strife in India, I suggested that there must be another way to deal with differences of faith and culture. I tried to impart some of my gratitude for living in a time and place where dialogue and mutual understanding could possibly create conditions of meaningful national community without historical precedent. He politely dismissed me as one more Pollyanna Canadian blind to the machinations of aspiring, religious imperialists.
On the eve of his departure, our pessimist pilgrim astounded me with the public confession that his walking and talking had knocked cracks in his suspicion. Although not won over completely, he declared himself now disposed to trust in new possibilities of co-habiting the planet that did not imply a battle of creedal thrones.
Maybe, like the pilgrimage itself, which had attracted Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, United churchgoers, Mormons and agnostics, people of widely different stripes could walk together towards the collectively cherished destination of peace, freedom and the common good. He returned to India a little more worldly, that is to say, immersed in and more sensitive to our shared humanity.
By now, the blisters have all healed. Nevertheless, let’s hope that the pearls of wisdom and compassion that arose with them remain. Let these be the proverbial pearl of great price, for which all lesser jewels are sold to acquire. Should you fancy yourself a buyer, lace up your boots and head out walking.