He’s a hermit on an unfathomable pilgrimage to an unknown shrine. He lost his faith a lifetime ago, found a new one with no church or written doctrine, but he follows it with a reverence and devotion that would leave the traditional devout despairing of their failings.
I see him, but like many of us, I pretend not to. I’m unnerved by his heresy. The children see, wave at him, staring with eyes far older and wiser than any embedded in wrinkled heads. A few pay homage to his journey, dropping coins into his cup as he rests, propped up against a bridge wall or in the shade of a shop awning.
He takes refuge in places hollowed out for him, recesses distant from our manicured streets and modern refuges. Those of us who believe love and understanding are the way to encourage such as him back to the fold go out after dark with charity and communion. He takes bottled water and hot food wrapped in silver foil and melts away into the pools of darkness the city cannot completely convert. And while lights burn like pompous suns and the city writhes around commerce’s labour pains, he eats in the dark and dares to be grateful and happy.
I know I shouldn’t see him, this false prophet, but my eyes seek him out. He has become a fascination. Where I can, I follow him along his routes, his paths; and he maintains them religiously. On Tuesdays just before noon, he shuffles along the bridge straddling the main arterial road through the city. He’s heading towards the coffee shop, where someone may have bought a coffee for someone who needs it: a coffee in potentia for a thirsty pilgrim, summoned by the prayer ‘is there a coffee for John?’
He takes his coffee and slowly makes his way west, where the street leads gently down to wooded lanes between the wide road and the river slicing the city in half. Joggers use the stretch in their morning and evening devotions, and pilgrims like him gather under trees, where they attend their secret mass, taking sips of holy coffee, watching golden signs dance on river waves, listen to hymns pouring from the throats of birds, hear homilies on the wind blowing in from the desert we forget we live in. He says his prayers, head bowed, lips writhing about the words said with such reverence, it’s as though he’s mad on faith.
I watch him and feel envious, as blasphemous as that is. I envy this humble connection to life, even though he’s excommunicated and following an impossible god. It makes my heart ache. No wonder the city despises him; he’s walking and living proof that her church is not the only way.
Soon, the sun will be high, too dangerous. He will walk to one of his holy sites and sit in the dark and wait out the hardships of the day, while I and the rest of the city’s faithful slog our guts out under the midday sun, worshipping the city and following her dictates for our bag of silver coins.
Later, when the sun hurls itself upon the horizon, he comes out. It’s time to continue. I’ve followed him many times, and he does not deviate from his path. Has he found what he’s after as he walks rings around the shopping centre or the streets laden with restaurants and the cultural quarter with its museums and galleries? Or is he so drunk on his fervour that he’s forgotten what he seeks, like a dying man out in the desert, walking because he doesn’t know he’s dead?
For someone who needs so much, he asks for and expects so little. When he finds pennies on the path, he pockets them, but when a wallet falls from a pocket or bag, he points it out before walking away. He throws discarded newspapers in bins unread—what would he need to know of the world, anyway!?—but fluttering feathers and leaves are studied as though answering the deepest of life’s mysteries. What path is he following that gives him all he needs so freely while I and my fellow parishioners are left impoverished at every turn? What generous god did he follow who demanded nothing more from him than he treasure the world around him?!
In some selfish way, it pleases me that he labours and earns just as I do. It seems fair. In the greenways and gardens built at our expense that I realise I barely see and fail to appreciate, he works. But even here, he’s listing our sins and gently preaching as he walks between the ignored water fountains, picking up empty plastic water bottles rattling down the paths ahead of the wind, clattering out shame on you! He recycles them: a warm meal in every gross he gathers. And it burns me up inside to see him sitting on the benches in the parks he’s cleaned, a better minister through simple deed and care than we have ever trained through study and interpretation of good books. If only we could love our churches as carefully, tend to them so diligently and love them so simply!
He rarely speaks, his language expressed in actions and muttered mantras spilling from his mouth as he walks. Is this how he loves and forgives the city, despite her abandonment? Are his feet kissing tarmac, concrete, grass? When he looks up, and he looks up more than most, and his eyes linger on our glass and metal womb and office block crucibles, what does he see?
I sometimes envy and sometimes fear this man, this homeless man with the city as his kingdom, this wandering pilgrim with a home wherever he stops, this poor man digging up riches in our land of sales, this abandoned man who finds the city beloved. His heresy is beautiful, but I fear the cost, and my inherited devotions become as horsehair shirts and flagellations.
Sian Brighal currently lives in Germany with her family and is using the break in teaching to delve into flash fiction writing. She can be found on twitter under @sian_ink.
Image: Vero Photoart