Metaphors play an essential role in spirituality and religion. They give us a handle on the ineffable. The idea of God allows us to discuss the creative power of the universe. The spirit represents a way of understanding consciousness. People discuss heaven as a way of grasping that physical death is not to be feared. A metaphor is partly true and partly untrue, but the untruth helps understand what is real.
Religious dogma can become harmful when it places more emphasis on the metaphor than what is to be learned from it. Heaven becomes dangerous when it makes an eternal reward seem more important than honouring life. Even morality, a complex metaphor for social responsibility, becomes destructive when treated as absolute, dismissing context, empathy and discernment.
Good metaphors illuminate what is here and now.
Footpaths can be used to explore the mystery of human existence. Ritual pilgrimages played a role in all major world religions. The pilgrim travelled from his or her home to a sacred place as a means of approaching divinity. Labyrinths served as compact versions for people who could not afford to travel. The path symbolized progress from birth unto God, ancestors or enlightenment.
With millenia of ritual practice, emphasis has shifted from the destination to the journey itself. The spiritual path is not so much an achievement as a deepening connection with the world around us. When I find a remarkable forest wildflower, the discovery not only deepens cultural awareness of nature but also symbolizes greater integrity in myself and in relationship to others.
A footpath only reveals the next few paces ahead of you. You can accept the destination on faith, but no power in time and space can ensure you will reach it or what you will find. You are limited to experiencing what your senses reveal. This revelation gives greater understanding of past and future. As I pass through the landscape I share it with many people and other creatures, not only now but across the years, even with fossilized creatures in the bedrock. I try to understand my relationship with the beings I encounter or imagine.
This underscores my fascination with hiking trails such as the Bruce Trail (top photo, at Mono Cliffs Provincial Park), and why it should be more than a physical challenge. I hope to hike the entire trail someday. I hope for enlightenment. It will happen when I am ready. For the time being I have trails around the city where I live (the one below, in the conservation area behind our house). Like a labyrinth in a church or park, these footpaths offer a poor man’s way, pilgrimage for those limited in time and means.