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The Journey to Il Convento

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 163: The Journey to Il Convento - Edited Version

WE HAVE ALL MADE THE JOURNEY to Il Convento. Most of you made it for the first time, a few for the third or even the fourth time. Of those who have made the journey for the first time most have made it in the hope of being ordained during the three months we shall be together here, and it is to them in particular that these remarks are addressed, even though what I have to say will also be applicable to those who have made the journey to Il Convento not in the hope of being ordained, for they are already ordained, but in order to help others to prepare themselves for ordination.

Addressing myself, then, to those of you who have made the journey to Il Convento for the first time, and have made it in the hope of being ordained, I wonder to what extent you realize the significance of this journey, and the real nature of its connection with your being ordained here. Initially, when you received your invitation to this pre-ordination course, it might have seemed to you that the journey to Il Convento was no more than a means to an end, the end being, of course, to participate in `Tuscany 84', and, hopefully, to be ordained. The actual process of getting here, it might have seemed, had no special significance. It was, perhaps, something to be got through as quickly and cheaply as possible, the main idea being that one should transport oneself from London or Glasgow or wherever to Il Convento with the minimum of fuss and bother. On the other hand, when you received your invitation it might have occurred to you that the journey to Il Convento presented an opportunity of enjoying something you had not, perhaps, been able to enjoy for a long time, especially if you had been working in an FWBO co-op, i.e.

a holiday, either with one of your spiritual friends or, less mindfully, in company of a rather different type.

But even if you were concerned simply to get here, or simply to enjoy a little holiday en route, it will almost certainly have dawned on you, sooner or later, that the journey to Il Convento was more than just a means to an end, more than just an agreeable interlude, and that it had a significance of its own that it was not easy to formulate in conceptual terms. Indeed, for some of you it might have seemed that the more familiar you became with those magic words Il Convento, Batignano, Grosseto, and the more mantra-like the way in which they rolled off your tongue, the more the phrase `the journey to Il Convento' came for you to assume overtones of a mysterious and even archetypal nature.

That this should be so is not surprising. On more than one occasion I have spoken in terms of our acting out, in the course of our lives, what I have called our personal myth, and the various journeys we make are often an important part of that myth. The journey is, in fact, a myth in its own right, so to speak, or rather it is an archetype which finds expression in many myths and symbols, many legends and stories, though without being exhausted by them and without being identical with any or all of them. Thus we have the voyage of the Argo, or Jason's journey in quest of the Golden Fleece; Odysseus's ten-year journey from `the ringing plains of windy Troy' back to his home in rocky Ithaca; the Chosen People's still more protracted journey up from Egypt into the Promised Land; Monkey's journey to the West, i.e. from India, from which he and his companions returned to China with the false scriptures, the ones that had writing on them; the prophet Mohammed's Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem up through the heavens; Dante's journey through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly Jerusalem; Basho's journey from the Far North, and many other journeys by land and sea, through the air and through worlds and even universes. All these journeys possess, some of them more obviously than others, a significance that is not exhausted by their literal, surface meaning. This being the case it is only to be expected that a journey as crucial as the journey to Il Convento, that is to say, the journey to the venue of ordination, with all that ordination implies, should be imbued with a very special significance, even though that significance might not be immediately apparent.

To begin with, the journey to Il Convento is a journey from West to East. Most of you started your journey in England, and even those of you who did not actually start it there spent some time in England before setting out on the journey to Il Convento. The East is, of course, the source of light, for that is where the sun rises, and from time immemorial a journey towards the East has been a journey towards the light, or a spiritual journey. In medieval Iran there was even a school of mystic philosophers known as the Orientals (ishraqiya), in the sense of those who were `oriented' or who turned themselves in the direction of, and travelled towards, the `Orient' or world of supersensitive realities, and who spoke of entry into that world in terms of arriving at an `oriental' knowledge (`ilm ishraqi). In more recent times a distinguished German author has spoken of a mysterious `Journey to the East' undertaken not by one person only but by a number of people, and has even written a book with that title. Thus the journey to Il Convento is significant in that inasmuch as it is a journey to the East, it is, at the same time, a spiritual journey, or a pilgrimage. One might, of course, object that Il Convento is not very far east of England and that a real journey to the East would take one not to Italy but to India, not to Batignano but to Bhaja. That would be quite true, in a sense, and perhaps there is something to be said for our holding these pre-ordination courses further afield than we do, so that it would be a question not of a journey to Il Convento, or even a journey to Bhaja, but of a journey to Sarnath or Buddha Gaya. Nevertheless it must not be forgotten that the journey to the East does not really terminate at any particular point, either in the literal or the metaphysical sense. All that is really necessary is that our journey, whether long or short, should be a journey to the East, i.e. in the direction of the East, and that it should be a journey to the East in the real sense of the term. Whether it is a journey to Il Convento, or to Buddha Gaya, or even to Padmaloka, is of quite secondary importance.

Though the journey to Il Convento is a journey from west to east, it is also, at the same time, a journey from north to south. It is a journey from the Protestant north to the Catholic south, or even, to some extent, to the pagan south. It is a journey from cold to warmth, from gloom to sunshine, from pink complexions and blond hair to swarthy complexions and black hair, from pine forests to olive groves, from barley fields to vineyards, from the grim figures of Thor and Wotan to the more pleasing ones of Ceres and Dionysius.

It is a journey from skies and seas that are nearly always grey to seas and skies that are rarely anything but blue. In another sense it is a journey from the surface of things to the depths, from the conscious to the unconscious mind, from brain-cells to bloodstream (as D.H. Lawrence might say), from the modern to the archaic, from the present to the past, from the rational to the irrational. In order to go forward we have to go back, or rather, we have to go forward and back at the same time. In order to move in the direction of the east we have to move in the direction of the south. In order to travel towards the region of light and life we have to travel towards - and through - the region of darkness and death.

Besides being a journey from west to east, and from north to south, the journey to Il Convento is not a straight journey but a crooked or zigzag journey. Not only have most of you not come here by the most direct route possible, but you have made all sorts of detours, so that if all your different routes were to be plotted on a map of Europe it would show not a single beaten track but a complicated network of lines all of which eventually converged on Il Convento. Leaving aside those who came here by the shortest and quickest route they could find - as well, perhaps, as those who treated themselves to a holiday - the reason for this is, obviously, that you took advantage of the journey to Il Convento to do a little sight-seeing and that, with a certain amount of overlapping, you did your sight-seeing in different places. But why did you decide to see something of Rome and Naples (I am taking hypothetical examples, since I do not know exactly where each one of you went), rather than something of Venice and Ravenna? What was it, precisely, that drew you to the red-ribbed dome of the Santa Maria di Fiore in Florence, as it seemingly floats above a sea of red roofs? Why were you so keen to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa? What sort of mental picture did you have of these places, or what did they mean to you, that you decided to visit one rather than another of them, or allow yourself to be drawn away from the direct route in this direction rather than in that? Practical considerations played a part, no doubt, to some extent, but in the ultimate analysis the deciding factor must have been subjective or even largely unconscious. Nor is that all. In Rome and Naples, as in Venice and Ravenna and any of the innumerable other places you may have visited, there will have been many churches and palaces, many art galleries and museums, many gardens and grottoes. What was it that led you to one rather than to another of them, or caused you to linger in front of this painting or piece of sculpture rather than in front of that? Last year an Order member who saw Michaelangelo's David in the Academy at Florence afterwards reported that he was so overwhelmed ...

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