Not just any french cigarettes – Gitanes. I can still remember the packet, moody blue with a flamenco dancer fashioned from a plume of smoke. It seemed to embody all the characteristics I had projected onto him – free spirited, rebellious and passionate. In my mind we had an apartment in Paris and lived on philosophy, pain au chocolat and love.
Life is an illusion because we live through the filters of our five senses. These senses interpret things by way of comparison.
What is this music? This person? This idea? Well, it’s a bit like this and a bit like that. From this inaccurate system of discerning the truth about things, we construct reality. But our senses are rubbish at seeing life as it really is.
As Robert McKee would say, reality is not factuality! It’s not what we see and hear. It’s just what seems to be. It’s a front for what is real. My illusion was created by hundreds of visual and aural associations from films, books and conversations.
This unhappy liaison brought me one of life’s valuable lessons…
There’s the thing and there’s the personality of the thing. And it’s quite important to know the difference between the two.
I am in Saintes Maries de la Mer for the festival of Saint Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies – or ‘Gitanes’ as they prefer to be called. Every year thousands of gitanes flock to pay homage to this small black woman who sailed into the harbour with the three famous Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome. Mary Magdalene travelled through France to spread the teachings of ‘The Way of Love’ but the others remained. It was thought that Sarah set up shelters for the homeless and the gitanes being travelling people of no fixed abode venerated her for that.
This year the festival is quieter than normal. The mayor of the town in a ‘Gerald Ratner’ moment voiced his concern that tourists should not attend for fear of being robbed blind by the gypsies. This prompted a huge backlash. Many of the gypsies stayed away, outraged by the insult.
I have no idea whose side I am on. I adore the idea of the gypsy lifestyle – freedom from convention, music, dancing! What’s not to love? However modern gypsies aren’t as glamorous as the gitanes of old. It’s difficult to look poetic when your horse drawn caravan is replaced by an ugly R.V. And while most of us would cheer to see a gypsy poaching rabbits from a rich landowner, it’s not so easy to celebrate the loss of an iphone while standing in a taxi queue.
There’s the thing and there’s the personality of the thing. And within the personality is the shadow.
In the shadow romance becomes neediness. Freedom becomes irresponsibility. We vilify the travelling community because they’re easy to identify. But what about bankers? They’ve robbed us blind. They’ve done irresponsibility on an epic scale. Their hideous children are stealing internships and making wine bars intolerable places to visit.
So back to France! The festival of Saint Sarah involves a procession. The wooden statue of the Black Madonna is brought up from the crypt and carried ceremoniously through the streets, down to the beach and into the sea. Men on horseback lead the procession and the priests and congregation sing and chant along the way.
With our rational minds, it’s easy to pour scorn on this act of devotion. In the modern world we have replaced rituals with the pseudo magic of new age spirituality. Far from venerating God, we have turned him into Father Christmas – the God of Stuff, who gets us what we want as long as we stay super positive and focussed. We don’t pray for wisdom, grace or courage. We pray for money, soul mates and thin thighs.
Here’s the thing…
With our reasoning minds we say “why would a saint or deity require our prayers?” The answer is that they don’t… but we do. Because it’s only by acts of devotion to another that we momentarily get out of our personality and experience what’s real. The essence of the thing. And the essence of the thing casts no shadow. Bliss!
So I am captivated by this procession. The visual spectacle, the smell of incense, the singing and chanting of hundreds of people with one single focus. As Sarah is brought back to the church, I have to sit down. My senses are intoxicated. The irony is that our senses can bring us to the gate of what’s real, but they can’t get us through the gate. And then it happens. The grace penetrates the veil of illusion. My heart is pierced. There is no sense of time. No sense of me. There is just love.
When I come to my senses tears are streaming down my face.
There are tears. And there’s the personality of tears.
We know all about the latter. Tears of self-pity. Tears of rage. Tears that signify that we can’t have what we want, that life is unfair. These are tears we cry alone. These tears don’t help the human condition. But there are other tears. Tears that heal. These are not cried by our personality, but our soul. In some strange way they are cried through us, not by us – in the manner of true creativity or spontaneous acts of compassion. These tears are not cried alone but in the presence of some indefinable thing. Something real. That’s why there is comfort in them. We could try naming the thing – Saint Sarah, God, the sacred Feminine. But names are meaningless in this other dimension.
As human beings, we need our personalities. They provide structure in the formlessness; frameworks for being; ways to look at the world. But they also limit us. We operate within their confines. We become unable to see beyond them.
As creative spirits, we yearn to experience awe. In order to experience the mystical, we need to experience what is real. Love is real. Or in the words of Bob Marley…
One love. One heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.