e-mail us
Pilgrims seek lost selves


Don’t be surprised if we eventually learn that Adam and Eve, as soon as they were sprung from the Garden, went on a pilgrimage. Eden sounds neat enough to have made us content here below. Banished from Eden, though, we’re in transit and searching. Pilgrims whether we go on pilgrimage or not, a great number of us go far from home in search of our lost selves.

This universal urge will grow more intense during the upcoming Jubilee year. Pilgrims have never needed an excuse to take to the road, but by the same token there has never been an excuse they did not embrace with gusto. And there will hardly be a more apt moment than this for another thousand years.

Everyone is gearing up. The pope has been making pronouncements and plans a personal trip to the Holy Land. The papal fervor has naturally trickled down to the faithful. In the process some odd alliances have emerged. The Israeli tourist authorities, for example, are leaving no ancient stone unturned. Some months ago, Jennifer E. Reed reported for Catholic News Service on a junket hosted by Unitours and El Al for 13 U.S. bishops and their guests. “We rode in an air-conditioned bus over miles and miles of dusty roadways, the same paths Jesus would have walked from Galilee on his way to Jerusalem,” she writes. This was scarcely pilgrims’ progress: “At lunches and dinners in various hotels, smoked salmon, duck, even caviar were on our menus.”

Every other entity in what might loosely be called the travel business is similarly jockeying for position and, yes, profit. Only the naïve are likely to be shocked. Sackcloth and ashes have long walked hand in glove with the grubby and dubious. One of the intriguing aspects of the pilgrim trail is the human way it descends into the low valleys as well as climbing the high hills.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines pilgrimage as “a journey to a sacred shrine or sanctuary for a religious motive.” Like many widely used words, pilgrim has become frayed at the edges. In the Old West, at least in the movies, one stranger was likely to greet another as “pilgrim,” thereby making a conscious or unconscious comment on their mutual human condition. Writes Tom Wright in The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, “a pilgrim is someone who goes on a journey in the hope of encountering God or meeting him in a new way.”

Abandoning the familiar

Other travelers, from explorers to tourists, do not share the pilgrim’s motive, writes Nicholas Shrady in Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail. Nor do they share the significance with which they imbue their destination. Shrady goes on to compare pilgrims favorably with heroes: “By abandoning familiar, worldly surroundings, submitting themselves to physical hardship and sometimes considerable danger, and paying homage or doing penance at a holy site, pilgrims, like heroes, know that they will return from their odyssey in some way renewed.”

Shrady cites Cynthia Ozick: “A visitor passes through a place, the place passes through the pilgrim.” And he cites the ubiquitous Meister Eckhart writing of “the wayless way, where the sons of God lose themselves and at the same time find themselves.” It’s more than tourism.

Shrady’s book is an antidote to parochialism, a reminder that pilgrimage was also earlier and more widespread than Christianity. While the author has a chapter on Medjugorje, he has, frankly, better ones on such non-Christian sites as the Ganges River at Varanasi, the Hindu holy place. The best time to be there, Shrady writes, is when the moon is full -- and it was -- and his description captures well that ledge between devotion and delirium on which pilgrims often dare to walk:

When the sun set, I stepped out of my guesthouse and into the crush. There was no question of which way to go -- the sea of pilgrims was flowing toward the river, and I let myself get swept up by the current. They had come from every corner of the subcontinent. There were Keralans, Bengalis and Punjabis, whole clans from Gujarat, masses from impoverished Bihar, desert people from Rajasthan, Tamils, Kashmiris and Goans. They marched and danced behind troupes playing reedy, high-pitched flutes and beating furiously on drums. Men were wielding snakes, torches, banners and images of Shiva, Ganga and Vishnu. Pilgrims halted at temples and shrines along the route, offering puja and smearing lingams with vermilion powders in a clear allusion to ancient blood sacrifices. It was as frenzied a spectacle as I had ever witnessed.

Earth is dotted with holy places. Before package tours, the renowned sacred places were out of reach of the majority. So people found the numinous and miraculous closer to home. Yet whenever money and other circumstances allowed, the devout desired to go on the grand journey, usually in the footsteps of religious founders such as Siddhartha Gautama or Jesus Christ. In that way, for each religion, a sacred geography grew.

In the Christian case it grew only gradually. Members of the persecuted early church were too preoccupied with survival to worry about pilgrimage. Yet chroniclers mention occasional early bishops who could not resist an urge to visit the land where the founder had lived. Not surprisingly, though, it is Emperor Constantine, who gave Christians their religious freedom, who is remembered as champion pilgrim of the early centuries. He and his mother Helena get credit for finding the Holy Sepulcher and building grand basilicas on more prominent sites such as that of the Nativity. Fathers of the church Athenasius and John Chrysostom promoted pilgrimages, as did Jerome, the great scripture scholar who spent 30 years in the Holy Land. Thus a tradition was being forged in those crucial early years.

A letter from Jerome’s friend Paula echoes the Hindu description and the universality of the pilgrims: “What shall we say about the Armenians, Persians, peoples of India and Ethiopia, from Egypt … Pontus, Cappadocia, Syria, Mesopotamia and all the crowds from the East?”

Feasting, merrymaking

Dnd no mournful procession were they. Stories are told throughout Christendom of feasting and merrymaking and in turn of clergy and hierarchy trying to rein in the excess of good times. Many pilgrimages resemble the ebullience of the traditional Irish wake, and perhaps with good reason: Both occurred at points where life and death intersected dramatically and where humans confronted their mortality more deliberately than usual.

In Pilgrimage, a 1996 Concilium publication edited by Fr. Virgil Elizondo and Sean Freyne, David Carrosco writes of an “underlying pattern” in pilgrimages of all traditions. Despite the differences, they all have in common three related stages: (1) Separation from a spatial, social and psychological status quo and the passage into (2) a “liminal space” and set of social relationships within which a theophany takes place, resulting in a profound sense of community, which usually leads the pilgrim (3) to re-enter society as a changed, renewed human being.

First, there is the separation from the spatial, social and spiritual status quo. This may be voluntary or brought on by necessity. It is often symbolized by a vow or a promise or even taking a new name -- one can see this is a more serious approach than the typical coach tour taking in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, said to be the most popular pilgrimage in the United States.

The motives that coaxed pilgrims to a place apart can generally be reduced to entreaty and thanksgiving. The entreaty aspect is aimed primarily at physical health, but historically it ran the gamut from sheer spiritual fervor to victory over an enemy to whatever success in life the Christian at that moment aspired to. In short, mixed motives were always in order.

In what are wistfully called the ages of faith, there was elaborate formality attached to this setting out. Back then, the pilgrim received a special liturgical blessing. There was special dress, topped off by a broad-brimmed hat, a pouch and a staff. The pilgrim was also expected to put his or her affairs in order, make provision for the family -- these were often long and dangerous ventures. Other prerequisites included authorization from the bishop.

The second consideration was that place apart. There were frequently pilgrim roads to get there. Shrady devotes a chapter to his 500-mile trek across Spain, following all the elaborate old rituals, to Santiago de Compostela. Shrady writes that this is Christendom’s most venerated pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. In each town the pilgrim must get a stamp from the local priest to verify progress -- but that is only an echo of old glory. Back then, “the vast sea of pilgrims included the pious and the irreverent, popes and paupers, scholars and simpletons, saints and charlatans, fortune-seekers and common criminals (the last were frequently sentenced to march to Santiago in an example of innovative medieval jurisprudence).”

Among those who did it were Francis of Assisi and El Cid. Along the way, hospices, shrines and commerce sprang up, and expanded. Wrote Goethe: “Europe was formed journeying to Santiago.”

Other sacred places have similarly contributed to local landscapes and lifestyles around the globe. They are a mountain or an island or a grove. The guardians of some such sites try harder than others to stay apart and keep avid entrepreneurs at bay and preserve the penitential spirit. St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland has preserved the fierce medieval penance better than most, but even there the less ambitious pilgrim can arrange a softer off-season version.

Profound freedom

Wherever this hallowed space may be, a bonding, which Carrasco calls communitas takes place. “This is the unplanned, intensive, direct and total confrontation of human identities involved in the pilgrimage. Moments of spontaneous communitas are like ‘happenings’ rather than pre-ordained rituals, and result in a momentary sense of profound freedom from social norms and biases and a new sense of collective identity.” Something like this can happen at summer camp or at Woodstock reruns, but it is the unique shared aspiration that gives the pilgrim encounter its communitas.

Finally there is the return to reality. Here no doubt the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist will be most pronounced. The serious pilgrim of whatever tradition has ever regarded his or her journey as a pivotal event and the beginning of a new life.

Despite the Buddha’s alleged last words to his followers to “Walk on!” religious founders have seldom preached pilgrimage. Rather their followers have spontaneously followed the urge to follow in their footsteps, sensing liberation somewhere deep down, and perhaps a turning upside down of the status quo.

Philippe Baud, in Pilgrimage, alludes to the untamed, subversive quality that makes the pilgrim more of a risk to the status quo than the average Christian: “The human condition is certainly that of a pilgrim. So it is not surprising that the societies which seek to affirm the sacral character of their power forbid access to places of pilgrimage, make the nomads settle down, imprison the curious, gag writers, curse poets and burn visionaries, offering only exile as a possible route. The strong-minded, the scapegoats, have to die outside the world so that their brothers and sisters can sleep soundly.”

In a so-called post-modern world when belief seems to be withering and materialism lord of the jungle, the last thing we might expect is an embracing of the hardships involved in real pilgrimage. And truth to tell, the hardships have dwindled. Yet pilgrims do undertake unaccustomed hardships in order to “walk on.”

In his introduction to the excellent little Pilgrimage, Elizondo puts the paradox in context:

The faster humanity moves, the more it needs to be grounded. It seems that pilgrimage sites are responding to this deep anthropological need of the human soul to be connected to mother earth. Furthermore, the more knowledge, science and information we have, the greater the quest of the soul for ultimate meaning; the more psychological analysis and psychotherapy we undergo, the greater the quest of the soul for penance and purification; the more medical science accomplishes, the greater the search for miracles; and the more families break apart while churches become more rule-oriented, the greater the quest for an unconditional human community.

On the eve of what will surely be the most crowded year in the history of pilgrimage, it might seem a sacrilege to suggest that the essential journey is internal and is not dependent on faraway places or using up gas or shoe leather. Opponents of pilgrimage, especially in the days of its greatest abuses, usually quoted St. Augustine, who, reflecting St. John’s Gospel, insisted that not by journeys but by loving do we grow close to God.

Great year for pickpockets

Still, it will be a great year for tour operators, bus drivers, guides, translators, airlines and publishers of pilgrimage books. It will be a great year for Vatican monsignori and Roman pickpockets. But it will be a good year, too, for the humble pilgrim. The restless, searching descendents of Adam and Eve may have a cell phone in one pocket and a camera in the other. They’re going to bitch about hotel prices and airport searches. But if they don’t watch out, enlightenment or metanoia or divine grace or some odd tic of the human spirit may take them by surprise, confront them with lost dreams or tarnished idealism, challenge them to be all they can be and, by God, a little more, land them foursquare in some form of communitas they had not bargained for in their package deal.

They thought they were responding to an ad or an article, in search of some small grail or just innocent fun. It is said, though, that a pilgrim sitting under a banyan tree or by a bleak ancient ruin often gets ambushed by the divine.

Books on pilgrimage

These are a few of the books about pilgrimage and related topics that came across our NCR desks in the recent past:
Sacred Places: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail, by Nicholas Shrady (HarperSanFrancisco, 268 pages, $22 hardcover).
Catholic Shrines of Western Europe: A Pilgrim’s Travel Guide, by Kevin J. Wright (Ligouri, 238 pages, $13.95 paper).
The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, by Tom Wright (Eerdmans, 132 pages, $10 paper).
Shrines of the Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Travel Guide, by Norman Wareham and Jill Gill (Ligouri, 235 pages, $13.95 paper).
Marian Shrines of the United States, by Theresa Santa Czarnopys and Thomas M. Santa (Ligouri, 235 pages, $13.95 paper).
Pilgrimage, edited by Virgil Elizondo and Sean Freyne (Concilium/Orbis, 127 pages).
Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, by Ruth Harris (Viking, 496 pages, $29.95 hardcover).
Into the Heart of Jerusalem: A Traveler’s Guide to Vacations, Celebrations and Sojourns, by Arlynn Nellhaus (John Muir Publications, 351 pages, $17.95 paper).
Guadalupe: Our Lady of New Mexico, by Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington (Museum of New Mexico Press, 189 pages, $24.95 paper).

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999