Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pilgrimage and Immigration: An outer edge of a contemplative practice

At the end of October I had the privilege of participating in a conference on "Contemplative Practices in Action," organized by Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. The conference aired chapters for a book exploring how contemplative practices reduce stress and contribute to spiritual well-being. Participant-authors drew from religious traditions old (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) and new (Eknath Easwaran's Eight Point Program of Passage Meditation or EPP, use of a "mantram" or centering word). Sonny Manuel SJ and I co-authored a case study, drawing on a very particular form of stress, suffering, and working deep within a very particular religious tradition, Christianity.

Entitled "A Pilgrimage from Suffering to Solidarity: Walking the Path of Contemplative Practices," the contribution began with three characteristics of suffering: denial, isolation, and the need for control. We offered a practice addressing each dimension. Lamentation moves one from denial to acceptance; intercession invites suffering out of isolation into a place of communion; with pilgrimage one quite literally walks out of the need to control into a spirit of surrender.

In the course of our research, Sonny and I discovered "outer" edges of each practice. Not only does contemplation address individual need; it points toward solidarity. Advocacy is an outer edge of lamentation, as the one speaking out her own suffering discovers her words have given voice to others whom affliction has silenced. Accompaniment is the outer edge of intercession, as one asking for what he needs finds himself alongside others in similar or even greater need. Finally, pilgrimage points to immersion, the ability to simply surrender to another person or culture without judgment or distance.

Of course, we wrote the article before the actual experience of being on pilgrimage.

I confessed that to the group, explaining that I'd found a deep resonance between the practices of pilgrimage and centering prayer. Both share a similar trajectory: letting go of all excess baggage, a spirit of receptivity or dependence, and finally, the need to rest, whether in the Lord -- or on the nearest patch of dry grass!

As we concluded our presentation, Santa Clara political science professor Eric Hanson grabbed me and said: "Think about another outer edge of pilgrimage: immigration. Immigrants have the same experience. They've left everything behind; they are dependent on the kindness of strangers, the hospitality of residents. And they are in a strange, often hostile land, where they can't control anything."

Something deep clicked into place.

Thanks, Eric, for the insight. I invite you to check out the website he runs under the auspices of the Markkula Center at Santa Clara University:

Thanks to Sonny, my co-author and fellow pilgrim in the strange (at least to me!) world of counseling psychology. Thanks to Tom for the invitation to be on the journey.

We still don't quite know where it's taking us.


  1. Nifty post! When I first saw the photo, I thought "Aw, how and daughter out for a hike." Then when you mentioned immigration, the photo changed for me--I saw them as immigrants. "Where will they go? Will they be safe? Have they eaten? Will Dad get work? What did the little girl treasure so much that she carries it all that way in that bag?" Very different feel.

  2. I may be a bit behind, but I'm still ruminating on the reality of pilgrimage containing experiences of emptying, receiving and rest. My pilgrimage of the last year has been of a little different sort than that of walking the Camino: I have taken a year from work to sit, walk, read, meditate and take care of the basic necessities of daily living in order to move beyond the surface activities and commitments of my life. I wanted to move into a deeper, more resonant place where I might discover yet undiscovered truths about myself and the world around me. The words emptying, receiving and rest seem to fit this interior pilgrimage in many ways: emptying or letting go of external definitions and credentials that have defined me; receiving partially known or unknown, awkward, and surprising aspects of myself and world; and rest -- I might add silence -- as the precondition for this emptying and receiving.
    it continues. will be interested in how yours continues as well.

  3. Thanks, Lisa -- and there's another child in the other hand. She got "cropped" out. Did they all make it? And where is there mother? I do think one of the outer dimensions of pilgrimage is a deeper awareness of the experience of immigrants.

    And Adele, I couldn't agree more. I'd love to hear more about how this inner pilgrimage has been etched on your body. I'm sure it has.

    Thanks to you both!