Sunday, November 15, 2009
"If everything's a 'pilgrimage' ....." Toward a definition
My colleague, Lisa, is in El Salvador for a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Jesuit university in San Salvador. She promises to post on that, but finds herself with limited on-line access. In one of her brief notes, she verbally threw her hands up in despair: "I'm not sure I know what pilgrimage even means anymore...."
I feel the same way.
Actually, so did Geoffrey Chaucer, who lamented the popularity of pilgrimages at the beginning of "Caunterbury Tales." After a winter of being cooped up in tiny houses and rained upon, April found people chomping at the bit to get out. Pilgrimage was a good excuse. Read the opening of "Caunterbury Tales" again -- and remember that good old Geoffrey had a ready wit.
Seven centuries later, pilgrimage is everywhere: to Jane Austen's or George Washington's home -- even to Paris Hilton's MacMansion!, to The Holocaust Museum or to Auschwitz, to Gettysburg or Culloden. You can do "pilgrimage" past the homes of the stars in Malibu and Beverly Hills. With the spectre of the Paparazzi-Pilgrim out there, no wonder we're worried.
Should pilgrimage always involve physical exertion -- or is there something to inner, psycho-spiritual pilgrimages, whose "exertion" comes in the form of disciplined breathing, mantram repetition, or meditation? Must pilgrimage always be to a "religious" site -- and who's in charge of defining what counts as "religious" again, please? Can pilgrimage also embrace visits to places hallowed by sheer carnage, like the Twin Towers, or Auschwitz, or the beaches at Normandy?
Certainly, Lisa would be on "pilgrimage" at the moment, visiting the site of Salvadoran martyrs -- and behind them all the people who were killed in that awful war.
I like the broad definition Phil Cousineau offers in his book "The Art of Pilgrimage:" "a transformative journey to a sacred center" (xxiii). He outlines four components: mindful preparation, respect for the destination, attention to the path -- both its physical aspect and the people on it, and a focus that deepens as the journey continues. Intensity and intention mark pilgrimage -- and set it apart from mere tourism.
Pilgrim and tourist may share the same sites: I surely saw "tourists" along the Camino. At times, I was one of them! But I shifted back into "pilgrim" mode again, looking for depth, not breadth of impressions along the way. These four components are supplied by the pilgrim; they aren't inherent in the destination itself.
This may be different from Chaucer's pilgrims, for whom the journey may have been more religious obligation than "vision quest." More "religious" than "spiritual," as one of our comments suggested. But Cousineau's components work for today.
I'd only add a fifth component: on-going rumination at journey's end. I know that makes us sound like cows, but it's as important as "mindful preparation" before you even set out.
So onward -- and mooooooooooooo.