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.


  1. Hi Marty-great questions to chew over :)
    I'm going to share this blog with my class on spiritual pilgrimage in America, so I hpe you'll keep posting!

  2. Thanks -- and let me know what they say. Or better, let them post responses to the blog.
    Thanks for being with us -- I'd love to see your syllabus.

  3. Marty: I do like Phil Cousineau's definition. Your friend Lisa's frustration at not knowing what a "pilgrimage" means anymore represents to me the confluence of "too much information". As we all adjust to the technological innovations that are supposed to be "simplifying" our lives, we all find ourselves needing to get away, to find meaning, live thoughtfully and with purpose. But with all this new found information, our basic definitions are even changing. I believe we should live by Mr. Cousineau's definition everyday...that our lives should be our pilgrimage.

  4. Thanks for putting it so well. A friend is doing a travel diary/pilgrim journal of everyday life:
    He's got it!
    Thanks for being on the way.

  5. I can understand why your friend is so confused about what a pilgrimage really is. I think many people feel the same way because pilgrimage can have so many different meanings to different people. I also think some people might automatically associate pilgrimage with religion because there are a lot of religious stories about pilgrimages. I think Phil Cousineau’s definition of a pilgrimage “a transformative journey to a sacred center” and his outline of the 4 components, really helps clarify what a pilgrimage really means. I think it is important for people to realize that a pilgrimage does not have to be religious and that it can be more spiritual than anything else. I also agree with your 5th component “on-going rumination at journeys end.” I think it is very important to reflect deeply on what you learned throughout your pilgrimage.

  6. Very interesting blog.

  7. Marty,

    I am a student in Profesor Stockton's class. I can relate to your friends confusion on what a pilgrimage is. Today, it seems the definition of a pilgrimage has become broader. Pilgrimages are not just about making long religous trips to vist holy sights. Cousineau does an excellent job outlining the components for a pilgrimage. I feel there is a line between what is pilgrimage and what is tourism. Tourist merely visit a place for the viewing and walk away no different than before. But I believe pilgrams will visit for an experience or in order to recieve enlightenment from their experience. Thus, allowing them to walk away a better human being.

  8. Like the student above, I also really like Cousineau's definition of a pilgrimage. I also thought that the distinction between a tourist and a pilgrim was very interesting. A tourist is basically a superficial observer and it seems that the destination controls them, however, a individual on pilgrimage uses the location as tool for personal growth.