I am beginning to think of the differences between pilgrimage and immersion in terms of Aristotelian epistemology, specifically, in terms of substance and accidents. While there are broad parallels between the two, what is substantial to one is merely accidental to the other, and vice versa.
On the camino, we were engaged in an opportunity for self-transformation through the difficulties of the trail. We came face to face with finitude, we wrestled with fatigue and pain, (I recall again Joan Baez’ lovely lyric about the “huddled hikers…and their personal acquaintance with pain,”) and we came to understand the power and the challenge of “step, then take another step, then step again,” to get further on the trail. The transformation can be expressed best, I think, in terms of self-knowledge, which included the knowledge that we needed others, especially those Spaniards who cared for us in hostels and restaurants, and our companions on the trail.
The center, though, the substance, was that self-transformation. It was profoundly spiritual, and for those of us of religious bent, our religion provided stories and frameworks in which to connect our new selves with the new selves of anyone meeting up with the living God. Pilgrims are useless people, really not offering much to the places we travel, except, perhaps, the witness of people looking steady-eyed (or bleary-eyed,) at our own finitude, our need for others, our dependence on the graces of body, companions, and surroundings. Our shared weaknesses, we discovered, became a foundation for community of a kind, though there were others who walked essentially solo. We all needed others, but the particulars of who and what we needed, was less significant. It was much more an individual transformation, though we learned about our need for others.
Finitude is accidental to immersion. It is no less true—we have (most of us,) limited language skills, we depend on those who care for us with food and shelter, we may experience some degree of physical struggle (though we haven’t, with the exception of those of us suffering from Montezuma’s revenge…) No, the substance of immersion is empathy, a holistic solidarity with a specific situation or group. If we leave Mexico without both an intellectual and a visceral care for those we’ve met, the genius of the culture and the struggles they face, and a sense of the role—too often shameful—of our nation and the Catholic Church in making those struggles more difficult, then we have failed to be open to the substantial grace of immersion.
I had a pretty clear grasp of how a pilgrim should return before I headed out on the camino. Returning from immersion is more difficult, less clear. That’s part of what an immersion should do, perhaps, is to call forth further discernment on the fundamental question of Christian faith—now what? Pilgrims come back more solid, immersion-experience people come back disturbed, less stable than before, since our friends are in radically unstable, dangerous places, which our own institutions have too often served to make worse.