What is pilgrimage?

Hand on stone“What do you understand by ‘pilgrimage’?” my wife Elizabeth asked me this morning, as we sat up in bed with our early morning cup of tea. The question was partly stimulated by the title of the book she is reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. “Don’t you think it has become a rather fashionable word?” she asked.

I felt I should have a clear and snappy answer to her question, since I am publishing a book with the word ‘pilgrimage’ in the title. But ‘pilgrimage’ isn’t like that.

The English term ‘pilgrim’ seems to originate in the Latin word peregrinus (per, through + ager, field, country, land), which means a foreigner, a stranger, someone on a journey, or a temporary resident. It can describe a traveller making a brief journey to a particular place or someone settling for a short or long period in a foreign land. Peregrinatio was the state of being or living abroad; and Christians were seen as temporary residents in this world travelling toward their heavenly homeland. This contrasts with an ecological view that we are not just passing through but Earthlings first: we evolved with and profoundly belong to this planet; our place is not in heaven, but here. We are, as Aldo Leopold, one of the originators of the modern ecological movement, put it, plain members of the biotic community.

In Spindrift I quote poet and wilderness writer Gary Snyder, who describes the wilderness pilgrim’s ‘step-by-step breath-by-breath’ progress into the wild, whether the wild of mountains or ocean or meditation as ‘an ancient set of gestures’ that bring a sense of joy, a joy that arises through ‘intimate contact with the real world’ and so also with oneself.

So my sense of pilgrimage is that it is not so much a journey, and it is certainly not about arriving in a particular holy place. It is more a state of mind. As Satish Kumar puts it in an interview in the Bristol Spark: pilgrimage is about seeking deep commitment here and now on this earth; a pilgrim is someone who tries to keep their mind and heart open for whatever is emerging.  Tries, and inevitably fails, I must add.

But while not an essential aspect of pilgrimage, journeying, and journeying into wilderness in particular, can be an important part of pilgrimage. Going away from the familiar and the habitual, from the comforts and apparent safety of civilization, creates opportunities for the mind and heart to open.

In the middle of our morning conversation, Elizabeth started singing, searching her memory for the words of Bunyan’s famous hymn To Be a Pilgrim (after all, we were both brought up in regular church-going families). Soon we were both in full voice, the familiar words hurtling back from childhood, although sometimes in the wrong order. Bunyan’s hymn tells us of qualities that define a pilgrim: Valour, strongly-held purpose, constancy, courage in the face of difficulties. Old-fashioned words and Puritan sentiments, maybe, but important nevertheless.

But pilgrimage is more paradoxical than just hard work and persistence; it can also be where the mundane meets the sacred or numinous. The step-by-step practicalities of the journey have to be addressed (it is important to lock the front door on leaving home); but through addressing them with the intention of pilgrimage something other may open to us. Maybe we discover that the mundane is the sacred. Pilgrimage is also where purpose and intentionality can meet serendipity, where one’s plans are overtaken and transformed by chance encounters and happenstance, where this moment suddenly opens into another dimension of meaning. As I laid my hand on the stone of Dún Aonghasa on Inishmore, I felt a direct, but unexpected, link with the Iron Age people who built the wall in the second century BCE.

All this and much more.  To the modern sentiment, pilgrimage can seem a strange notion, full of superstition, self-delusion and even mass hysteria. It may also seem excessively high-minded and preachy.  But if we are able to look beyond these to the ‘ancient set of gestures,’ to an archetypal practice, we might discover how practices of pilgrimage can inform the development ecological sensitivity and responsiveness and help us rediscover our place in the community of life on earth.

Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Vala Publishing Cooperative http://www.valapublishers.coop/spindrift

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Comments

  1. I don’t think the idea is that foreign to us in the modern world, or that it’s necessarily a ‘preachy’ thing to do. After all people make ‘pilgrimages’ to sites associated with people they revere or visit places that they or their ancestors have come from, or someone may have a desire to go to a particular mountain or lake etc for reasons that aren’t merely tourism. Or I suppose you could even see the whole impulse towards self-exploration – through therapy, spiritual practice or whatever – as an inner pilgrimage leading us towards a greater connection with ourselves and therefore the wider world.

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