Pilgrimage Now and Then
Images of the Medieval Pilgrim
Hundreds of years ago, “before recreational travel became a viable option for the middle class, most people traveled vicariously through fiction and the tales told by those returning from the journey” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 4). Travel was not a luxury that the average person could indulge. It was expensive, it was difficult, and there were many things that needed to be attended to at home. The idea of taking off on a journey was not only impossible, but irrational. Not many people could sacrifice a significant amount of time to venture very far. Few people were wealthy enough to afford it, and though some people did travel, it was usually only when necessary in order to work. The only knowledge of the world outside the village came from travellers and the stories they brought back. The church was a strong presence in most people’s lives, and provided answers to many spiritual dilemmas, but journeying to shrines for the sake of religious devotion became the primary socially acceptable and affordable way for everyone to travel (Tiffany).
In today’s world of fast, relatively affordable transportation, global access to tremendous amounts of knowledge, and less clearly defined religions, travel has become available to the masses, and it is often difficult to distinguish a pilgrim from the average traveller. In the Middle Ages, it was somewhat simpler to determine the intention of a person’s journey, since travel was difficult, often epic in scope. The difference between a poor, wandering pilgrim and a wealthy traveller was usually clear upon sight.
Perhaps one of the more well-known images of the pilgrim comes from medieval Europe, the image of a man dressed in a long, dark robe, on his way to Santiago, or possibly one of the other famous routes to Rome or Canterbury. He had assembled the appropriate pilgrim’s attire, including a broad-brimmed hat, a walking stick to support him, a satchel for his few possessions, and a scallop shell to symbolize his pilgrimage. After procuring blessings, he had settled his affairs at home, paid his debts and told his family goodbye. He wasn’t sure whether he would ever return home, since there were tremendous dangers and rampant disease on the road (Cousineau 63).
There were many hopes and prayers associated with medieval Christian pilgrimages such as the Camino de Santiago, and many pilgrims believed that “coming into contact with the saint’s venerated relics would heal them; after all, Saint James was considered ... the miracle-maker” (Cousineau 62-63). Other desires included “self-purification,” which was the result of “the catharsis of an arduous journey and the merits of constant prayer” (Cousineau 62-63).
Regardless of their initial intentions, pilgrims were filled with wonder as they travelled to their sacred destinations, experiencing the outside world for the first time. Phil Cousineau summarizes the experience:
The long and wearying way carried them through strange lands filled with stranger people, which allowed them to experience the wider world - probably for the first and only time in their lives. The pilgrims’ constant sense of surprise and astonishment at the ever-changing scenery, weather, and habits of others were as influential as the perils they had to overcome. (Cousineau 62- 63)
While much has changed in the way of travel since the medieval days of pilgrimage, the wonder and surprise experienced by pilgrims as they move through strange new lands is just as all-encompassing now as it ever was.
Pilgrims began traversing the westward path across the Iberian peninsula to Santiago de Compostela during the ninth century, when rumors began to spread across Europe that the remains of Saint James the Greater, the apostle of Christ, had been discovered near the Atlantic coast of present-day Spain. As previously mentioned, visiting shrines had become a highly acceptable reason for travelling during the Middle Ages, but not all pilgrims had lofty spiritual goals in mind, preferring to take advantage of all aspects of travelling. A good number of people took up the pilgrim’s cloak and staff falsely, all in the name of a little adventure. People travelled the pilgrimage road to Santiago to find romance, to indulge curiosities about exotic places and cultures, and to satisfy restlessness (Tiffany). Who could blame them? Working in the same village, seeing the same people, doing the same chores every day, all your life? Who wouldn’t want to escape the monotony (Tiffany). In addition, some pilgrims who walked to Santiago were hired by others to make the pilgrimage for them (Cousineau 62-63). Certainly there were some pilgrims who sought to pray and become closer to God, and their journeys allowed them to deepen their devotion, but clearly, even during the historical height of pilgrimage-making, identifying an authentic pilgrim may have been a challenge.
In Shakespeare’s day, the Camino de Santiago was rife with impostors (Tiffany). For these pilgrims, the journey to Galicia was “little more than a pretext for the satisfaction of curiosity to encounter people and strange lands to satisfy the unquiet traveler’s humor” (Tiffany). Many pilgrims declared purposes for their journeys that conformed with the expectations of the church and their communities, while deep down they desired an entirely different experience. Images of the unholy pilgrim appear throughout literature. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the reader is introduced to a motley assortment of pilgrims, each with his/her own reason for making the journey. A perfect example is the Wife of Bath, who “joins the Canterbury pilgrims to seek a husband” (Tiffany). Though medieval pilgrimages were surrounded by an air of piety and religious devotion, the reality of pilgrimage was captured by Chaucer. The Canterbury Road, much like the Camino de Santiago, was filled with pleasure-seekers and adventurers who sought to escape the mundane routine of everyday life, whose purpose was far less concerned with religious devotion and far more interested in exploration (Tiffany). In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho Panza meets a Moor who has disguised himself as a pilgrim in order to “see it all,” begging money as he travels” (Tiffany). In literature, and in reality, these false pilgrims increasingly gave the entire institution of pilgrimage a negative reputation.
Alongside pilgrims with questionable motivations, convicted criminals were occasionally allowed to walk to Santiago in penance, removing time from their prison sentences, and would be freed from captivity after receiving the pardon from Saint James and the Catholic Church (Cousineau 62-63). It seems that by the end of the sixteenth century, pilgrimage roads were filled with more questionable pilgrims than pious ones, and pilgrimage roads had become so overwhelmed by pilgrim-adventurers that Shakespeare took up the subject in several of his plays. During his lifetime, in fact, suspicions regarding pilgrimage grew within the Church of England. At that time, the church constantly sought to define sin and clarify appropriate Christian behaviors, and eventually the Church of England condemned the practice of pilgrimage entirely, both abroad and at home (Tiffany). Extending beyond England into mainland Europe, the Catholic Church also struggled with the authenticity of pilgrimage, and Rome “abhorred “pilgrimages” inspired by mere wanderlust or an interest in exotic dalliance” (Tiffany).
Due to the sizable number of questionable pilgrims and motivations, pilgrimage came under attack by the Protestant church, specifically by Tyndale, Luther, and others. There were many debates about the validity of pilgrimage.
The protesters argued that pilgrimages were corrupt, for various reasons: priests and shrines illegitimately made money off of pilgrims; bad priests led their flocks into idolatry, worshipping the ground and the images found at the pilgrimage sites; priests and pilgrims sometimes offered prayers to saints for evil purposes. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 195-196)
Thomas More, in defense of pilgrimage, asserted “that the proper question is whether a pilgrimage can be done well, not whether it may be done for evil or in an abusive manner ... the spiritually vital practice of pilgrimage ought to be maintained despite the abuses” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 195-196).
Questions of authenticity in regard to pilgrimage are as multifarious today as they were hundreds of years ago. In reading a significant number of accounts of pilgrimage, especially contemporary pilgrimage, I’ve discovered that the lines have become blurred between pilgrim and traveller. In my own journey along the Camino de Santiago, I encountered many “false” pilgrims. Though I spent my days walking for many hours along the Camino, I was often denied a bed in pilgrim hostels because tour busses full of “pilgrims” had filled the place. In turn, though I considered myself an authentic pilgrim, to some people, I might have appeared to be a false pilgrim. I am not Catholic or Christian. How could I truly be a pilgrim if I don’t believe in the major religious tenets that are the foundation of the pilgrimage?
As if it hasn’t already been challenging to define pilgrimage due to questionable motivations of pilgrims, I would like to add one final thought into the debate: there are numerous scholars who doubt the very basis on which the Santiago pilgrimage is made. They don’t believe that the remains held within Santiago are really those of Saint James at all. Does the pilgrimage, then, have any validity in its own right if the relic is potentially false and many of the people who have made the pilgrimage throughout history have had less than pious intentions? In fact, it is difficult to question the authenticity of non-traditional or less-than-pious pilgrims when the relic they journey toward is potentially false.
The majority of pilgrims, both today and throughout history, either follow a clear path in the footsteps of those who have come before them, or they visit shrines near their homes. There have been a few pilgrims, though, who create the paths that others will eventually follow. Two such pilgrims are Anonymous, a Russian pilgrim from the nineteenth century, and Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim from the seventh century. It is of great benefit that both men kept written accounts of their journeys, which provide tremendous insight into their motivations and experiences, as well as the intricate details of pilgrimage traditions during their lives.
In the opening lines of The Way of a Pilgrim the reader is introduced to the narrator, an anonymous nineteenth century Russian pilgrim who spent more than ten years of his life roaming the countryside immersed in prayer.
By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my own actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest origins, roaming from place to place. My worldly belongings consist of a knapsack on my back, containing some dried bread, and a Holy Bible in my breast pocket. That is all. (The Way 1)
Anonymous demonstrates the nineteenth century Russian tradition of the wandering, begging pilgrim, which is illustrated beautifully in his journals. It is also important to note that Anonymous suffered from a physical disability that rendered him unable to work, and lacking many options, he embraced the lifestyle of a wandering ascetic for both spiritual and practical reasons (The Way 5).
The tradition of the wandering pilgrim extends back further, too, into seventh century China. Hsuan Tsang was a Buddhist monk whose lofty spiritual aspirations led him on a 10,000 mile quest across China to the south of India and back. “In the world of our monk, devotion to a spiritual quest was taken for granted” (Bernstein 207). At the time of Tsang’s departure, it was strictly forbidden to roam beyond the boundaries of the empire, and yet he committed his crime of “civil disobedience” as a testament to his search for the ultimate truth, believing that the laws of spirit were far superior to the mere laws of man (Bernstein 309). Like a true hero, Tsang believed that his mission was of such great importance that he was determined to make the journey regardless of whatever dangers might await. He followed no pre-existing route, but designed his journey in order to follow the footsteps of the Buddha and the evolution of Buddhism. His intentions were pure and he remained focused on his mission even when it appeared that he might die in the desert. This is the image of the hero, the one who refuses to give up on the noble quest for any reason. Tsang was not led by the desire for selfish gains, either worldly or spiritual. His sincere desire was to gain understanding of Buddhist truths, hoping to share that wisdom with his fellow countrymen and liberate them from suffering (Bernstein 67-70).
These two examples embody the most prodigious intentions of the pilgrim: the noble spiritual hero, concerned with only the loftiest attainments of wisdom. Anonymous and Tsang made pilgrimage journeys of heroic proportion, both in the scope of the journey itself as well as the intentions they held during their journeys. The stories of these pilgrims offer a great contrast, indeed, to those stories of bawdy pilgrims, interested primarily in very human, worldly experience. Who are those who fall between these extremes?
From the devoutly religious to the spiritually ambiguous and everything between, pilgrims are defined by culture, by religion, by community, and by self. Is it possible for a travel writer or anthropologist to be a pilgrim? What if a person approaches the journey as a writer or anthropologist or scientist, but is eventually overwhelmed by some powerful encounter that completely changes his/her perspective? Is that person then a pilgrim? Is it possible that a person can participate in a pilgrimage wholeheartedly without holding any traditional religious beliefs? What if s/he is an intellectual, not a spiritual seeker? Can a person be considered a pilgrim if s/he participates in a journey within a culture or religion in which s/he is considered an outsider? What about a person who participates in all the traditional rituals of the pilgrimage, but feels no personal devotion or connection to the experience? Is a person who merely goes through the motions of pilgrimage really a pilgrim? Given the incredible variety of possibilities presented in these questions, and beyond, it’s difficult to specify an exact set of qualities or experiences that definitively qualify a person for the title pilgrim.
As we have already seen, the pilgrim is often identified by his/her outward appearance, as s/he adorns the symbols of his/her chosen path. In Pilgrimage to Chimayo, Howarth and Lamadrid describe the traditional pilgrim’s garb:
The symbols of the Christian pilgrim include the shell, the crook or staff, the water of salvation found along the path, the road, and the cloak ... the other item taken on the journey is the cross itself, the ultimate emblem of sacrifice and a reminder of the pilgrim’s promises and petitions. (Howarth & Lamadrid 11)
It is necessary, however, to look beyond these cultural symbols in order to discover the common characteristics of the pilgrim in a more definitive way. Pilgrimage, after all, is an intensely personal experience, and in order to better understand the nature of pilgrimage journeys, it is necessary to consider the intentions and motivations of the pilgrim.
Peace Pilgrim, an American woman who embraced a lifestyle of pilgrimage in hope of spreading her message regarding the importance of world peace beginning in the 1950s, defines pilgrim with utter simplicity. “A pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose”(Pilgrim 25). She defines a pilgrim in part by the characteristics of the pilgrim lifestyle: “I am not a slave to comfort and convenience. I wouldn’t be a pilgrim if I were” (Pilgrim 52). While she clearly considers a lifestyle of simplicity essential to pilgrimage, her motivations, actions, and responses to the world around her are the center of her life as a pilgrim. She elaborates:
A peace pilgrim prays and works for peace within and without ... a peace pilgrim faces life squarely, solves its problems, and delves beneath its surface to discover its verities and realities ... a peace pilgrim purifies the bodily temple, the thoughts, the desires, the motives. A peace pilgrim relinquishes as quickly as possible self-will, the feeling of separateness, all attachments, all negative feelings. (Pilgrim 125)
While she was clearly committed to a spiritual quest, it is important to note that Peace Pilgrim never identifies herself as a member of any particular religion or organization.
One question that must be considered is the role of religion in defining the pilgrim. While devoutly Catholic themselves, the Scaperlandas offer an interesting point of view:
We have known avowed atheists who, although still far short of acknowledging God, were clearly pilgrims searching for answers to life’s fundamental questions. We have also known Christians who, while not abandoning the ritualistic exercise of the faith, have abandoned the pilgrim life in favor of the more “comfortable” life of the tourist. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 17)
Taking into account this perspective, it becomes clear that the seeking itself, regardless of the religious affiliation, elucidates the Scaperlandas’ understanding of the pilgrim. It is also noteworthy that they, like Peace Pilgrim, acknowledge the importance of living more simply when embracing the lifestyle of the pilgrim.
Differentiating between the pilgrim and the tourist is essential, and is a theme that frequently reappears throughout this study. It is easy to observe the flocks of onlookers at any famous sacred or holy site and assume that the great majority are tourists. Within those onlookers, though, there may be some who are actually seeking to commune with the divine and be blessed through making contact with the sacred destination. In an essay discussing three contrasting pilgrimages, Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis considers medieval pilgrim Friar Felix Fabri’s written account of his pilgrimage, Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae. In his pilgrimage to The Holy Land, Fabri notes the importance of the individual’s interaction with his surroundings. “The truly ‘virtuous pilgrim’ ... is revealed to be the one who manages not only to see the sights ... but also to respond to them - to understand them and to remember them” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 95). In turn, Fabri believes that his first pilgrimage to The Holy Land was a failure, due to his lack of appropriate response.
It is often difficult to differentiate the pilgrim from the traveller or tourist, especially when considering the variety of motivations that people have given for their journeys, from the most worldly, including tourism, escape, vacation, weight loss, and material gain, to the most noble, such as spiritual growth, soul-searching, and self-discovery. The Scaperlandas add to the list: “Faith. Doubt. Crisis. Turmoil. Sickness. Penance. Curiosity. Adventure. Thanksgiving. There are as many reasons for making a pilgrimage as there are pilgrims” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 46). Phil Cousineau deepens the list of motivations: “to pay homage, to fulfill a vow or obligation, to do penance, to be rejuvenated spiritually, or to feel the release of catharsis” (Cousineau 14-15). The boundary between pilgrim and tourist is even more blurred when an individual’s reasons are both worldly and spiritual, and when notions of comfort and simplicity are relative, at best, according to historical and cultural norms.
The Scaperlandas continue the conversation by comparing and contrasting the underlying motivations of the pilgrim and the tourist.
Tourists seek entertainment and adventure as ends in themselves. The pilgrim, on the other hand, sees each journey as part of the greater quest toward the mysterious destination called home. Pilgrims desire true happiness, and that desire leads them into self-awareness and eventually to rest and fullness in communion with God ... the tourist tries to figure out how to pack it all in ... to fulfill as many desires as possible given the constraints of the situation ... the pilgrim tries to discover the highest good (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 15-16)
Undoubtedly, the intentions of the individual as s/he travels differentiate the journey of a pilgrim from that of a tourist or traveler. The Scaperlandas continue:
Pilgrims leave home intentionally with an expectation that the physical journey will fuel the spiritual quest ... tourists travel to rest body, mind, and soul, or to look in awe at the world’s natural wonders, or to experience another culture. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 6)
While in the beginning of the journey elements of both may be present, as the journey unfolds, the individual’s intentions become clearer in the ways that s/he approaches the experience.
Occasionally, a person who begins a journey as a traveller or tourist is caught off guard by a powerful experience that completely changes his/her perspective. While s/he may have never considered making a pilgrimage, s/he is thrown into his/her travels as a pilgrim. The Scaperlandas recognize the validity and power of this kind of experience, acknowledging the accidental pilgrim: “the initial reasons are ultimately not as important as what happens to you as a pilgrim at the site - or on the journey” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 46). Beyond any initial intentions or declarations, the perspective and response that a person brings to the midst of the journey are most telling in considering whether or not s/he is actually a pilgrim.
In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau explores the etymology of the words pilgrim and pilgrimage.
the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peligrinus, foreigner or wayfarer, the journey of a person who travels to a shrine or holy place. Another older derivation ... reveals that pilgrim has its roots in the Latin per agrum, “through the field.” This ancient image suggests a curious soul who walks beyond known boundaries, crosses fields, touching the earth with a destination in mind and a purpose in heart. This pilgrim is a wayfarer who longs to endure a difficult journey to reach the sacred center of his or her world, a place made holy by a saint, hero, or god.” (Cousineau 13-14)
In the spirit of Cousineau, perhaps it would be enlightening to consider the definition of pilgrim from The American Heritage Dictionary:
* A religious devotee who journeys to a shrine or sacred place.
* One who embarks on a quest for something conceived of as sacred.
* A traveler.
* Someone who journeys in foreign lands.
* Some one who journeys to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion.
The third and fourth definitions are far too generalized for this conversation. The first and fifth are better, though they refer to the pilgrim as a “religious devotee” who is journeying to a “sacred place.” This suggests that the pilgrim must be a religious person as defined by one particular religion, however, in light of our previous discussion regarding the authenticity of even so-called “religious” pilgrims, it seems most appropriate to embrace the second definition, for it is the most all-encompassing:
“one who embarks on a quest for something conceived of as sacred.”
This definition doesn’t assume much. It doesn’t exclude anyone based on culture or religion. It doesn’t imply that outside authorities of any kind must be involved to determine the value of the journey. The quest leads the pilgrim to “something conceived of as sacred.” Who conceives of the sacred thing? The church? The country? The religion? Personally, I don’t believe that any of those institutions have more authority than the individual to determine what is sacred. Considering all of the ideas presented thus far, it seems reasonable to conclude that if a person approaches a spiritual journey with an open heart, his/her life can’t help but be changed. Though the rituals, traditions, and sacred destination of pilgrimage are essential for many people, it’s the journey, along with the array of experiences that accompany it, that offers the pilgrim the opportunity for the greatest personal fulfillment, connection to God or Spirit, and transformation.
In their Encyclopedia of Pilgrimage, David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson have identified three beliefs that have drawn people to journey as pilgrims:
The first is the conviction that there are forces infinitely larger than ourselves ... the second is that each of us has the potential to initiate a meaningful relationship with those forces. The third is that there are certain special places where the remote, transcendental power of those forces seems close enough for us to touch (Davidson & Gitlitz xvii)
While defining the pilgrim has been necessary, it is also important to consider the interaction between pilgrims and the “forces” they encounter during the journey. It is requisite to explore the essence of the word pilgrimage.
The word pilgrimage conjures up a variety of images. Graves. Ruins. Temples. Shrines. Mystical landscapes. Solitude. Religious celebrations. Difficult travel, often on foot. A pilgrimage can easily be an adventure, both externally and internally, but an adventure isn’t necessarily a pilgrimage. Today, as throughout history, travel is an important part of a pilgrimage, whether a short distance or a journey of epic proportion. Though today many pilgrimages have been modernized and the need for walking a long way has been rendered unnecessary, traditionally, pilgrimages were a kind of moving meditation.
Based on her studies of several pilgrimages taken under varying personal motivations and levels of religious commitment, Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis offers a broad definition of pilgrimage: “a journey undertaken for religious reasons, but also including nonreligious journeys motivated by a strong personal desire” (Coleman & Elsner /Petsalis-Diomidis 84). As I continue, I will explore the connection between the journey, with all of its worldly characteristics and manifestations, and the individual’s personal desires that act as a motivating force. It is the meeting of these two elements that are the essence of pilgrimage.
Victor Turner grounds the exploration of pilgrimage in its worldly roots, suggesting that for some people pilgrimage is a “materialist” or worldly “expression of their religion.” He continues, clarifying this suggestion: “pilgrimage as a religious act is a kinetic ritual, replete with actual objects, “sacra,” and is often held to have material results, such as healing” (Turner & Turner xiii). Regardless of the multifarious and lofty intentions of the individual, Turner defines pilgrimage as a physical process:
Pilgrimage is a lengthy, laborious bodily act, involving some idea of a connection with a long-dead spiritual figure at the end of it. The oxymoron “the body of the spirit” is what the pilgrims are looking for: palpable experience, the “where-she-actually-appeared” sense. (Turner & Turner xx-xxi)
In a majority of cultures, pilgrimage is centered around specific sacred places associated with extraordinary spiritual events or beings. Turner continues:
it is the journey to the actual place containing the actual objects of the past, whose very stones seem to emit the never-obliterated power of the first event - a certain shadowy aura. Pilgrims almost invariably touch the sacred object and then touch themselves (Turner & Turner xv)
According to Turner, then, pilgrimage is a worldly journey that brings the pilgrim into personal contact with the divine.
In the most traditional sense, it is the religious and cultural structure of pilgrimage that distinguishes pilgrimage from travel, since “these models operate on a conceptual level and set out what a pilgrimage should achieve and what it should feel like” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 105-106). More simply put, “Pilgrimage is a highly charged, symbolic journey in which the participant leaves behind the normal activity of everyday life and returns to the source of faith for a renewing encounter with the sacred” (Howarth & Lamadrid 10). While historically, religious institutions have clearly defined “what pilgrimage should achieve,” as Petsalis-Diomidis states above, being told “what it should feel like” is not exactly conducive to allowing each person’s own “renewing encounter with the sacred” to unfold freely. Fortunately, ideas like these, so limited in scope, are gradually changing.
Peace Pilgrim defines pilgrimage with the utmost simplicity: “A pilgrimage can be to a place - that’s the best known kind - but it can also be for a thing. Mine is for peace, and that is why I am a Peace Pilgrim” (Pilgrim 25). When she vaguely refers to “a thing,” Peace Pilgrim is opening the doorway to a much more expansive variety of personal ideals, goals, and motivations. In suggesting this and broadening the general understanding of the word pilgrimage, she doesn’t intend to negate the value of traditionally defined pilgrimages, but instead to transcend and expand people’s ideas. Phil Cousineau offers the words of Edwin Bernbaum in developing this idea:
Pilgrimage is often regarded as the universal quest for the self. Though the form of the path changes from culture to culture, through different epochs of history, one element remains the same: renewal of the soul. The shape can be linear, as with the goal-oriented journeys to Mecca or Rome; circular, as on the island route of Shikoku, Japan; or spiral, as in many mountain ascents ... a simple journey in which the path was the goal ... the purpose of the pilgrimage is to make life more meaningful. Through sacred travel, individuals can find the path to the divine, the ultimate source of life (Cousineau 95-96)
While Bernbaum has identified three traditional forms that pilgrimage has taken, it is important to note that he identifies the goal of pilgrimage as more than a series of rituals at a sacred destination. The goal, indeed, is “renewal of the soul.”
Phil Cousineau also acknowledges the connection between the sacred destination and the pilgrim’s spiritual path. He defines pilgrimage as:
a transformative journey to a sacred center. It calls for a journey to a holy site associated with gods, saints, or heroes, or to a natural setting imbued with spiritual power, or to a revered temple to seek counsel. To people the world over, pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing, or even to perform a penance. Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one without purpose has no soul. (Cousineau xviii)
Though historically the sacred destinations of pilgrimage have been the focus of much attention and research, it is the process of making the journey that many pilgrims regard as the source of most transformational experiences. The Scaperlandas probe this idea further, acknowledging the deeper search that accompanies pilgrims during their journeys:
The sacred pilgrimage is the journey of those who deliberately seek answers to the questions of meaning, purpose, and eternity. Instead of seeking fulfillment in things that will never satisfy, the sacred pilgrim sets out to find that which the heart truly desires: God’s very presence. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 10)
And in the process of making one’s way to the sacred destination, the pilgrim discovers a variety of answers to these deep questions.
While pilgrimage is about both the transformative journey and the sacred destination, it is, fundamentally, the spirit that a person brings to the journey that matters the most. Fellow pilgrim John Brierley believes that the key to pilgrimage is “soul:”
the journey becomes pilgrimage when it exercises the soul muscles as well as the triceps. If we put ourselves on the pilgrim path we sow the intention to stretch and expand soul consciousness and bring us closer home to our true nature, to God, to the Source or that name that we give to the Transcendent Reality that overlights our lives. (Brierley, Camino Frances 33)
Though their word choice differs according to their religious affiliation, the Scaperlandas share a similar perspective: “we seek answers in the transcendent, and our pilgrimages intentionally become spiritual quests ... a physical pilgrimage to a sacred site is an outward manifestation leading toward a deeper understanding of God” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 9). As they continue, they clarify the role that their faith has played in their own spiritual discoveries during pilgrimage. “Pilgrimage, in part, helps us to remember that we are not God or even a god. It also helps us discover and grow closer to the one who is God” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 3). Faith, “soul,” and a felt sense of connection are all renewed and strengthened for pilgrims of all spiritual and religious affiliations during the journey. In this way, the journey is clearly as important as the sacred destination.
Perhaps it would be of assistance at this point to address the definition of “pilgrimage:” (The American Heritage Dictionary)
* A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
* A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
Though the first definition is clear and concise, it hardly captures the experiences of the pilgrims I have presented thus far. The second offers a broader, more thorough picture of pilgrimage that more closely captures the essence of pilgrims and their journeys. I believe that the second definition, then, will be the better one to work with as I continue to answer the question “what is pilgrimage?”
“a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.”
Looking back, the pilgrimages of Anonymous and Tsang undoubtedly fulfill this definition, and next to the Santiago pilgrim, they look like superheroes. It is this “exalted purpose” and “moral significance,” though, that truly distinguish pilgrimage from tourism or adventure travel. Pilgrimage has been compared to Parsifal’s Quest for the Holy Grail, a journey filled with confusion and hardship, and eventual transformation. The pilgrim may become physically or spiritually lost and may search in vain for something that s/he cannot understand, but if s/he is persistent, s/he will succeed in gaining wisdom and strength (Biallas). This seems to agree with Joseph Campbell’s definition of the hero’s journey as “a cycle, it’s a going and a return ... departure, fulfillment, return ... along the way there are adventures” (Campbell). Pilgrimage, though, isn’t merely a hero’s journey. There are many ordinary human beings who make pilgrimages of great personal significance, yet their journeys hold none of the extremity of those pilgrimages of Anonymous and Tsang. The average person generally believes that s/he has no business dallying in the realm of the heroes. Heroes are other people who somehow manage to save the day. Campbell suggests that a person is always given the quest s/he is ready to undertake (Campbell). Ultimately, a person’s pilgrimage experience is influenced by his/her life experiences, intentions and perspective. I’m sure that every pilgrim would define pilgrimage differently, as would experts in religion and anthropology, but considering all the previous perspectives regarding the definition of pilgrim and pilgrimage, as well as my own experiences, I offer the following definition:
An intentional journey in which one surrenders the comfort and structure of daily life in exchange for moment-to-moment existence, and through constant confrontation with the unknown, one is forced to confront oneself, one’s thoughts, one’s patterns, and the very substance of life on every level. Through an extended period of living in this manner, one emerges from the experience renewed and transformed.
Types of Pilgrimage
Now that I have contemplated a variety of ideas in creating an expansive definition of pilgrim and pilgrimage, it will be enlightening to look more deeply into the different ways that pilgrimage has been cultivated and practiced by individuals, by religions, and by cultures throughout history.
I have already examined some of the motivations that have guided individuals to journey as pilgrims, and while every person’s experience is unique, there are a variety of common factors that can be considered as well. Some pilgrims dedicate their entire lives to their journeys, while others follow the path for a limited period of time. Many people undertake pilgrimages in order to engage in personal transformation and spiritual practice. Some pilgrims desire to enact social transformation through their journeys, such as Peace Pilgrim, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ghandi. There are those who make pilgrimage according to religious or cultural expectation, as in the Hajj to Mecca. Some people seek to make pilgrimages to the birthplace of their religions, such as those who travel to Rome and the Holy Land, while others seek out places where enlightened masters practiced and taught their spiritual disciplines. Some pilgrims journey within their own cultures and religions, others journey as outsiders. There are those who take part in pilgrimage ceremonies as part of a religious festival or celebration. There are other pilgrims who journey to faraway lands in order to make a deeper connection with the sacred. There are pilgrims who seek to observe or experience visions, miracles, and healings. Some people journey for penitence or to ask forgiveness. Others desire an extended period of prayer, meditation, and contemplation in order to realign themselves with their spiritual or religious paths, and making a pilgrimage fulfills that desire (Davidson & Gitlitz xxi).
In his research, Victor Turner identifies four types of Christian pilgrimage:
the prototypical, those established by the founder or great saint of a religion; the archaic, deriving from an earlier devotion and with syncretistic features; the medieval, from A.D. 500-1400, set in a broad era of theologizing, and with all the faults and virtues of the vigorous and venal popular world of the time; and the relatively modern, appearing to be concerned with the abuses of industrialization and strongly female in character. (Turner & Turner xvi)
The prototypical and archaic pilgrimage types have also appeared in other religious traditions, as have variations of the modern type. Many cultures, too, have seen a resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage during times of increased religious fervor, similar to the medieval period in Christianity. While Turner’s primary focus of study has been within Christian pilgrimage, his research is applicable in a broader context as well.
Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, in her essay “Narratives of Transformation: Pilgrimage Patterns and Authorial Self-Presentation in Three Pilgrimage Texts,” addresses the written accounts of three individual pilgrims and their journeys. First, Aelius Aristides, a Greek pilgrim from the second century C.E.: “Aristides writes about journeys undertaken at the command of the god ... and the goal of these pilgrimages ... is bodily healing” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 85-86). Second, she studies the pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri, who journeyed in pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fifteenth century. Finally, she explores the early twentieth century journey of Pierre Loti, which
seems to push the definition of pilgrimage almost to breaking point: the journey described is not undertaken for religious reasons but for personal ones, and although the goal of the journey is a sacred complex it is not part of the religious tradition of the author ... the underlying paradigm, though, which developed during the European Enlightenment, is that of secular travel as exploration of the unknown landscapes and cultures and eventually of the unknown self. It has been argued that this is a development of a pilgrimage tradition. (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 85-86)
While the first two types of pilgrimage she explores are highly acknowledged as valid and reputable pilgrimages, those like Loti have often been questioned and dismissed as mere travel. Yet in my own research, I have discovered a growing trend of similar pilgrimages, all centered around spiritual self-discovery.
As I have considered these three individuals in Petsalis-Diomidis’ work alongside the types of pilgrimage presented by Turner, and for the sake of clarification, I have noted two primary categories of pilgrimage. First, institutional pilgrimage, which includes pilgrimages clearly established within a religious or cultural tradition. Each of the four types of pilgrimage identified by Turner easily fit into this category, as do the first two presented by Petsalis-Diomidis, those of Aristides and Fabri. This category includes pilgrimages in which the pilgrim journeys to a holy place, spends time in prayer and contemplation, and performs the necessary rituals at the holy destination as defined by the religion or belief system of the individual and the place. Also included in this category are pilgrimages that are made as part of religious celebrations, often en masse. These pilgrimages are usually focused around a sacred site, are steeped in religious traditions, and have occasionally become somewhat secularized. An example of the former is the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage undertaken as a 500 mile walking journey. However, the Feast of Saint James celebration fits more with the latter example, when thousands of Spanish Catholics converge upon the city of Santiago to join in the festivities.
The second kind of pilgrimage is the individualized pilgrimage. This kind of pilgrimage is extremely personal, and may or may not occur within a religious context. This category includes a number of original pilgrims, seekers who desire a firsthand experience of God and follow an inner calling or vision and set out on their journeys, often forging paths that are new and revolutionary. The heroes of the individualized pilgrimage are Jesus and Buddha, and also those journeys of Anonymous and Peace Pilgrim, among many other ordinary spiritual seekers, which will be explored more deeply. In this type of pilgrimage, the pilgrim sets out on a quest, often alone, and seeks to answer certain questions, to meditate or pray, and to learn about him/herself. This kind of pilgrim may or may not choose a traditionally sacred destination or path, but tends to identify primarily with personal motivations and the inner experiences of the journey, as opposed to the forms and rituals established by religious and cultural traditions.
Before I proceed into the intricacies of each category, it is noteworthy to consider a few ideas from The Transcendent Unity of Religions by Frithjof Schuon. Early in this work, he explores the essential differences of approach between exoteric and esoteric religious and spiritual paths. He observes that humans
[live] in a world of symbolic forms. Transcendence can appear on the human plane only through these forms ... symbols for their part consist of a form/content complex. Exoterics are persons whose meanings derive from forms that are more restricted in scope than are those of esoterics. One is tempted to say that their forms are more concrete, but this could be misleading, for it would imply that esoteric forms are ... abstract and hence vacuous ... beyond a certain level of generality symbols do appear abstract in this denatured sense to exoterics, but to esoterics they remain fullbodied, if anything thereby gaining in force and reality. (Schuon xxv)
Essentially, this difference that Schuon has outlined here between exoterics and esoterics is the difference between institutional pilgrimage and individualized pilgrimage. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, also explores the differences between exoteric and esoteric approaches to religion and spirituality. He begins by defining exoteric practice: “Worship and sacrifice, procedures for working on the dispositions of the deity, theology and ceremony and ecclesiastical organization, are the essentials of religion in the institutional branch.” (James 34) It is his use of the word “institutional,” along with Victor Turner, that has led me to identify the first category of pilgrimage as institutional pilgrimage. His own bias toward the esoteric approach is evident as he continues: “were we to limit our view to it [the institutional branch], we should have to define religion as an external art, the art of winning the favor of the gods.” (James 34) Perhaps exoterics are more attached to the form and ritual style that follows traditional pilgrimages, while esoterics don’t require the same clearly defined process in making a deeply meaningful pilgrimage, preferring instead to rely upon inner experience and feeling to determine the form of their spiritual journeys. The intricacies of both will be explored in much greater detail in the following chapters.
Within institutional pilgrimage, there are typically a series of rituals that have been established that the pilgrim is expected to follow as a way of participating in ancient traditions that fulfill both cultural expectations and deep personal intentions. Most pilgrims who embark upon a pilgrimage have felt called to do so by faith, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 5). Much of the time, however, this call comes as the desire to journey to a destination that has been declared sacred within the pilgrim’s religious tradition. Victor Turner notes that
with rare and interesting exceptions, the pilgrims of different historical religions do not visit one another’s shrines ... pilgrimage, then, offers liberation from profane social structures that are symbiotic with a specific religious system, but they do this only in order to intensify the pilgrim’s attachment to his own religion (Turner & Turner 9)
In this way, the structures of pilgrimage help to renew the pilgrim’s faith in his/her religious path, as well as providing him/her with the opportunity for personal rejuvenation of the spirit.
Lifelong twenty-first century pilgrim Satish Kumar appropriately notes that “Every age creates new places of pilgrimage” (Kumar 253). While people’s interpretations of what is sacred change, the yearning to experience the sacred in the world is a common human desire. Victor Turner identifies this desire in the ancient origins of pilgrimage among “peoples classed by some anthropologists as “tribal,” peoples such as the Huichol, the Lunda, and the Shona” (Turner & Turner 1). However, “pilgrimage as an institutional form does not attain real prominence until the emergence of the major historical religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (Turner & Turner 1). As these religions have formed ideas about what is sacred, new holy centers and destinations are recognized, and these places often become popular destinations of pilgrimage. From ancient stone circles, to the relics of saints and martyrs, to the ashrams of religious teachers and ascetics in India, within institutional pilgrimage there is a slow, yet constant evolution of pilgrimage sites and traditions (Kumar 253).
While the rituals and practices may change along with the culture, “the beginning of most pilgrimages can fairly confidently be ascribed to a particular historical period, and even, in many instances, to a precise date” (Turner & Turner 17). Pilgrimage often begins following an awe-inspiring event, “typically marked by visions, miracles, or martyrdoms. The first pilgrims tend to arrive haphazardly, individually, and intermittently, though in great numbers ... their devotion is fresh and spontaneous” (Turner & Turner 25). At this point, the pilgrimage is still very much in its formative stage, and tends not to be considered institutional pilgrimage until “there is progressive routinization and institutionalization of the sacred journey” (Turner & Turner 25). Along with this development, pilgrims begin to arrive in organized groups, often “in accordance with a carefully planned calendar. Marketing facilities spring up close to the shrine and along the way ... to cater for the fired-up pilgrim’s spiritual needs” (Turner & Turner 25-26). In this process of institutionalization, elements of secularization may appear, too, which can begin to erode the sanctity of the experience, distracting some people from the original purpose of the pilgrimage. This idea will be explored in more detail a little later.
Along with the institutionalization of pilgrimage sites came an abundance of stories that fired people’s imaginations about faraway, exotic places. As we have previously discussed, within the local economy of medieval Europe, pilgrimage offered individuals an affordable opportunity to travel and explore “away from limited circles of friends, neighbors, and local authorities” (Turner & Turner 7). This adventure became rooted in journeys to holy destinations, where the point was “to get out, go forth, to a far holy place approved by all” (Turner & Turner 7). For many people, pilgrimage was a mixture of fascination, adventure, and the desire to come into contact with something extraordinary. Sacred destinations were alluring, since they are, according to Turner,
believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen, and may happen again. Even where the time of miraculous healings is reluctantly conceded to be past, believers firmly hold that faith is strengthened and salvation better secured by personal exposure to the beneficent” (Turner & Turner 6)
As more and more people make journeys to these sacred sites, the process of institutionalization is reinforced, and as this occurs, pilgrimage traditions evolve to fulfill the desires of the pilgrims, often becoming vastly different from their original manifestations.
Three of the four pilgrimage types identified by Victor Turner are deeply rooted in institutional pilgrimage. Turner’s first category is the prototypical pilgrimage, the journey to a site of some original religious event. This includes Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome and Mount Kailash in Hinduism (Turner & Turner 18). His second category is the archaic pilgrimages, which “bear quite evident traces of syncretism with older religious beliefs and symbols” (Turner & Turner 18). Many of the world’s great pilgrimages are threaded with traces of syncretism, including the Hajj of Islam (Turner & Turner 17), the ziarah in Java, Indonesia, and even the Camino de Santiago. The third category Turner mentions is the medieval, spanning the period between A.D. 500-1400 (Turner & Turner xvi), which is the great era of Christian pilgrimage. It is often difficult to distinguish between these three categories, however, because elements of syncretism are present in even the most clearly defined religious traditions. However, it is not my purpose here to argue Turner’s categories, but to merely acknowledge his clearly structured system of categorization that has been helpful in clarifying my own.
Institutional pilgrimage extends back to the most distantly recorded history of humanity.
In ancient Greece, one popular destination of pilgrimage was the temple of Asklepios, which involved “a journey to his sanctuary and there performing rituals of cleansing and sacrifice in preparation for sleeping in special buildings, in the hope of receiving a revelatory dream from the god” as well as the healing of illness (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 89). Healing, both physical and spiritual, is often the goal of pilgrimage, whether institutional or individual, but within institutional pilgrimage, rituals were frequently created to bring about the experience of healing by invoking the gods of a particular destination.
A second example of institutional pilgrimage is the ziarah of Java, Indonesia. In Java, the destination of pilgrimage is frequently a holy grave site, usually the grave of a Muslim saint or noble. These sites are often located in stunning natural landscapes that are considered sacred in their own right. Javanese pilgrimages are frequently colorful fusions of Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist practices combined with ancient mystical folk traditions (van Doorn-Harder & de Jong) and are highly syncretistic as a result. The rituals surrounding the pilgrimage are often ambiguous due to the tremendous amount of variation in religious and spiritual traditions. This Javanese practice of pilgrimage, called ziarah, is usually performed at night, with some of the more devout pilgrims spending the night sleeping on the graves, in hope of experiencing dreams or visions. “The goal of this type of ziarah range from seeking esoteric knowledge ... to obtaining magical powers ... to seeking unity with God” (van Doorn-Harder & de Jong). Specific traditions differ from place to place, and are usually based on the popular religion of that region. Though ziarah is practiced throughout the year, the most popular time is in the week prior to Ramadan, a reflection of Java’s majority religion, Islam (van Doorn-Harder & de Jong).
The third set of pilgrimages to be considered here are the traditional pilgrimages of Christianity. The Middle Ages were the height of European Christian pilgrimage, and “thousands of clerics and laymen, men and women, the rich and the poor from all countries of Europe, went to Jerusalem, to Rome, to Loreto in the center of Italy, or Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain” (Cousineau 20). The fifteenth century account of Friar Felix Fabri’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land offers tremendous insight into the holiest intentions of one of Christianity’s most prominent journeys during the great age of pilgrimage. Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis relates that “the aim of his pilgrimage was better to understand the Bible through viewing the sites of the Holy Land” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 92-93). Even during Fabri’s lifetime, the degree of institutionalization of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land was significant, and deeply affected Fabri’s journey, Petsalis-Diomidis reports: “they ran around the holy places ‘without understanding or feeling what they were’ [and] ... he wished to stay longer and that it was time pressure that prevented him from viewing the sights more carefully” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 92-93). Fabri considered his pilgrimage a failure due to his own lack of deeply felt response and connection to the sacred sites he visited in the Holy Land.
The pilgrimage to Santiago has evolved over a period of approximately 1,200 years of Catholic tradition, but first became established during the Middle Ages. As in the Javanese ziarah, the destination of the journey is a sacred tomb, the alleged tomb of Saint James, one of the apostles of Christ. The most popular time of year to visit Santiago is July 25th, the Feast of Saint James, and the pilgrimage is even more popular during Ano Santo, years when this holiday falls on Sunday. There seem to be two distinctly different styles of pilgrimage to Santiago. The first is much like the ziarah, focused primarily around honoring the Saint, and particularly during the Feast of Saint James. This type of pilgrimage is quite popular with European Catholics, the Spanish in particular. The second type is the traditional pilgrimage to Santiago, walking hundreds of miles across Spain, eventually arriving at the Santiago cathedral. This version of the Santiago pilgrimage is undertaken throughout the year, usually involves several weeks of walking, and draws pilgrims from all over the world. The Camino de Santiago is as popular with non-Catholics as Catholics, and in my own journey, I met more spiritually ambiguous pilgrims than traditionally religious ones. A notable difference between the two manifestations of the Santiago pilgrimage is the the emphasis on the importance of the sacred destination versus the journey itself. I have found very few pilgrimages with as much variation in traditions as the pilgrimage to Santiago.
While Christian pilgrimage thrived during the Middle Ages, it began to fall out of favor during the Reformation and Enlightenment, and often shrines fell into decay or were destroyed. The turning point came during the nineteenth century Romantic movement (Turner & Turner xviii). During the early 1800s, “Marian apparitions flourished throughout Europe ... people began making pilgrimages to the actual sites where Mary appeared” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 42-43). Sacred sites regained their popularity, and the Virgin Mary appeared in new places, “often in sensationally beautiful, wild spots such as Lourdes” (Turner & Turner xviii). Today, many Christian pilgrimage destinations are enjoying renewed popularity, including the major pilgrimage to Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church. Michael and Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, both devout Catholics, made the journey with millions of others to Rome to celebrate the new millennium, declared a Jubilee Year by the Catholic Church. The Scaperlandas share the importance of making the pilgrimage as a part of their faith:
When Pope John Paul II issued an invitation to Catholics throughout the world to go to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee Year 2000, Michael and I took the invitation seriously ... making a pilgrimage during the Jubilee Year seemed like the perfect opportunity. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda xi)
A fourth institutional pilgrimage, and perhaps one of the most famous in the world today, is the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once during their lifetime and perform the set of rituals that have become a traditional part of the Hajj. American Muslim Michael Wolfe explains: “The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. No one I encountered planned to miss it. Even sophisticated city dwellers viewed the rite as transformative: your life could be changed by it forever. Islamic law requires the Hajj of those who can afford it” (Wolfe 526-527). Mecca, to the extent of my knowledge, is the only destination of pilgrimage that is closed to those who are not practitioners of the religion in which the pilgrimage is rooted. “With its special laws of sanctuary, with its status as the birthplace of Islam, the city is sacred ground ... It is also strictly off-limits to nonbelievers.” By the side of the road as one enters Mecca, there is a sign: “STOP FOR INSPECTION, ENTRY PROHIBITED TO NON-MUSLIMS” (Wolfe 530). Due to this restriction, though, those pilgrims that enter Mecca are able to experience pure sacred space within which to offer their prayers, and the distractions of the secular world are much fewer than in sites of pilgrimage that are open to everyone. Within the holy city, there are many rituals that must be performed by the pilgrim, and the atmosphere of religious devotion is greatly amplified by the synchronized rituals and prayers of a city filled with devotees of Islam (Wolfe 530). Following the pilgrimage to Mecca, “the haji sometimes attained superior status, or at least standing, after his return” (Turner & Turner 15). This status was, and still is, recognized by the formal addition of a title to the pilgrim’s name: al-Hajj.
The fifth and sixth institutional pilgrimages are within Tibet, a land thoroughly saturated with sacred traditions, and are merely two examples of the many existing Tibetan pilgrimages. Tibetan pilgrimages, regardless of their destination, include “the ritual circling of mountains, a time-tested method of devotion that has come from Indian Buddhism” (Cousineau 94-95). Often, in the course of making pilgrimages, Tibetans bow in prostration with every step. Satish Kumar describes Tibetan pilgrimage ritual:
They start by standing, their hands held in prayer, then they kneel and, bowing down, lie facing the earth and touching her with their forehead in humility. Then they make a mark on the ground with their nose, stand up and walk up to the spot marked by the nose ... then they stand and repeat the process, and this they do all the way to the temple, which might be one hundred miles away. (Kumar 176)
These prostrations are a demonstration of the importance that Tibetans place on the journey itself, and, “for the pilgrim, every moment and every step is sacred. The holy places and temples are only symbolic destinations. By walking to the holy places a pilgrim is able to be free of speed, anxiety and desire for achievement” (Kumar 176). As a result of their devotion to a slow, arduous journey, Tibetans hope to receive “spiritual and material blessings from sacred objects, persons, shrines, and places, obtaining teachings and initiation from spiritual masters; and leaving offerings” (Cousineau 94-95).
The two Tibetan pilgrimages I will explore here are the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash and the pilgrimage to Lhasa. The heart of the Mt. Kailash journey is similar to the Camino de Santiago; it is an arduous, physically demanding journey to a sacred destination. Pilgrims to Mt. Kailash trek through the unforgiving high Tibetan landscape, visit Lake Manasarovar, and then make the fifty-three kilometer circumambulation of Mt. Kailash, which can take up to three days (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 84). This immensely demanding trek challenges pilgrims physically for sure, and the stark landscape provides a blank canvas for the pilgrim’s mind, offering little distraction from his/her inner contemplation. In the case of this pilgrimage, though, there is no temple, no cathedral, no human-made structure at the end that has been declared sacred. The mountain itself is considered sacred to four religious communities in the vicinity: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and the Bonpo, who follow ancient pre-Buddhist Tibetan beliefs. Much in the same way that mystical folk traditions influenced the Javanese ziarah, as well as contemporary Javanese Islam, the ancient traditions of the Bonpo have commingled with the other religious practices, creating another example of syncretistic pilgrimage (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 42).
For Hindus, making pilgrimages to sacred shrines is a fundamental part of their religious practice and frequently “includes travel to a holy spot, a dip in a holy expanse of water, a circumambulation and the offering of prayers” (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 16). The pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash fulfills this spiritual duty for those Hindus who receive a divine calling to make the journey. “Many people believe that the actualization of a pilgrimage is dependent on divine will and that if God wishes you to make the journey, you will” (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 24). There is no specific time of the year when pilgrims flock to Mt. Kailash; it is traditional for the pilgrim to wait to be called to make the journey at the right time in his/her life (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 24). While the journey to Mt. Kailash is one of the major pilgrimages in Hindu culture and is undertaken by guided groups of pilgrims each year, there is tremendous emphasis on the individual pilgrim’s experience. “The Kailash yatra is primarily a quest for God” and any pilgrim who is open “to the beauty and divinity of the holy mountain surely experiences the Brahman” (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 23). In addition, a pilgrim’s daily spiritual practice is fortified through pilgrimage, since “doing a parikrama opens our inner eye to these divine teachings ... a parikrama also provides us the orientation for our daily life” (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 88-89). Ultimately, when a Hindu is called to make this journey, s/he is grateful for the opportunity to realign his/her life with God (Bharadwaj & Bharadwaj 23-24).
In the summer of 2006, I was fortunate to make my own pilgrimage to Lhasa, Tibet, and immerse myself in the heart of Tibetan Buddhism firsthand. Lhasa has long been considered the holiest city in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans travel great distances by foot and a variety of forms of simple transportation across the high, barren Himalayas to Lhasa in pilgrimage to visit the Jokhang Temple, considered the most sacred temple of Tibetan Buddhism. Pilgrims stream clockwise around the Barkhor Pilgrim Circuit, circumambulating the holy Jokhang Temple, as well as the outer walls of the Potala Palace while spinning prayer wheels, bowing full-body at the entrance to the Temple, all swirling in juniper incense rising from giant clay censers along the path. In their left hands, strands of prayer beads, from simple wooden ones to ornate strands of beads made of metal, yak bone, and precious stones. In their right hands, personal prayer wheels of wood, precious metals, and stone filled with paper coils bearing the holy mantra om mane padme hum. Those pilgrims who are not Buddhist monks represent their clans in a variety of traditional dress from distinct regions. With the exception of myself and a few other westerners, all pilgrims were Tibetan. Some of the older pilgrims could barely walk, their feet gnarled from a lifetime of hard work and inadequate nutrition. They walked on, their faith unwavering. One old pilgrim, dressed in a long, dark robe, offered prostrations every step of the way. Part of my mind assumed that he was a crazy, demonstrative beggar. But as I looked past my suspicion and bias, I saw something indescribable in him. His eyes were focused beyond the bustling pilgrim circuit, beyond the world of humankind. It's such a foreign concept to me, and indeed to many contemporary westerners, to exhibit such faith and devotion with utter abandon. His gray hair was knotted, and his hands were filthy from making repeated contact with the ground during his prostrations. But his passion shone beyond all of that. His unwavering spiritual devotion was a moving illustration of the thriving tradition of pilgrimage within Tibetan Buddhism.
In India, a country filled with a great diversity of religious history and traditions, pilgrimage itself has become a way of life, and it would be impossible to approach the study of pilgrimage without taking some of the Indian traditions into account. While in many parts of the world during various time periods, individuals have embraced the lifestyle of the wandering ascetic, in India, this way of life itself became an institutional pilgrimage. As a child, Satish Kumar embraced this lifestyle following the death of his father. He speaks of his early introduction to pilgrimage:
After father’s death, mother spent more and more time with the wandering Jain monks ... the monk’s life is a life of continuous movement, a flow like a river. These monks have no permanent place: they walk from village to village, starting after sunrise and walking a few miles (Kumar 10)
After frequently following the Jain monks, often to the frustration of his mother, Kumar made the decision to join their order (Kumar 12-13). This Jain tradition of pilgrimage embraced a number of difficult practices, and Kumar, though a young child, was immersed in these traditions. He shares:
I was instructed to walk slowly and gently, always being careful not to tread on any insects or plants ... according to the rule of the monks, I didn’t wash my clothes. I wore the same clothes until they wore out. I never took a bath nor cleaned my teeth ... and so we lived, walking from village to village ... my feet were sore and blistered and full of splinters. (Kumar 22)
As has been previously discussed, embracing an ascetic lifestyle isn’t an option for everyone. In addition to the Jain pilgrimage lifestyle, India is filled with thousands of temples and holy sites, and honoring the desire to make a pilgrimage has been allowed for in Indian culture, even among householders. Kumar shares his mother’s belief:
if you haven’t been on a pilgrimage by the time you are fifty then your time is up: you mustn’t put it off any longer. By the time you are fifty you have performed your essential duties in this world ... now is the time to pay attention to your soul, your spirit, your imagination and your creativity. From now on whatever you do should be in the service of the spirit. (Kumar 179)
Along with the importance of spirituality in Indian culture, a great variety of pilgrimage traditions have formed. Some rituals of Indian pilgrimage are remarkably similar to those of Tibetan Buddhism, since Tibetan Buddhism’s roots are in Indian Buddhism. Similar to the way that Tibetans circumnavigate sacred mountains, “In India, before you enter a temple you go around it ... by going once, twice, three times round you prepare and center yourself. You leave your negative thoughts behind. When your body, mind and heart are ready, then you may enter the temple” (Kumar 180). Many of the rituals of pilgrimage in India are dramatizations of smaller rituals practiced in daily spiritual traditions, and this is yet another way that pilgrimage refreshes the pilgrim’s faith.
One final institutional pilgrimage that I will mention here, also in India, is the Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges. While some “Hindus go to the source of the Ganges in the Himalayas” (Kumar 179), all locations of the Ganges are considered holy, most notably in Varanasi. In his book, Ultimate Journey, Richard Bernstein offers his experience of observing pilgrims and their rituals in the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, India.
The water was a dark brown. The men wore only loincloths and stood shoulder-deep in the water immersing themselves, rubbing their faces and hair, or making circular motions with their hands while quietly chanting. The women remained fully dressed in their saris. Children cavorted around them, diving and splashing as children do in brown and dubious rivers all over Asia ... it was a grand scene, the row of ghats, thousands of people washing away their sins. It is very impressive, shocking and inspiring at the same time, this Indian conviction that purity of soul can be achieved by bathing in some rank and immemorial river (Bernstein 200)
The Hindu tradition of bathing in the holy Ganges river is a ritual of deep significance, similar to the Christian ritual of baptism. The Hindus believe that the Ganges itself is a deity, looking beyond the filth and pollution to its divine source. Bernstein approaches an old pilgrim and asks him, “what makes Varanasi so special?” His reply, ”if you die in Varanasi ... you won’t be born again” (Bernstein 207). The Ganges is believed to be so holy that it can break the cycle of life and death and rebirth that is an essential part of the Hindu belief in reincarnation, usually only transcended when one achieves spiritual enlightenment.
While many cultures have established traditions for individuals to make a spiritual journey in order to wander far and wide and realign their lives with God, there have always been those individuals who are drawn to chart their own paths of pilgrimage. Especially considering the expansive definitions of pilgrim and pilgrimage presented earlier, it seems essential to acknowledge some of the non-traditional expressions of pilgrimage that individuals have created throughout history. Indeed, it has been much simpler to gather together examples of clearly delineated institutional pilgrimages, and while it would be challenging to investigate even a fraction of the individualized pilgrimages that have appeared in the world’s pilgrimage literature, it is worthwhile to consider a few of these examples.
If institutional pilgrimages are rooted in an exoteric approach to religious expression, individualized pilgrimage is rooted in esotericism. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James explores the more esoteric approach in great depth. He defines “personal religion” as an approach in which “the inner dispositions” of humans “form the center interest,” including their “conscience,” “helplessness,” and “incompleteness.” James suggests that “although the favor of the God ... is still an essential feature of the story” within the realm of “personal religion,” it is between the individual and God. “The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul.” (James 34). Within “personal religion,” it is the individual, not any religious institution, that determines what is sacred (James 36). According to James, in essence, “Religion” is a person’s “total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?” (James 40-41) James continues, suggesting that individuals “must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious (James 40-41). By removing the inexorable form of institutional religion and redefining it while considering it in terms of individual experiences and reactions to the world in all its manifestations, both sacred and profane, it is far more possible to consider the variety of individualized pilgrimages that may or may not occur within clearly defined religious terms.
Individualized pilgrimage isn’t necessarily synonymous with non-religious pilgrimage. On the contrary, many pilgrims who make individualized journeys are deeply committed to their spiritual traditions. With that in mind, I will shift the focus from institutional pilgrimage and begin to explore the second category of pilgrimage, the individualized pilgrimage. The journeys of both Anonymous and Hsuan Tsang fall under this category of pilgrimage, and both men were inspired to undertake their journeys out of religious devotion. While both pilgrims were deeply affiliated with organized religions, neither of them followed traditional paths in their quest for God, instead forging their own paths into the unknown.
There are certainly examples of individualized pilgrimage that occur within cultural and even religious frameworks. The labyrinth is perhaps the perfect symbol of individualized pilgrimage, since beyond following its physical path, there is no underlying tradition defining its use or practice. Within Christianity, the labyrinth was cultivated as a form of moving meditation. While intended for use in the daily practice of meditation and prayer, the state of mind cultivated while walking the labyrinth is often reflective of the more extended state of mind that one enters into during a longer pilgrimage. The Scaperlandas explain, “A labyrinth is not a maze or puzzle to be solved. It does not require logical, sequential, analytical activity aimed at finding a correct path. A labyrinth is unicursal; that is, it has only one path. The way in is also the way out” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 129). There is a tremendous amount of individual freedom in walking the labyrinth, since there is virtually no formalized ritual surrounding its practice. The experience of walking the labyrinth is rooted in the individual. The Scaperlandas continue:
There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. You can walk as fast or as slowly as you want. You can stop along the way or dance your way through the path. Once at the center, you can stay as long as you want before following the same path to walk out. A labyrinth involves intuition, imagery, and creativity ... at its most basic level, the labyrinth is an ancient metaphor representing a journey toward our personal, deepest center and then back out into the world (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 129)
One of the most famous labyrinths is within Chartres Cathedral, located a short distance from Paris. “Built around 1200, the Chartres labyrinth consists of four meandering quadrants that lead to the center. At the center of the floor design, there is a rosette, a medieval symbol of enlightenment” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 130). When I walked the Chartres labyrinth in 2006, I was surprised by the powerful shift in my state of mind, which came over me within moments of beginning the simple ritual of walking. Along with my own rhythmic, slow footsteps and breathing came flashes of insight that seemed rather unrelated to Chartres or my experience there. It seemed that walking the labyrinth opened a doorway into my deepest self. It was the walking, not the cathedral or any of the religious connection, that defined the experience for me.
In Australia, the “walkabout” is a well-established tradition of individualized pilgrimage as well. Phil Cousineau explains:
The call for the long walk into the outback to visit ancestral grounds can come at a moment’s notice ... men and women are known to rise up, drop their lunch buckets, paychecks, and children, and begin to walk. As if in a trance, they walk the holy ground of “invisible pathways which meander all over Australia,” as Bruce Chatwin describes them. (Cousineau 43)
While both walkabout and walking the labyrinth have appeared within traditions that are arguably institutional, the lack of formal rituals and expectations in both these types of pilgrimage have led me to place them within individualized pilgrimage. It is the freedom given to the individual pilgrim in defining the path of his/her experience that is at the heart of individualized pilgrimage.
The earliest recorded pilgrimage is that of Abraham, “who left Ur 4,000 years ago, seeking the inscrutable presence of God in the vast desert” (Cousineau xxiv). Abraham’s pilgrimage is a perfect example of individualized pilgrimage. He followed no previously laid path in his physical journey or in his search for God as he wandered in the desert. His journey was the antecedent of many other individualized pilgrimages, and many other men and women of lesser and equal notoriety have since followed his example of following the inner calling to find God while wandering, including the notable religious figures Moses, Paul, and Mohammed (Cousineau xxiv). Seventeenth century Japanese Buddhist Matsuo Basho, master of haiku, also followed his inner calling to make an unconventional pilgrimage. He sold his house and adopted the lifestyle of a wandering ascetic for a period of five months. He captured the essence of his journey and the wisdom it revealed in writing, and he declared that “each shrine, each inn, was an arrival to be celebrated in verse with his characteristically sensual attention to the details of the moment” (Cousineau 175).
As mentioned previously, the pilgrimages of Hsuan Tsang and Anonymous provide excellent examples of individualized pilgrimage. Hsuan Tsang followed a deep personal desire to uncover the truths of Buddhism by personally deciphering the ancient Sanskrit texts of Buddhism, in hope of carrying those truths home with him to share with fellow Chinese Buddhists in their own native language. Tsang’s motivation was completely clear from the beginning of his journey. “His purpose was to search out what he called the Law, the original classics of Buddhist thought ... Hsuan Tsang wanted to shatter the illusory facade of the world of appearances and penetrate the diamond-hard innermost heart of Reality itself” (Bernstein 5). His fundamental desire was “to reach a level of consciousness so high that it transcended the normal categories of human understanding - and at the same time, having achieved it, no longer to experience the desire that propelled him on his long and arduous journey in the first place” (Bernstein 244). His journey covered thousands of miles, and there was no map to guide his path. He encountered great challenges and obstacles along the way, both in the natural environment and the people and cultures he encountered. Tsang’s ordinary state of consciousness was affected by the extreme strain of crossing the desert. His intentions were pure, even when it appeared that he might die in the desert. This is the image of the hero, the one who refuses to give up on his noble quest for any reason. He was not led by the desire for selfish gains, either worldly or spiritual. His sincere desire was to gain the best possible understanding of Buddhist truths, in hopes to share that wisdom with his fellow countrymen in order to liberate everyone from suffering.
Anonymous began his journey at the age of twenty when he set out with the intention of walking to Kiev to visit the relics of the saints that were held there, which he believed would be an appropriate first destination. From there, he wandered throughout Russia for thirteen years, finally completing his journey in Irkutsk. For his motivation, Anonymous declares, “I heard the following words: ‘Pray without ceasing.’” Early in his journey, he visited churches everywhere he went in hope of being guided to understand prayer more deeply, but found no one who could help. He then sought a spiritual master who could instruct him in the art of unceasing prayer (The Way 2). He visited laymen and monks, and finally met his “Starets,” who guided him to begin working with the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” From that point on, his journey became a completely different process. Everywhere the pilgrim wandered, his only concern was reciting the Jesus Prayer. His journey was no longer a search, but a way of life itself. His pilgrimage was focused on the interior journey of practicing ceaseless prayer, and the inner wisdom that appeared as a result (The Way 2-7).
While not every individualized pilgrimage is as epic in proportion as these, many people choose to create their own journeys to fulfill a personal connection to the sacred in ways that have not been fulfilled by their own cultural traditions. This was the case for American writer Roger Housden, who travelled to Egypt in pilgrimage. In his journey, he sought to connect to the historical roots of Christianity and the very land that housed those roots through approaching the Monastery of Saint Catherine’s in the Sinai. Housden shares the journey he envisioned:
I wanted to know what it was like to emerge out of the wilderness and see, as thousands had done before me down through the centuries ... the walls of this legendary place shimmering in the desert haze. To walk through that mythic land was as much a reason ... as the monastery itself. (Housden 12-13)
Housden shares his thoughts from the beginning of his journey to Mount Sinai through the desert:
the tunnel ... took us under the Suez Canal to the Sinai Peninsula ... to pass the canal was to cross a Rubicon. The same brown plains lay all about us ... yet everything was different. I could see from my map that we were beginning to cross a large area called the Wilderness of the Wanderings. No mere sand plain, then; no ordinary desert. Immortalized in the Western imagination as the scene of the Exodus, the Sinai was and still is the great crossroads between Asia and Africa (Housden 13)
He hired two Bedouin guides to lead him through the desert for seven days in order to approach the monastery as people had done for centuries. In the midst of the journey, Housden experienced a palpable connection to the history of the region. “I wondered occasionally about the thousands of others who had passed through this wilderness before me on their way to Saint Catherine’s. The monastery was a stage on what was once known as the Long Pilgrimage. Pilgrims had usually sailed from a port in Italy ... from Alexandria they would have gone to Cairo, where they would have obtained a right of passage from the sultan. Or they would have gone to Jaffa and Jerusalem, then by mule to Gaza, and on to Saint Catherine’s by camel, along the ordinary caravan route” (Housden 19). Though his own journey offered far fewer difficulties than pilgrims experienced during ancient times, his own individualized pilgrimage brought him to experience a greater personal connection to the Christian roots of his own culture. His arrival at the monastery was vastly different from the approach he had imagined, being on the back of a Coca-Cola truck instead of on the back of a camel, but he gained tremendous insight in the process of making the journey nonetheless.
Sometimes, even though individuals may attempt to journey as pilgrims within a traditional framework or within a culture that provides for their spiritual yearnings with pilgrimage traditions, some people still find it necessary to forge their own individualized pilgrimages. An excellent illustration of this sort of individualized pilgrimage appears in the life of Satish Kumar. The early years of his life were inseparable from pilgrimage, as previously mentioned, since he had become a wandering Jain monk during his childhood. Though Kumar had already embraced the life of a wandering Jain monk, it was when he met famous Indian revolutionary Vinoba Bhave, a contemporary of Ghandi, that his understanding of his own spiritual calling and of pilgrimage itself was deeply altered. Kumar introduces Bhave:
Vinoba had worked closely with Ghandi in the independence movement ... he had begun by walking from village to village, saying he would not wait for the government in Delhi to bring changes; he would walk to every village in India for the abolition of private ownership of land ... Vinoba became a name on everyone’s lips. Here was someone with a message of revolution in land ownership, and people were voluntarily giving him their possessions and property. (Kumar 31-32)
Kumar was inspired by Bhave’s pilgrimage for social justice, and especially by the words Bhave offered him: “By leaving the monk’s life you may find a real monk in you” (Kumar 57). Bhave guided Kumar to create his own pilgrimage:
we are all on a journey. It is a hard and dangerous journey. We must listen to the inner cry which disturbs the sleep. This inner cry is the source of salvation. Let me warn you, that no outside authority can lead you into liberation. You must not be deceived by false prophets or external appearances. Even monks in their white robes can deceive themselves by blindly following the outer manifestations of the spiritual life, and by deceiving themselves they deceive everyone (Kumar 37)
Vinoba Bhave chose to remain a “free man” and not to enter into politics, believing that through his pilgrimage, he would be more able to speak the truth, serve the people, and remain connected to a sense of inward spiritual strength (Kumar 57-58).
Kumar took Vinoba Bhave’s philosophy to heart, and one day as he was having coffee with a friend, Prabhakar Menon, the two men began to discuss the possibility of a their own individualized pilgrimage, which became a global Peace March. Their journey embraced the ancient tradition of walking pilgrimage, and was rooted in the political and spiritual values of Vinoba Bhave. They wandered as vegetarians in the name of non-violence and carried no money, since Bhave believed that “money is an obstacle to real contact with people ... if you have no money you will be forced to speak to people and ask humbly for hospitality” (Kumar 81). Their journey spanned a considerable distance, 8,000 kilometers in all, from India to America, by way of Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington, “the four nuclear capitals,” and was a demonstration of “our opposition to this nuclear nonsense” (Kumar 79).
Though his own life as a pilgrim had taken him to the far corners of the globe, as Kumar approached his fiftieth birthday he was reminded of the Indian tradition of pilgrimage in honor of that birthday. Since he was living in Britain, he envisioned his own variation of the pilgrimage within the English countryside.
I began thinking and planning for a pilgrimage to the holy places of Britain the following year ... with a few exceptions, I aimed at walking every day, covering twenty miles per day on average ... I started out with a small rucksack, one change of clothes and the pair of Polish shoes I had on. I took no book, no diary, no camera, and as on my earlier walk from India to America, no money. Pilgrimage is best when you are travelling light, especially if you are walking. (Kumar 173)
Of this journey, Kumar says: “Walking was not solely a means to get somewhere. Walking in itself was an end, a form of meditation, a way of being. The journey was as important as the arrival. In fact the arrival was part of the journey” (Kumar 176). All of Kumar’s pilgrimages were odysseys of walking meditation.
One final example of individualized pilgrimage is that of Richard Bernstein, a well-travelled American writer and religious skeptic, who was particularly drawn to the journey of Hsuan Tsang. Though his journey followed the general route of Tsang’s pilgrimage, Bernstein’s perspective was distinctly different. “At first, searching for a way to satisfy the common desire to get away from it all, I thought I might teach myself to make Shaker furniture” but his longing guided him in another direction and he began “to scrutinize maps and to think about a trip. Not just any trip ... one that I had had in mind for a long time” (Bernstein 3). Bernstein recognized that Tsang was a pilgrim of heroic proportion, and declared that “the Ultimate Truth is a more Buddhist thing than a secular non-Buddhist skeptic like me could strive for” (Bernstein 5-6). Bernstein’s pilgrimage is a testament to the growing number of people in the modern world who feel a deep spiritual longing, yet who are unsure of how to fulfill that longing. While he was fascinated by Tsang’s spiritual devotion, Bernstein is not Buddhist, and he adamantly resists personalizing the teachings of Buddhism. “Buddhism has always appealed to me more as a philosophical matter than as a spiritual one ... I am a strangely religious nonbeliever, a devout sort of atheist, attached to the forms of religious ritual, the music, the solemnity of it ... but not to its literal content” (Bernstein 5-6). Throughout his entire journey, he reverently dances around the tenets of Buddhism, honoring Tsang with his greatest respect, and yet he never once experiences those truths for himself. In my research, I have encountered a number of pilgrims in a similar state of conflicted longing, not quite sure what to believe, hesitant to get too close to a given path, yet drawn to the spirit of the path by some indescribably force that beckons them with undeniable insistence.
While many pilgrims set out with a clear sense of purpose, Joseph Campbell suggests that powerful experiences sometimes manifest even when a person’s intentions are vague, which is often the case for pilgrims like Bernstein. This type of journey is “one of not knowing what you’re doing, you suddenly find yourself in full career of an adventure”(Campbell). It seems that even when a person does enter his/her journey with uncertainty, it takes him/her beyond the mundane existence of daily life into an intense experience that allows for the contemplation of life’s problems and mysteries, for the renewal of spirit and faith, and for reconnecting to his/her own center, soul, or higher self. While a person may have left his/her home as an adventurer or traveller, if s/he is prepared for it, the journey may become a pilgrimage.
Richard Bernstein illustrates Campbell’s idea most fully. Throughout his journey he pushes the boundaries of the definition of pilgrimage, and it would be easy to dismiss his journey as mere travel. However, his experience shares the perspective of many contemporary agnostics who find themselves in the midst of a life-changing journey that they never could have anticipated. Bernstein’s motivation parallels the motivation of many contemporary pilgrims: “every society has its needs for escape, practical and philosophical. There is labor, suffering, disease, death, and grief. There are mysteries that cannot be resolved. There is the need for mystical or just drunken relief” (Bernstein 95). While escape is often a motivating factor for tourism, when a person’s mind begins to probe life’s mysteries, the journey can take a surprising turn. Bernstein declares that his purpose in following Tsang’s path was fulfilling a personal promise of youthful fascination, not to remedy any crisis in his life. “my life was not falling apart ... my yearning to get away derived from the banal conviction that I had crossed the bourn of fifty, and some of the things I had promised myself I would remain undone if I didn’t do them quickly” (Bernstein 6-7). He was clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis: “Most of us middle-aged men are among that species of routinized, rationalized beings that Max Weber called ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.’ We start out idealists and we end up creatures of habit, more concerned about the state of the lawn than the spirit” (Bernstein 7). Bernstein craved a break in the routine of his life, an exotic journey to satisfy his wanderlust, and while he never admits that his is a journey in search of deeper truths, he does occasionally allude to his own soulful longing for “a rhapsodic moment or two, a modest, occasional touch of the sublime” (Bernstein 8-9). While in Satish Kumar’s culture it was expected that many people would choose to make a pilgrimage in honor of their fiftieth birthday, Bernstein demonstrates the absence of this kind of tradition in American culture. Yet the longing remains, beyond traditions and cultures and all other imagined boundaries.
In these previous examples, many of William James’ ideas about “personal religion” have been illustrated with great creativity. According to James, whether ancient or modern, the kinds of experiences that are sought out in “personal religion,” and I would add individualized pilgrimage, are not those of the “ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances” of his/her country, “whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan” whose “religion has been made ... by others, communicated ... by tradition, determined in fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit (James 8-9) These indeed are the journeys of people who have sought to find answers for themselves in “original experiences” (James 8-9) during their own visions of the spiritual search, following yearnings that appear with freshness, “not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever” (James 8-9). Indeed, those satisfied with the traditions and rituals outlined by their religions and cultures would, most likely, never be inspired to look beyond those traditions and rituals and create their own paths to the sacred.
American Pilgrimage Traditions
Every school-age child in America learns the word “pilgrim” in their earliest studies of the history of the settlement of this country. With the celebration of Thanksgiving, people conjure the image of the men and women who boarded the Mayflower, among other ships, and set sail to the New World. Beyond this image, however, most Americans feel little connection to the full meaning of the word “pilgrimage.”
American culture is still arguably in a state of adolescence. Compared to many of the cultures that have been considered in the chapter on institutional pilgrimage, whose pilgrimage traditions span hundreds, if not thousands, of years, America’s couple hundred years of cultural development are indeed still in the formative state. Also considering the array of cultures that have come together with the pre-existing Native American traditions in the establishment of America, it is no wonder that Americans are still seeking to create a culture of their own. Indeed, with so many religious and cultural traditions meeting on American soil, it is no surprise that no great pilgrimage tradition has yet to appear.
I do not suggest, though, that there are no traditions of pilgrimage in American culture. In addition to an assortment of secular pilgrimages to places like Graceland or famous battle sites like Gettysburg and the Alamo, I have discovered three clear spiritual traditions of pilgrimage that have appeared during the last 100 years or so. First, the tradition of retreat into nature, inspired by the Transcendentalists. Second, syncretistic pilgrimages, often a combination of Christianity and Native American traditions. Third, pilgrimages for the sake of social or political change.
American psychologist and philosopher William James presented a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901-1902, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. Highly influenced by the Transcendentalists, James offered bold new ideas about religion in his lectures, some of which have already been discussed here. Early in his work, he identifies the appearance of systems of thought “which the world usually calls religious ... which do not positively assume a God” (James 37), including Buddhism. He draws a parallel between Buddhism and “modern transcendental idealism, Emersonianism” which “seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult” (James 37). The appearance of “churches without a God ... have a similar worship of the abstract divine, the moral law believed in as an ultimate object” (James 66). Thus, in the course of his work, James presents an argument that the presence of a central God is not required in order for a system of thought to be considered a religion. In suggesting this, he is creating the space for Transcendentalism within the realm of religious and spiritual traditions.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, among others, brought forth the American school of Transcendentalism, and with it, a reconnection to nature. James suggests that Walt Whitman was “the restorer of the eternal natural religion” which was quite different from paganism and the variety of earth-based religions (James 98), and “over Europe and America, we see the ground laid for a new sort of religion of Nature, which has entirely displaced Christianity from the thought of a large part of our generation” (James 104-105). James states that in the Emersonian school of thought, “the universe has a divine soul of order, which soul is moral,” and is the same soul that exists within each human being. “But whether this soul of the universe be a mere quality like the eye’s brilliancy or the skin’s softness, or whether it be a self-conscious life like the eye’s seeing or the skin’s feeling, is a decision that never unmistakably appears in Emerson’s pages” (James 38-39). As this “religion of Nature” gained a following, many people began to seek natural settings in which to experience the divine, and people journeyed into the woods and mountains in a new sort of pilgrimage.
Along with Transcendentalism came ideas that the natural world was as filled with divinity as the heavens, and that sensual experiences of the world were also sacred. This is evident in the words of Thoreau:
Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! In the desert, pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture and fertility ... when I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place (Emerson & Thoreau 100)
Thoreau did exactly this on a number of occasions, most notably during his pilgrimage retreat to Walden Pond. In this way, Thoreau was one of the founders of the contemporary movement to make pilgrimages into nature, which could even include epic journeys like hiking the Appalachian Trail.
American writer and naturalist Henry Beston followed Thoreau’s tradition of making a solitary pilgrimage retreat into nature, which he recounted in his book The Outermost House. His journey is shared by Phil Cousineau:
in 1927, he decided he needed to find “essentials.” In the tradition of the Transcendentalists, he went into solitude on Cape Cod to see for himself the “elemental presences” that dwelled there and to witness the “incomparable pageant of nature and the year.” [Beston] approached his journey to Cape Cod as the holiest of journeys; his reverence for the shrine he created there was as deep as the prophet’s respect for ancestral shrines. (Cousineau 195- 196)
Alongside the philosophies of “natural religion” of the Transcendentalists, the American government began to establish its system of National Parks and natural reserve lands, which have become a pilgrimage of sorts in their own right. While not all people who visit these parks hold the conscious intention to commune with the divine, according to Len Biallas, many people “find revelations of the Sacred in rocks, trees and water ... at such moments we detect the flow of divine grace in the arteries of the natural order” (Biallas). Those who find a connection to the sacred through the natural world have embraced the ideas and practices established by the Transcendentalists in creating this first style of American pilgrimage.
The second, and probably most common style of American spiritual pilgrimage is rooted in a blending of ancient Native American spiritual traditions and sacred sites with the religious traditions and practices of a variety of people and cultures, primarily Christian, that settled throughout North America (Turner & Turner xvi). Sam Howarth and Enrique R. Lamadrid, in their book Pilgrimage to Chimayo, suggest that “the United States is a country of pilgrims severed from the bearings of their pilgrimage” (Howarth & Lamadrid 14) but “people of all cultures are naturally drawn to special places where geography and spirit converge” (Howarth & Lamadrid 13). This has resulted in shared traditions and sacred shrines throughout North America, including the Santuario de Chimayo, “one nexus in a continental network of shrines that consolidates and implants Christianity into the sacred geography of the New World” (Howarth & Lamadrid 14).
Pilgrimage to “Chimayo in Northern New Mexico is rooted in ... a blend of Native American and European beliefs and practices” (Howarth & Lamadrid 15). Originally, Chimayo was the scene of an important event in the creation story of the Tewa-speaking people of the nearby pueblos, and the story was centered around a sacred spring. “Santuario de Chimayo was built literally on top of its sacred spring” (Howarth & Lamadrid 15-19) and while the sacred earth and stream itself were once sufficient to fulfill the Tewa people, the Christian tradition built a chapel around the spring, offering a space for worship and prayer (Howarth & Lamadrid 15-19). In spite of the chapel and the implanted Christian traditions and beliefs, many people still believe that “there is something about the narrow mountain valley at Chimayo” and many people “desire to arrive there on foot and even on knees in humble devotion and hopes for blessings and health ... pilgrims on the road to Chimayo seek direct contact with the earth as they approach” (Howarth & Lamadrid 13). This blend of traditions at Chimayo is but one example of many syncretistic pilgrimage destinations throughout North America.
While the sacred history of Chimayo offers pilgrims a meaningful connection with the divine through the land and the Santuario, an additional meaningful component of the pilgrimage is the communitas that develops among pilgrims, identified by Victor Turner as one of the key elements in institutional pilgrimage. Howarth and Lamadrid share their observations of communitas from the Chimayo pilgrimage:
Strangers help each other along the way. Some are silent and thoughtful in their journey. Others are more light-hearted and enjoy the opportunity to accompany friends and fellow travelers. All are united in the expansive geography of the spirit spreading out across the landscape of Northern New Mexico. (Howarth & Lamadrid 11)
In communitas, a sense of communal sacred space is created through the shared spirit of the journey.
A final example of American pilgrimage tradition is the pilgrimage taken for the purpose of social or political change. Many individuals around the world have engaged in powerful journeys and demonstrations in the name of making the world a better place, Peace Pilgrim’s journey is one of the most epic American examples of this kind of pilgrimage, clearly rooted in not only social and political ideas, but deeply spiritual ones as well.
Peace Pilgrim’s journey was similar in style to that of Anonymous, but with a distinctly twentieth century American perspective. She began her pilgrimage on January 1, 1953, and vowed “to remain a wanderer” until humankind has “learned the way of peace” (Pilgrim xiii). She represented no organization or church, travelling as pilgrims did during the Middle Ages, without money, food, and adequate clothing. “I walk until given shelter, fast until given food” (Pilgrim 25). She walked prayerfully, hoping to inspire those people she encountered to also pray and work for peace. She stopped counting the miles in 1964 after having reached 25,000, and at that time she began to speak publicly as well (Pilgrim xiii). Peace Pilgrim explains the series of social and political issues that inspired her journey:
I realized in 1952 that it was the proper time for a pilgrim to step forth. The war in Korea was raging and the McCarthy era was at its height. It was a time when congressional committees considered people guilty until they could prove their innocence. There was great fear at that time and it was safest to be apathetic. Yes, it was most certainly a time for a pilgrim to step forward, because a pilgrim’s job is to rouse people from apathy and make them think. (Pilgrim 24)
As Peace Pilgrim walked across America, she was afforded many opportunities to share her message. Once, a man pulled to the side of the road to ask her, “with all the wonderful opportunities the world has to offer, what under the sun made you get out and walk a pilgrimage for peace?” (Pilgrim 41). “In this day and age,” she answered, “when humanity totters on the brink of a nuclear war of annihilation, it is not surprising that one life is dedicated to the cause of peace - but rather surprising that many lives are not similarly dedicated” (Pilgrim 41). Peace Pilgrim held fast to her vision, and wandered and spoke in the name of peace until the last day of her life.
It seems to be the American way for individuals to create their own paths in the world, to forge their own destinies, and it also seems to have become the American way to create pilgrimage within the same perspective. While the syncretistic pilgrimages in our country follow in the footsteps of similar pilgrimage traditions the world over, both Peace Pilgrim and the Transcendentalists seem to suggest that each person must find his/her own meaning in the world and come to his/her own understandings about what is sacred. The Scaperlandas confirm this idea in their book The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim.
Like the Oklahoma City bombing memorial or the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, local pilgrimage sites need not be designated as “official” pilgrimage sites or even labeled “religious” to be spiritually meaningful ... these places are pilgrimage sites because they not only touch something spiritual but also invite us to be transformed. They are means for us to experience compassion, purpose, beauty, pain, courage - by uniting ourselves to a person, an event, or a pivotal moment in history. (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 62)
Perhaps individualized pilgrimage, then, is the essential pilgrimage tradition in America, since it is free of those traditions created and prescribed by others that may limit the individual’s natural spiritual growth, and allows each person the freedom to find new ways of communing with the sacred.
Finding the Sacred in an Increasingly
Problems with Contemporary Life
In modern secularized culture, there seem to be fewer opportunities for appreciating or celebrating the sacred. Spiritual fulfillment is rarely a priority in the mind of the average twenty-first century seeker, as many people are swept away in a global culture of materialism. While the world has become more technologically advanced, able to accomplish so much in so little time, people are far from relieved of the burdens of their work. Machines have taken over the most labor-intensive tasks, and automation has freed individuals to focus their attention in a much different way, and people are often far busier, yet more lonely than in any previous point in time. Now, people send e-mails or text messages instead of sharing conversations on the front porch. People drive everywhere instead of walking through the neighborhood. The focus of people’s attention has shifted, sped up, and while great convenience has followed these great advances, so has an increased sense of isolation. Psychologist Joanne Wieland-Burston writes about the state of contemporary life:
Our situation is quite different from that of our forefathers. Few today believe in a spiritual world, many live as “strangers in a strange land.” With the heavens empty and nature banished from our urban environment, the fantasy of a commiserating nature is dead for many people. Solitude is a subject of concern to an extent it never before has been ... and it promises to become an even more frequent motive for desperation and desperate acts in the future. (Wieland-Burston 25-26)
It is likely that the changes in the contemporary way of life have brought many people to experience great discontent, and for some, to search for greater meaning in their lives.
Every source that I have drawn from has placed significant emphasis on the problems that accompany the contemporary lifestyle. In the pursuit of increased convenience and supposed well-being, a culture has been created that is often draining and depleting for many people. Sam Keen says it well: “There is something ominous, heavy, and deadly serious in the air these days. The most modern of us have become grave, self-important, and obsessed with work” (Keen 31). People work too hard, too fast, and for too many hours. They struggle to accumulate wealth and material goods that provide only fleeting contentment, and people rarely feel like they even have the time to enjoy what they have, especially in the midst of a culture that is centered on individualism that can often isolate them even further as they continue to pursue increased convenience and well-being. As this exploration continues, I will revisit some of these issues.
Thomas Moore points out one of the key elements that fuels many of these contemporary struggles: the technological advancements of post-industrialized culture. “Everything around us tells us we should be mechanically sophisticated, electronic, quick, and informational in our expressiveness ... we are being urged from every side to become efficient rather than intimate” (Moore xvii). People have become devoted to “productivity, mobility, communications, and information” (Moore 74) and in the process of gaining some freedom from prior cultural traditions, what is lost “can leave wide emotional gaps and holes that may contribute to feelings of emptiness and aimlessness” (Moore 74). The advancements that have promised to bring freedom and efficiency, it seems, may have only contributed to the cult of speed, and people’s lives have suffered a loss of meaning as a result.
While the advancements of technology once suggested that individuals would become freed from seemingly endless work, the opposite has become true. People work longer hours, and harder than ever. Pastor Erwin McManus has explored the problems of contemporary life, and has found that
we often find ourselves in prisons of our own choosing. We hate our jobs. We dream of other opportunities. We become certain that we have missed our true callings or personal destinies. There has been perhaps no time in human history when individuals have had as much opportunity as most Americans do now to ... choose their own lives ... but an overwhelming number of us feel trapped in the lives we’ve created. We find ourselves slaves to our jobs, the clock, and our debt ... our self-imposed slavery goes far deeper than simply the ruts we have trapped ourselves in. The tragedy of our imprisonment reaches into the deepest caverns of our soul. (McManus 10)
As people push themselves to overwork, they fill the hours of their days to the maximum. No longer limited by the rhythms of day and night, people struggle on indefinitely. The clock and the calendar become enemies. The Scaperlandas note the contemporary obsession with daily “to do” lists, sorrows over “wasted time” and “lost” productivity, as well as “interruptions” in people’s daily schedules. Though it is merely a construct of the culture, people often feel that “time is a precious commodity that is slipping away into the past” (Scaperlanda & Scaperlanda 185). Dane Rudhyar further explores this relationship to time, in which “the person perceives time as a commodity which is scarce or possessed in abundance” (Rudhyar 54-55) which depends on “the number of actions one wants or is expected to perform.” Rudhyar notes that “when the greater whole is planetary or biological” time is measured by the rhythm of the natural world, “between sunrise and sunset, between one spring equinox and the next, and even more between birth and death,” which is much more slow paced, and “thus human beings in the past felt time passing rather slowly. By contrast, in modern society, especially in business” the human drive has shifted to thoughts of “success, productivity, and profit” The pace of life “has become abnormally intense and demanding, the individual never seems to have enough time.” What must be remembered is that “the rhythm of planetary motion and the steady flow of the continuum of change has not accelerated” (Rudhyar 54-55). In truth, it is humankind which is “rushing ahead” and which is “out of tune with the rhythm of change” (Rudhyar 54-55). Humanity is rushing past the speed of its own nature.
Many people today feel that they can never accomplish enough, that they can barely fit everything into their busy schedules, and the years feel like they’re passing by all too quickly. Ideas about “success” often dominate people’s lives. While people appear to be accomplishing more than ever, it is worth considering people’s perceived values of these accomplishments, and the depth of their meaning in people’s lives. Sam Keen observes that
The velocity necessary for success exceeds the rate of reflection. The faster events move, the faster we move to try to keep up with them until we are overwhelmed by the escalating pace ... The Speed Demon has created the illusion that we must spin at sixty miles per hour to achieve success. We suffer from the illusion that the faster we run the more likely we are to grasp happiness. (Keen 189)
People accomplish great things, and are more successful today than every before. Yet happiness never comes.
Around the globe, people have become far more concerned with wealth and material gains than union with God. In Java, even though the tradition of ziarah is still strong today, “most of the pilgrims ... hope for tangible, that is, material results” (van Doorn-Harder & de Jong). In twenty-first century America, people’s desires are several steps beyond those of the Javanese. Americans, the “unsatisfied privileged” (Tippett), are bored within their cushy lives, having achieved great material wealth. They live in relative comfort in their sedentary lifestyles, and have lost almost all their sense of adventure. Entering the twenty-first century, many people have begun to realize that this way of life has failed to provide the comfort, convenience, and happiness that it once promised. Roger Housden has observed that
At the dawn of a new millennium the questions of meaning and identity rub sores into the most well-adapted of individuals, for the once-familiar safety nets of religion, family, and ancestral occupation are no longer there to console us when we fall through our illusions about who we are and where we are going. As the certainties fade, we are becoming a hungry people, and for many, the new apartment with the river view or the BMW just doesn't’ fill the gap. (Housden 2)
For years, people continue to go about their lives, living in luxurious misery, in varying degrees, and as Osho states, “you breathe and you eat and you talk and you go to the office every day till death comes and releases you from the boredom that you were carrying your whole life” (Osho 27). How many people yearn to escape? While sitting at their desks, behind the wheel of the car, while taking care of the kids, while washing the dishes, how many times do people think to themselves, “I’ve got to get out of here!”? This desire runs deeper than the need for a weekend away, or even a couple weeks of vacation. It is the desire to escape the patterns of daily life, to break free from the well-established lives to which people are accustomed, and perhaps on some level, to live in a different way altogether. These desires often manifest as wanderlust. Not every person bitten by this desire will follow the passion and fulfill it. In fact, most don’t. Most just shrug it away, denying its message.
The problems don’t disappear, though. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has observed the difficult state of affairs around the globe today, and believes that “awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical ... it’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times” (Chodron 121). As the world becomes a global community, too, people have begun to feel more overcrowded, due to both increased populations and declining freedom and personal space. Osho continues where Chodron left off: “As the world becomes more overcrowded, more and more people are going insane, committing suicide, murders, for the simple reason that they don’t have any space for themselves” (Osho 66). These two spiritual teachers, among many others in a variety of religious traditions, have begun to urge people to look more deeply within themselves in order to rediscover greater meaning in life. Pilgrimage provides one such opportunity.
In Indian culture, there exists a system of thought that allows people to gauge their balance with the world and with themselves. Satish Kumar explains:
Modern civilization induces us to do things for material gain; for money, power, fame or comfort. Because of this we have been taking and taking from each other, from the environment and from our own souls, without any thought of giving back or of replenishment ... In India we are required to practice three principles: yagna, dana and tapas. These are the three replenishing relationships. Through yagna we replenish the earth and nature. Through dana we replenish culture and society, and through tapas we replenish our soul and our spirit ... these ancient principles were as relevant to our modern times as they were in the days when nobody had heard of ecology and sustainability. (Kumar 259)
In India, with its long-standing culture of pilgrimage, making a journey in the spirit of tapas was an appropriate way to find this kind of balance for Kumar. However, in the west, there are few such systems.
Though there is no easy answer and the culture will not change quickly, an increased yearning to find deeper meaning in life has become prevalent in twenty-first century America. People are searching for meaning in themselves, in their communities, and in the world around them. The desire to make a spiritual journey as part of this search has appeared quite strongly in recent years as well. Judith Wieland-Burston shares her observations:
in a world as profane and busy as ours, there is little time or space allowed for solitude, in the sense of time for reflection and meditation. Similarly, there is relatively little interest in spiritual renewal. Nevertheless, the rebirth of the retreat seems to be pointing to a growing need among some relatively few members of the contemporary population, a need for more spirituality, or at least spiritual replenishment. (Wieland-Burston 86-87)
While I would agree with Wieland-Burston’s observation that the majority of people are not seeking spiritual renewal, my own research into contemporary pilgrimage has shown that retreat in the form of pilgrimage is fulfilling the spiritual longings of a proactive minority.
Social and Cultural Changes
Regardless of the angle from which it is approached, it is clear that in the postmodern west, the culture and individual lifestyle has changed in significant ways, and many people are struggling to make sense of their lives. These changes are occurring on a lot of levels, from global to national to regional, and individual people’s lives are suffering the consequences. Judith Wieland-Burston has explored this in her studies of the psychology of solitude. “The crumbling of social structures is a stage of development which seems to belong to the advance of civilization and the development of the individual human psyche. It goes hand in hand with an uprise of individualism” (Wieland-Burston 34). In previous eras of great change, religious and spiritual beliefs and practices were instrumental in negotiating these changes. Wieland-Burston considers that “the socio-spiritual universe used to provide a connective function for its members, then, in times when such a society no longer exists, how is this connective function fulfilled? The answer is too often that it is not fulfilled” (Wieland-Burston 35). In Wieland-Burston’s perspective, this results in a variety of individual emotional and psychological problems that were never as rampant as they are today, since “primitive people could always count on some kind of deeper connection - to the gods, to nature, and to the community. We are more absolutely alone and suffer accordingly.” She continues, suggesting that never before “have the nets which support us - religion and society - been so frail and unreliable” (Wieland-Burston 37). The absence of a clear framework for facilitating the creation of meaningful spiritual connections is possibly the root of much of people’s unhappiness today, and is often the basis for their spiritual search.
Many people might argue that western culture still holds strongly to its religious heritage, primarily rooted in Christianity. British writer and fellow pilgrim John Brierley has found evidence to the contrary:
Recent headlines reveal the collapse in attendance at virtually all Christian churches, of every denomination ... the sharp decline in numbers attending Mass is matched by the drop in those entering the priesthood which has halved in the past two decades. It appears that this decline is continuing at an accelerating rate. It has even been suggested by a leading Christian moderator that we have become both bored and disillusioned with the religion we have been fed since childhood. There seems little doubt that the faithful are looking for a more authentic spiritual experience than they currently receive (Brierley, Camino Frances 39)
Brierley attributes the current state of “spiritual aridity” to the “rampant materialism” of western culture, which is “unparalleled in human history” (Brierley, Camino Frances 39). He also notes that “In this same period the numbers entering the Camino de Santiago has soared and the pilgrim figures have risen tenfold in a decade ... This is phenomenal and unprecedented. How do we interpret these trends” (Brierley, Camino Frances 39)?
Philosopher Dane Rudhyar has assembled a philosophy that attempts to capture the essence of these changes that are currently taking place. First, he observes that “Human knowledge constantly changes” (Rudhyar 5). As this knowledge changes, people must form interpretations of this new knowledge, and even those interpretations evolve, since the individual and cultural values and frames of reference evolve as well (Rudhyar 5). As people’s understanding of the world changes, they also change, and as people change, they enact further changes in the world. The cycle continues. Second, human values and frames of reference are rooted in culture, which has historically been the realm of religion “and the set of symbols, images, myths, rites, values, attitudes, and beliefs which constitute its collectively accepted interpretations of reality and approach to existence” (Rudhyar 5). As human interpretations evolve, cultures mature, and “Eventually, when the integrity and consistency of its psychic core breaks down under the introduction of facts or factors it cannot assimilate, it disintegrates” (Rudhyar 5). Essentially, as this process cycles around, cultures are born, grow, and disintegrate.
Rudhyar identifies three periods of development that frame these cycles, often overlapping. Each one is characterized by its own particular understanding of the world, as well as its own particular means of negotiating with the world. First is
the animistic approach ... to survive means to deal successfully with the unceasing challenges presented by an inimical biosphere ... primitive peoples infer that these recurring, recognizable challenges are produced by “entities” ...they have to be overcome or controlled by force or cunning, or they have to be propitiated by gifts ... animistic cults regulate the relationships human beings should have with the many spirits operating in their environment (Rudhyar 6-7)
the vitalistic approach ... develops when agriculture and animal husbandry come to dominate the lives of at least the most advanced groups of human beings ... agriculture and animal husbandry are based upon the collectively experienced power of multiplication inherent in certain kinds of natural entities. This capacity for multiplication is called life. (Rudhyar 7-8)
And finally, “Pleroma” (Rudhyar 9-10), an idealistic, and yet unachieved state of existence that is a state of spiritual interdependence beyond the confines of culture and individuality. Rudhyar explores the middle ground between the vitalistic and pleroma states in which humanity is currently struggling: “the individualism dominating human consciousness and activities today constitutes an intermediary stage of evolution between the vitalistic approach to reality and a higher mode of being” and humanity “as a whole is now passing through this intermediary stage” (Rudhyar 9-10). This seems to be right on track with the ideas regarding the state of modern society that have been presented so far.
As humanity passes through this individualistic stage, it is not only the structures of culture that are changing. These changes are deeply felt by each individual as “a great variety of psychic, emotional, personal, and intellectual needs” (Rudhyar 4). The process of adapting to the changing culture has been pushed beyond the natural rhythms of adaptation, since, according to Rudhyar,
this transformation has been occurring under the pressure of the industrial and electronic revolutions, which in turn both resulted from and intensified the development of a historically new kind of consciousness - the personalized and mentalized consciousness of “individuals” intent on asserting a centralized and autonomous type of activity. (Rudhyar 4)
Essentially, as the culture enters into a state of rapid transformation, people experience it most powerfully on the individual level, but the very process of adaptation is challenged as well. This is the essence of the changing paradigm that Rudhyar suggests that people are currently experiencing on a global level.
While Rudhyar’s philosophy about the evolution of humanity is one of many that have appeared in the last few decades, it seems to settle well with Wieland-Burston’s ideas about currently crumbling social structures, and the search for spiritual connection that has resulted. As people’s religious and spiritual frameworks have begun to fall apart, they have continued to search for meaning in the world. Pilgrimage routes and sacred sites all over the world, including ancient ones like the Camino de Santiago, have increased in popularity in spite of the growing lack of connection many people have experienced to traditional forms and beliefs of religion. Indeed, John Brierley’s question is most pertinent when considering the current state of western culture. “How do we interpret these trends” (Brierley, Camino Frances 39)? A valid question, indeed, and not a simple one to consider.
Pilgrimage and Modernization
Life and culture are vastly different today than in the golden age of pilgrimage. Victor Turner elaborates:
whatever their origin, pilgrimages have never been immune from the influences exerted by subsequent periods, with their modes of thought and politics, patterns of trade, military developments, and the ecological changes brought about by these and other forces. (Turner & Turner 19)
As cultures have changed, both people’s approaches to pilgrimage, as well as the pilgrimage destinations themselves have changed. While pilgrimage was traditionally a form of moving meditation involving a lengthy journey taken on foot, today many pilgrimages have been modernized and the need for walking a long way has been rendered unnecessary. Travel, though, remains an essential element of making a pilgrimage.
With the implementation of social infrastructures, approaching sacred destinations has become a much less arduous and time-consuming process. In New Mexico, pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo “exploded after the end of world War II, and the newly paved roads were an important factor in improving communications and transportation” (Howarth & Lamadrid 23). This sort of development has been consistent all over the world, making pilgrimage more accessible to everyone.
Along with the ease of approaching pilgrimage destinations, though, has come the development of a new kind of spiritual tourism, which often threatens the very integrity of pilgrimage itself. Architect and accidental pilgrim Anthony Lawlor observes the ways that spiritual tourism has often trivialized the essence of pilgrimage. “We’ve turned the ecstatic possibilities of pilgrimage into something tame like trips to Disneyland ... what we’re doing is creating predominantly an illusion of pilgrimage in pop culture, an illusion of being there” (Cousineau 118). Often the sacred destination is revitalized for the sake of attracting more spiritual tourists, as well. Phil Cousineau shares the experience of Michael Guillen’s journey to the palace of Knossus on Crete:
I felt very little at the site itself because of all the crowds and the meddling that had been done with the restoration; the only real power I felt was in the surrounding land. I felt that the site had been transmogrified, and that the only spirits left were in the objects in the museum. I suppose this is the danger of mass pilgrimage, the loss of spirit at the site, especially when the gods flee to higher and higher places. (Cousineau 146)
I experienced a similar reaction while travelling in China, most notably in Beijing. Every palace and temple had been immaculately restored and freshly painted, and this left a feeling of plasticky-newness, as if these ancient places had been built last week. The sense of atmosphere and mystique had been thoroughly destroyed in the course of rampant tourism.
As John Brierley previously mentioned, the Camino de Santiago has enjoyed a significant increase in popularity among pilgrims in the last few decades. He has suggested that more and more people have chosen to fulfill their spiritual quests along this ancient road. However, he also acknowledges the role that tourism might play in this renewed popularity, suggesting “the more cynical might point to tourism, now the single largest industry in the world, as the reason for the sudden rise in interest in the Camino de Santiago ... but the ancient way itself is less susceptible to commercialization” (Brierley, Camino Frances 40). He also points out that as more and more people choose to journey as pilgrims, a growth in spiritual tourism is bound to occur (Brierley, Camino Frances 40). Victor Turner also identifies the inevitable connection in contemporary culture between pilgrimage and tourism:
a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist. Even when people bury themselves in anonymous crowds on beaches, they are seeking an almost sacred, often symbolic, mode of communitas, generally unavailable to them in the structured life of the office, the shop floor, or the mine. Even when intellectuals, Thoreau-like, seek the wilderness in personal solitude, they are seeking the material multiplicity of nature, a life source. (Turner & Turner 20)
To take Turner’s idea a bit further, connecting it with the problems that people are experiencing within contemporary life, I believe that it is possible that within every tourist is the seed of a pilgrim, just waiting for something to spark him/her into a journey that will lead far beyond a vacation to the beach, beyond a break from the office. When the time is right, this journey can lead the pilgrim along a path of discovery that will deeply change him/her, refreshing his/her connection to spirit and the meaning of life.
Often, the journey of the solitary wanderer has been replaced by the tour bus filled with spiritual tourists. There are certainly elements of this kind of travel that foster aspects of pilgrimage. Phil Cousineau notes the sense of communitas that often grows among these tour groups, which is considered to be a fundamental element of pilgrimage according to some spiritual leaders and anthropologists, including Victor Turner. “By their nature, pilgrimages are a confluence of many peoples from many cultures” (Cousineau 168). This sense of community is often lacking in ordinary life, as expressed by Chimayo pilgrim Raymond Jones, “to me the miracle is the whole idea of just being able to be together with people and having everybody just be together in the spirit of prayer. Especially in these times and days in the world” (Howarth & Lamadrid). However, in their essence, these package-tour pilgrimages simply don’t fit any of the fundamental definitions of pilgrimage stated previously:
“a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.”
Cousineau offers a reminder that the word sacred is the key to a sacred journey, and “the word sacred comes from sacrifice, to cut up ... in order to have a sacred journey, you have to give up something, sacrifice; but few people today in the West want to hear about that” (Cousineau 119). Many people choose the easy way, opting for the pilgrimage tour, since the easy way is often the preferred way in American culture. The easy way, though, isn’t the way of pilgrimage. Joseph Campbell emphasizes the heart of the pilgrimage experience, which is easily lost in the culture of spiritual tourism. “In this culture of easy religion, cheaply achieved, it seems that we’ve forgotten that all three of the great religions teach that the trials of the hero journey are a significant part of it, that there’s no reward without renunciation and without price” (Campbell). While it is possible that the spiritual tourist may experience deep transformation as the result of his/her journey, it is noteworthy to consider that only one of the sources that I have consulted in my research was written by someone who participated in pilgrimage as part of a tour.
Recovering Spirituality Through Pilgrimage
In his categorization of the types of pilgrimage that have occurred throughout history, Victor Turner notes the development of modern pilgrimage:
particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such pilgrimages are characterized by a highly devotional tone and the fervent personal piety of their adherents, and they form an important part of the system of apologetics deployed against the advancing secularization of the post-Darwinian world ... this category we term modern pilgrimage ... postmedieval. In tone, these pilgrimages are actually antimodern, since they usually begin with an apparition, or vision, and they assert that miracles do happen. (Turner & Turner 18-19)
The type of pilgrimage Turner is referring to, deeply religious and tied to a particular religious institution, is vastly different from the varieties of pilgrimage that have begun to occur all over the world in response to the changes that are occurring in contemporary culture. While many of these journeys carry an element of spiritual tourism, the key difference is that they are all deeply rooted in the personal growth and understanding of the individual, and fall well within the parameters of the expansive definitions of pilgrim and pilgrimage that have already been discussed.
Though few pilgrims today engage in journeys as epic in nature as those of the pilgrim heroes, Anonymous and Tsang, many people do engage in pilgrimages made in much the same spirit. In his article, “Travelling With a Sense of Passion and Wonder,” Len Biallas outlines some of the ways that spiritual minded travellers can create their own pilgrimages by bringing a more conscious set of intentions to their travels. He suggests that many people usually travel in order to escape the trials of daily life, to relax, but rarely look beyond that to the “spiritual significance of our experiences” (Biallas). The destination is less important than the journey and the perspective one takes on that journey. A pilgrimage could just as easily be a national park as a foreign country, the streets of a busy city as a Buddhist temple (Biallas). Clearly, Biallas is tuned-in to the desires of many twenty-first century pilgrims who have “become so spiritually dehydrated that we are now desperate to drink directly from the Divine Well itself” (Brierley, Camino Frances 39).
As previously mentioned, travel is an integral part of pilgrimage. Biallas continues: “Travel is a vital tool for educating ourselves about the world. Even more important, travel is crucial for our spiritual wholeness” (Biallas). During pilgrimage, the world offers a continuous stream of potential lessons. While these lessons may also appear in daily life, many people are far too consumed with day-to-day existence to even notice. While travelling, everything around a person is new, and the mundane tasks of life are suspended. When a person travels as a pilgrim, s/he has a greater opportunity to contemplate those lessons and integrate them into his/her life. Carolyn Craft, an Episcopal priest and religious scholar, made a pilgrimage journey to Thailand. “My chief motive ... was to learn more about Thai religion and culture, especially the beliefs and practices of ordinary people” (Craft). In the midst of ruined Buddhist temples and the extraordinary landscape of rural Thailand, she found herself contemplating what she, as an American, considered sacred space, as well as the purpose of that sacred space. While she travelled as part of a tour, and her journey was by no means physically demanding, her willingness to internalize her experiences and her genuine desire to understand Thai Buddhism in relation to her own spirituality allowed her to transcend the average tourist experience (Craft).
While “the exploration of another belief system and the achievement of some kind of affinity with it is a distinctively modern feature” (Coleman & Elsner / Petsalis-Diomidis 101), it has become the desire of many westerners to journey as pilgrims to cultures and countries in which they are outsiders. This desire to journey as an outsider is rooted in a couple of different ideas. First, if those familiar cultures don’t provide the experiences of sacred connection and transcendence that people yearn for, many people choose to seek it elsewhere. It has already been mentioned that in modern western culture personal experiences of the transcendent are lacking. Sam Keen elaborates on the use of sacred plants that have fulfilled this need in some cultures:
premodern tribes created rites, ceremonies, and ordeals that frequently made use of psychotropic drugs to give adolescents an experience of ecstatic self- transcendence. When our society fails to create such ordeal that provide access to the mystical realm beyond the pedestrian reality of nine-to-five, we practically guarantee that there will be a market for those substances that alter consciousness. Humankind cannot live by bread and business alone. We have an instinctual need for self-transcendence and ecstasy. (Keen 156)
Keen suggests that people seek to experience the transcendent in a variety of ways, and this frequently includes choosing to journey within a culture that offers the ritual experience of ecstasy. Often, when people find no other means of feeling high, they find ecstasy and self-transcendence in the use and subsequent abuse of chemicals, and in contemporary American culture drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have become major problems. When Alberto Villoldo embarked on his first journey to Peru, he wanted to experience ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew made in the depths of the Amazon, and typically administered as part of a sacred ritual with a master shaman.
I traded my laboratory for a pair of hiking boots and a ticket to the Amazon. I set off to learn from researchers whose vision had not been confined to the lens of a microscope, from people whose body of knowledge encompassed more than the measurable, material world that I had been taught was the only reality. I wanted to meet the people who sensed the spaces between things and perceived the luminous strands that animate all life. (Villoldo 14)
While his fascination was initially more scientific than spiritual, the journey changed his life.
The second reason that many westerners choose to journey as outsiders is related to the fact that North America is a patchwork of traditions and cultures from all over the world. Having no clear sense of cultural identity often manifests as a sense of feeling disconnected, of having no roots. Often this leads people to journey as pilgrims in search of a deeper sense of home. This was certainly the case for Adrian Ivakhiv, Ukrainian-American environmentalist and scholar of Paganism, who grew up in Canada in a household still rooted in the traditions of his immigrant parents. His own pilgrimages took him to sacred places around the world, and he was particularly drawn to sacred sites that are surrounded by beautiful, mystical landscapes (Tippett). His journeys eventually took him to the Ukraine as well. Ivakhiv discussed his experiences and ideas about sacred travel in an interview with Krista Tippett during “Speaking of Faith” in March 2006, and he shared that his travels have essentially been about finding a greater sense of his place in the world, and to was in the process of his journeys that his own spiritual path became clear (Tippett).
Many pilgrims in North America are seeking their roots in much the same way Ivakhiv did, seeking a sense of place in the world, a sense of connectedness. Perhaps some people learn best about themselves and their cultures by immersing themselves in cultures that are different from their own. Long before I was a pilgrim wanderer I was one of many contemplative people who felt lost in the patchwork culture of postmodern America. I had rejected many parts of my life, including my childhood home and family, preferring to establish a life of my own. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, I have often felt a stronger desire to embrace foreign places and cultures while rejecting my own. I believe that that this tendency common in American culture as people are free to define themselves. Somewhere in the process of redefining themselves, though, people have become overly independent, and American culture has reinforced this chasm that separates people from each other, which is felt as a sense of deep unrest, a deep longing for connection, and emptiness.
In my journey to Peru, I spent several days working with a young shaman named Puma. He guided me through many ancient sacred sites around Cusco, teaching me ancient Andean spiritual traditions along the way. He believed that many people have lost the intuitive ability to connect with sacred places on earth. They’ve simply forgotten. Perhaps some people who feel drawn to make pilgrimages to sacred places are attempting to re-establish that connection. By making this connection in the world, people often reconnect with the sense of the sacred within themselves. Ivakhiv shares his understanding of this: “It’s not about that place, necessarily, it’s about a place in our hearts that’s feeling a kind of emptiness” (Tippett). That emptiness is the manifestation of the longing for connection, whether it is experienced as the desire to reconnect with one’s roots, with nature, or with God.
Since people in the west are no longer bound to the institutional forms of pilgrimage in the quest for spiritual wisdom, they are free to define the sacred in more personal ways and choose pilgrimages that fulfill their deepest needs. Many people, in the tradition of the Transcendentalists, have found that they find the greatest sense of connection to the divine while in the natural world. John Brierley believes that one of the reasons that the Camino de Santiago has grown in popularity is because of the vast, unspoiled expanses of countryside that surround much of the path. He elaborates:
When asked where, when or how ... an altered state of consciousness is felt, an overwhelming majority referred to a time alone in nature. ‘A sunrise over the forest, a solitary walk in fresh powder snow, a meditation at full moon.’ It was not the sun or the moon themselves that created the shift in perception but they reflected a wider perspective ... this is where the Camino path can provide such a powerful catalyst to our own awakening. (Brierley, Camino Frances 40)
This, too, is still the most powerful element in the pilgrimage to Chimayo in New Mexico. “Despite changing times and changing devotions, the tradition of the healing earth of Chimayo continues to be the main attraction for pilgrims” (Howarth & Lamadrid 23). In both of these pilgrimages, the environment through which one passes reflects the pilgrim’s attention inward, bringing along the peace and beauty of the natural landscape.
Not everyone follows a mystical, ancient path to a sacred destination. However, the desire to engage in pilgrimage and spiritual practice are deeply rooted within many people. While Sam Keen made frequent journeys to meet and practice with the gurus in the world of trapeze arts, his own moving pilgrimage covered little land but much airspace. In his book Learning to Fly, Sam Keen takes his readers along on his adventure of learning the flying trapeze, which he approached as a beginner in his early sixties. Though he does journey throughout the U. S. in search of the wisdom of the greatest living trapeze artists, his deepest journey of spiritual discovery occurs within himself as he flies, falls, flips, and reflects. Indeed, his practice of trapeze arts were his vehicle for spiritual discovery in much the same way that walking has been in my experience: an intensely physical challenge that unifies the body and spirit while interrupting the mind in its usual patterns of thought. Keen shares his discovery: “It never occurred to me that the education of muscle, tendon, and sinew might be necessary to teach the spirit to soar. I was a captive of the prejudice against the body that has infected Western religion from its inception” (Keen 7). In this way, perhaps it is important to consider pilgrimage a moving meditation, and that travel is merely one way this is manifest. Keen’s contemplative nature undoubtedly lured greater meaning from his practice of the trapeze, offering him spiritual insight, and he realized that “what appealed to me about the examined life and religious mysticism was not very different from the lure of the trapeze. All promised freedom, release from the mundane - a winged existence” (Keen 7). Keen has noted an important connection here, the connection between the physical journey taken in the world, and the inner journey that accompanies it, haunting, taunting, and eventually transforming many spiritual seekers and pilgrims. This connection forms the basis of my exploration in Part II, A Closer Look: The Inner Labyrinth of Pilgrimage.