Newsbreak! Denise’s book on our pilgrimage through France on the way to Santiago is now available. Entitled Walking through Sunflowers: through Deepest France on the Road to Compostela, the electronic version is available on lulu.com; the print version is also available there, and is also on sale at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and other outlets.
Pilgrimage. Is it necessary?
Is it true? Is it helpful? In Buddhism, these questions are guidelines to “right speech”. Before saying anything, the speaker should reflect on whether the utterance is needful, truthful or useful. If not, better keep quiet.
No, but it’s helpful…
The same questions might be put to the fraught issue of pilgrimage. Although a feature of all the major religions, the practice has been hotly debated. Erasmus and other critics railed against abusing the faithful by luring them to (often fake) relics only to be fleeced by both ecclesiastical and lay profiteers. Mystics consistently point out that the true path is within, not somewhere else. Jesus himself says that the Kingdom of God is within you. And St. Benedict, father of western monasticism, was scathing in his condemnation of gyrovagues, or wandering monks, for abusing the hospitality of settled monasteries and failing to develop inner stability.
And yet Benedict himself orders particular hospitality for pilgrims. Jesus seems to have walked a lot. Beyond the profit motive, the major religions generally have supported pilgrimage for edification. And the early Irish monks wandered as a form of “white martyrdom”, though in their case it was often exile either to their some isolated spot where they would spend the rest of their lives or, later, to the missionary field in Europe. The Brendan voyage seems a bit exceptional. Brendan wasn’t a missionary, nor does he stay to live on the Promised Isle. Had he hoped to? Did he just want to be sure it existed? Or did he conceive the visit as a change, a sort of refrigerium? Was he a pilgrim, explorer or extended vacationer?
Such mixed motives seem to apply to modern pilgrimage. In recent years we have walked several of the old routes to Compostela. We’ve met people who approach the Camino as a cheap vacation, those who sing hymns while walking, those for whom it’s an exploration, those who seek God in each step—sometimes all wrapped up in one individual. We’ve found the experience mind-changing each time. Walking joins us to the millions who passed this way before us, indeed to all our nomadic prehistory. It joins body to mind and mind to heart. Slowing down to a human pace, paring down your needs to what you can carry on your back all day, giving and receiving from others on the way, always with a sacred destination in mind (and its “authenticity” doesn’t seem to be that important)—why, it’s the spiritual journey made flesh.
So, no, it isn’t necessary—most people do just fine without it—but it is helpful. Stability may be a cardinal virtue, but it can also become a rut, just as addiction to pilgrimage can indicate lost bearings (we’ve seen that too). Pilgrimage is one of several practices that can help you find perspective, re-learn what is truly important, and re-orient yourself to the Divine. We hope it will be one of our regular practices.