On pilgrims and pilgrimage

As many have intimated or said outright, it is not necessarily the destination that makes the pilgrimage worthwhile, it is the journey the pilgrim makes. Both the words “pilgrimage” and “journey” also suggest metaphors of change and enlightenment, much as one sees in Augustine’s Confessions or the Chinese Buddhist legend of Monkey. In both cases we see individuals who are searching for meaning, and once they embark upon their respective pilgrimages, they begin to have new experiences and become open to change through the contemplative process that is stimulated by the journey. The journey is both literal and metaphorical as the pilgrim, through new experiences, experiences an epiphany of one sort or another. Once upon a time, all pilgrimages were made on foot, and the pilgrim walked to wherever they were going, so they could feel their journey with every step they took. Again, each step nudges at the human subconscious, imbuing meaning into both the journey and life. Perhaps today the idea of pilgrimage is anachronistic and worn out given the fast-paced nature of contemporary society. Cars, planes, trains and moving sidewalks have taken the sting out of the journey, shortened it, sanitized it, and demystified it. Baseball fans might go to Cooperstown. Fans of the Bard might go to Stratford on Avon. Beatles aficionados would go to Liverpool and so on. I went to Pare Lachaise cemetery in Paris to see the gravesite of Jim Morrison, and marvel at, if not recall, the nihilist drug culture decadence of the late sixties. Pilgrimage is, of course, a simulacrum of life—simulated on a micro-scale in a semi-controlled environment with a predictable outcome—a vicarious, but quasi-real experience with a predictable outcome, arrival at the pilgrimage site, which is the desired result. There is no mystery in making a journey, even going to the other side of the globe. I went on a pilgrimage to see Graceland, a journey that involved a plane, then a car, then a bus, but I finally did walk around Elvis’ house, and the experience was amazing, a pilgrimage into the dark side of American pop culture and savage unbridled capitalism, enormous white sofas, and carpeted ceilings. Every American should make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime if for no other reason than to go and see and feel and breathe the air and have a new experience. Seeing Graceland was okay, but the getting to Graceland was priceless. The question of turning the pilgrim and their pilgrimage into a metaphor for life seems to touch on the fundamental anxiety of being human and giving life meaning. There is a fundamental human concerning the meaning of life, a sort of existential angst that haunts everyone as they go about their daily routines, looking for meaning in what they do and what happens to them. Choosing pilgrim/pilgrimage as a metaphor automatically imbues life with an external meaning, a journey to heaven, a journey to salvation. Pilgrimage seems to be an important human practice to which people turn to give meaning to their lives. I am talking about pilgrims who are making a journey, some going to Mecca, others going to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela, still others going to Canterbury. Pilgrimages come in many sizes and shapes, some short, others long, some sacred, many profane. Many Catholics go to a plethora of sites across the Middle East and Europe in search of a miracle, a mystical experience, a chance to be closer to God, all the while overlaying their own life and desires with a meta-narrative that reduces the chaotic, arbitrary nature of life. By accepting the socio-religious parameters of the pilgrimage–destination, route, penitence, effort, suffering, and contemplation–the pilgrim is guided by external rules, which impose both purpose and discipline. Once the pilgrimage has begun, the pilgrim does not necessarily have to make a lot of personal decisions, most of which have been pre-set by the rules of the pilgrimage. This activity turns into a metaphor when applied to the wider problem of any entire life. As John Dagenais suggests in his article “Medieval Pilgrimage to Compostela on the Information Highway,” “Berceo, the medieval poet from the monastery of San Millán used pilgrimage as a metaphor for human life in his Milagros de Nuestro Señora: we are all pilgrims on the road of life” (147) Readers, poets, philosophers all readily accept this metaphor for life because it reveals a profound truth about our own anxiety about the nature and meaning of life that is mysterious and puzzling. How does one imbue life with meaning? The practice of pilgrimage nudges at the human subconscious, giving meaning to the capricious and chaotic nature of daily life, which can often have a fractured, non-linear polymorphous appearance, inexplicable and without a clear meaning or objective. The beauty of the pilgrim/pilgrimage metaphor is that it comes pre-packaged with a pre-determined set of religious/ethical/moral meanings that are clearly recognizable to all. So if you want to tell a story about a fornicating or shipwrecked pilgrim, your audience will have no trouble locating that narrative within a certain set of ethical and religious narratives and give the narrative meaning. Does life or doesn’t it have meaning beyond the day-to-day quotidian happenstance of ordinary existence. A journey has form, and since it has form, it has meaning. Is this the point where supernatural mysticism becomes more meaningful than rational empiricism?