What Is a Pilgrimage, Anyway?

When I first suggested that our youth trip to the 2012 UU General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona be called a “pilgrimage,” I’ll admit I had to figuratively gird up my loins to even say that word in public — and, no less, in a largely humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation.  I braced myself for resistance, argument, even scorn.  And then I was caught off-guard when my suggestion of promoting the “Pilgrimage to Phoenix” was met with ready approval.  Perhaps you can imagine my bewilderment some weeks later when I mentioned our “trip” to Phoenix, and a congregant gently corrected me, asking if I was aware that the youth were calling it a pilgrimage!

Pilgrimage.  What does that word even mean?

In the United States, it’s hard to mention pilgrims without conjuring up images of our historical ancestors of nearly 400 years ago, dressed all in black with funny hats (and buckles, as any kindergartener who has done a craft project at Thanksgiving can tell you). And for those whose days of construction paper projects are long past, it’s sometimes easy to get the pilgrims of the 1600’s (who started coming over to North America on the Mayflower) confused with the pioneers of the 1800’s (who ventured into the American West in covered wagons).

But how many people today think of themselves as pilgrims?  When I returned from Phoenix in 2010 after getting arrested protesting the day SB1070 went into effect, it took me a long time to find words to describe the sacredness of my experience.  It felt counter-cultural, like an act of rebellion, to even tell myself, in my own head, that I had been on a pilgrimage.  Eventually, I shyly used that word with a few people who, I was confident, wouldn’t shun me for being an oddball.  But if I had been on a pilgrimage, did that make me a pilgrim?  How could I claim that identity without feeling vaguely ridiculous?  After all, I don’t own any clothing with buckles.

And to take it a step further — how does one go about telling other people that their trip is going to be a pilgrimage?  Or that they, themselves, are pilgrims?

And how in the world does one follow through delivering on that promise?  Is it possible to make someone else’s trip into a pilgrimage?  I’m sure it can be done, because I’ve met people who have gone on organized pilgrimages before — to Malta, for example.  (Now that we’re leaving in two days, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been helpful for me to research some of these other travel itineraries, looking for clues that will tell me “How to Make Someone Else’s Journey into a Spiritual Pilgrimage.”)

Part of me wonders if the idea of calling our journey a “pilgrimage” was readily accepted because our destination started with the same letter.  Pilgrimage to Phoenix.  P2P.  Kind of catchy, which is good for fundraising.

But pilgrims existed long before the Mayflower was built.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been pilgrims — people with a longing to venture over the horizon and into the unknown mystery, on a journey of the spirit to bring back knowledge to the people, or to find enlightenment, or to quest for an answer.  If you take away the funny buckles, and replace them with saffron robes, or with sandals and a walking stick, or with a knapsack and a song, or with bare feet and an empty bowl, you begin to come closer to the essence of a pilgrim, rather than the cartoonish approximation to which Americans have been so often exposed.

A couple months ago, a chaplain recommended a wonderful book to me, titled The Art of Pilgrimage, by Phil Cousineau.  I was so glad to get my hands on it.  The prose is overflowing with rich imagery, poetic language, and ideas that tease the imagination as well as the spirit.  I recommended this book to the other chaperones who are coming to Phoenix, and I gave a copy to the minister at our church as well.  I’ve used it for readings during a church service, as opening or closing words in group meetings with adults and with youth, as journal prompts, and as meditation guides during a labyrinth walk.  If you are looking for a way to deepen your own experience of being in the world, I recommend it to you as well, dear reader.

The book began to give me language to describe the longing behind the journey.  Pilgrimage, I’ve come to believe, is a way of moving with your heart open.  When the unknown catches up with you, the only way to find peace is to follow the mystery out into the world.  A pilgrim is prodded into a restive state by some internal voice, somehow being called to step forward into the questions.  The journey isn’t about learning facts or finding answers.  Instead, the journey is as much internal as it is external.  It is a journey of the heart and the spirit as much as it is of the mind and the body.  It is a journey of intention as much as organization.

Like a riddle, the pilgrim’s experience can only be spoken around; unable to be defined with something as clumsy as words, it can only be perceived by its shape within the language surrounding it.

I have the feeling that if you, dear reader, understand what I’m trying to say, then it is because you have had such an experience — such a pilgrimage — yourself.  If you have not moved through the world in such a way as I am trying to describe, I suspect that my words come across as nonsense.

And such is the case with my wonderful, brave, amazing group of pilgrims with whom I will be journeying for 15 days.  How can I ask them to comprehend what a pilgrimage is — what such a journey will demand of them — when they have no experience of such a thing?  I speak to them about the “spiritual journey,” and I absolutely know that they get glimmers of what I’m talking about.  I ask them to write or talk about what it means to be a pilgrim, and I can see them grappling with the question.

But how can I ask a person to discuss the finer points of Bach’s concertos when they have never been exposed to classical music?  Or to explain how the Cahokia Mounds rivaled the Great Pyramid, when the person has never seen or read about either one?

I think back four years ago, to who I was before I even thought of attending seminary, and if someone had started talking to me about spiritual journeys and my pilgrim identity, I would have stared at them like they’d grown a second head.  My pilgrim companions are already leagues ahead of where I was then!

I am realizing, only two days before we take to the road, what a huge spiritual undertaking this is — not only for my companions, but also for me — and I am awed and humbled at the prospect of what we might experience together in the coming weeks.  How will we be opened?  How will we be challenged?  How will we be healed?

When we return to Minnesota on June 28, how will we be changed?

So if you are the praying type, dear reader, please hold us in your thoughts and hearts as our little band of pilgrims sets out in the early morning sunlight on June 14, 2012.  I think we’re in for quite a ride.



About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
This entry was posted in 2012 Phoenix (Youth Pilgrimage) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Is a Pilgrimage, Anyway?

  1. Laurie Moser says:

    I love the word and the meaning behind Pilgrimage. I have done two Pilgrimages in my life, one for my 30th birthday to explore my celtic/Irish roots and one for my 33rd birthday to prepare myself to meet my soul mate. And both worked and both changed my life for the better. I can’t imagine that you can come back from such a journey unchanged. So go with blessing and enjoy the ride!

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