I’m taking a class this term called “The Pastor as Pilgrim.”
It’s off to a slow start, mostly due to it needing to be reconfigured from a travel seminar, but I’m amused to note that the booklist and materials-list has a 75%+ overlap with what I already have. Mostly the books are on my, “Oh! Definitely gonna read that someday!” list… and guess what, here we are.
My first consideration of pilgrimage happened in high school, with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Excerpts thereof, in translation. I went on to study it in the original in college — we English majors had to take either Shakespeare or Chaucer, and the Shakespeare prof’s class had practically a semester-long waitlist. I’d rather take the road less traveled… it’s quieter there, and easier to think.
Chaucer’s portrayal of pilgrimage, though, is much more “package tour” than penitential rite. They’re on horses, for starters — the cushy cruisers of the time. And, as I recall, none of the pilgrims voice a desire for religious transformation as spurring their trek. It’s more of a socially acceptable adventure for them.
That makes them much like the pilgrims featured in Emilio Estevez’s film The Way, which My Sweetie and I rewatched for my class assignment. My Sweetie’s been interested in trekking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, for a few years now, so we’d watched this under-rated film a while back. It holds up. Under my current circumstances, the thoroughly secular motivations — at least as the characters speak them — is striking. The film quietly questions these, but offers no answers.
Why are you traveling the Camino? …No one ever travels the Camino de Santiago by accident.
Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is all cruise-ship excursion. The Way’s protagonists offer unanchored self-help motivations. I’ve been to a lecture from a faith-motivated wearer of the scallop shell, heard her describe her weariness, her torn and blistered feet. I’ve hiked an 8-hour day in broken boots myself, barely able to persist in putting each foot forward. Persisting in a pilgrimage of that kind requires an inner spur, one that is no accident.
This class, though, was never about the Compostela. Our travel was planned for Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, with any hiking done by the day… though I hadn’t noticed that when I signed up. I just noticed: “pilgrim.”
Why are you traveling the pilgrimage?
Walking the Camino, and in the film, I see that part of what makes the trek pilgrimage is the depth of its tradition… but the larger part is how it calls out persistence despite suffering. Discomfort, too, but most of the tales I’ve heard involve anguish.
I thought about this as I watched. Exhaustion goes a long way to stripping one’s skills… in conflict management, in self-soothing, in (if that’s where you are) walling-off or ignoring one’s difficulties or darkness. Sharing spaces across time with others will collapse private and public in ways the reserved among us will likely resent. Enforced time with oneself, with no activities or distractions, means those inner struggles will bubble up. I studied The Cloud of Unknowing last spring; I’ve followed a 5-day Ignatian Exercises… “no matter where you go, there you are.”*
Why are you traveling the pilgrimage? And how is this different from retreat?
Right now, I don’t know.
I suspect that pilgrimage retains a quality of motion, from here to there, or else it would be hermitage, monasticism — the disciplines of stability, staying in place.
I wonder whether pilgrimage requires the body in motion. Whether driving or flying abrogate some needed condition—the pilgrim needs to expend body-energy in going from here to there.
Does pilgrimage require destination? My writer-self says of course not; opening oneself to transformation is inner work, and in pilgrim-tales they tend to note their surprise that the destination was beside the point. But my growing curiosity about embodied theologies says, well, all pilgrimages seem to have them, so perhaps they matter to our matter?
I also wonder: in this deeply transactional, outcome-driven society I’m embedded in… is pilgrimage something that also moves to outcomes? Does it stand apart from them?
And as the wind/breath of the Holy Spirit travels, how is the pilgrim to wait, or let the air move through?
These days I know I’m — metaphorically — walking out of this Master’s: just this plus one more semester! And I have been walking into a doctoral program… next year… except that the ways I’d thought I’d be heading toward that all feel stalled. Together, My Sweetie and I are walking out of the residue of child-rearing life and into the time when he is retired from chip-making. Mostly I want to walk toward where God would have me be — which I’ve thought I knew, but I’ve been so dramatically wrong before that I’m unwilling to push.
My life was already liminal; I knew that. This part of the pandemic is itself profoundly liminal — no “new normal”’s, please.
Perhaps, then, this is the right time to make this trek.
*Buckaroo Banzai, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai