Written by Phil Cousineau
Pilgrims are poets who create
By taking journeys.
-Richard R. Niebuhr
According to the dictionary, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peligrinus, meaning foreigner or wayfarer. It refers to the journey of a person who travels to a shrine or holy place.
The Traveling Pilgrim
Another older derivation, more poetic, 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, touches the earth with a destination in mind and a purpose in heart. The pilgrim is a wayfarer who longs to endure a difficult journey to reach the sacre center of his or her world, a place made holy by a saint, hero, or god. Once there, the desire is to touch a relic, have a vision, hear an oracle, and to experience what psychologist Stephen Larsen calls the “irruption of the divine in a three-dimensional place.” In Richard R. Niebuhr’s elegant description,
Pilgrims are persons in motion—passing through territories not their own seeking completion or clarity; a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.
Traditional pilgrims such as Abraham, Basho, Saint Jerome, Saint Egeria, Chaucer, and Dante—and their modern counterparts William Least Heat Moon, Freya Stark, Isabelle Eberhardt, Sir Richard Burton, Thomas Merton, Paulo Coelho’s young pilgrim on the Old Path to Santiago de Compostela, Ray Kinsella in the baseball movie Field of Dreams, or Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa—all have left chronicles of their journeys. From them we can discern a few telltale patterns.
The pilgrim’s motives have always been manifold: to pay homage, to fulfill a vow or obligation, to do penance, to be rejuvenated spiritually, or feel the release of catharsis. The journey shall begin in a nervous state, in deep disturbance. Something vital was missing in life: Vitality itself may be lurking on the road or at the heart of a distant sanctuary.
The ritual act of pilgrimage attempts to fill that emptiness. It can happen halfway around the world, as it did with a very kind priest I know—Father Theodore Walters of Toledo, Ohio, who began leading groups to the Marian Shrine at Medjugorjje, Yugoslavia, because he believed that modern people desperately needed “a healing vision from the Mother of God.” He also confessed that he believed a war-battered country might need the kindness people on pilgrimage convey from the sheer gratitude brimming in their hearts.
Participation can be communal, as was China Galland’s march with a million other pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jasna Gora Monastery, Poland. Or it may be solitary, as with the World War II pilot I met in Tokyo in the mid-1980s, who had just returned from a sorrowful visit to ground zero in Hiroshima.
What unites the different forms of pilgrimage is intensity of intention, the soul’s desire to respond to return to the center, whether it portends ecstasy or agony. What makes a pilgrimage sacred is the longing behind the journey, reminiscent of the famous sixteenth-century woodcut of the Pilgrim Astronomer, who pokes his head through a slit in the dome of the sky so he might gaze at the machinery behind the sun, stars and moon.
But what do we do if we feel a need for something more out of our journeys than the perennial challenges and pleasure of travel? What happens if the search for the new is no longer enough? What if our heart aches for a journey that defies explanation?
Centuries of travel lore suggest that when we no longer know where to turn, our real journey has begun. At that crossroads, a voice calls to our pilgrim soul. The time has come to set out for the sacred ground—the mountain, the temple, the ancestral home—that will stir our heart and restore our sense of wonder. It is down the path to the deeply real where time stops and we are seized by mysteries. This is the journey we cannot not take.
So imagine your first memorable journey. What images rise up in your soul? They may be of a childhood visit to the family grave site, the lecture your uncle gave at a famous battlefield, or the hand-in-hand trip with your mother to a religious site. What feelings are evoked by your enshrined travel memories? Do they have any connection with your life today? Have you ever made a vow to go someplace that is sacred to you, your family, your group? Have you ever imagined yourself in a place that stirred your soul like the song of doves at dawn?
If not you, then who? If not now, when? If not here, where? Paris? Benares? Memphis? Uncover what you long for and you will discover who you are.
Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV host. His fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him from Michigan to Marrakesh, Iceland to the Amazon, in a worldwide search for what the ancients called the “soul of the world.” With more than 25 books and 15 scriptwriting credits to his name, the “omnipresent influence of myth in modern life” is a thread that runs through all of his work. His books include Stoking the Creative Fires, Once and Future Myths, The Art of Pilgrimage, The Olympic Odyssey, The Hero’s Journey, Wordcatcher and The Painted Word.