These souls are made for walking

By Michael J. Farrell | comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality

On an otherwise sunny day The Holy Mountain is enveloped in fog. It may be an omen. A hundred meters out, there's a white statue of the saint. Those who are going to turn back do so at the statue, the pilgrim has been told. Mere tourists. Staff in hand, the pilgrim pushes ahead. A pristine stream splashes down from the mountain-holy water too potent to be bottled. The trail of rough boulders and sharp stones circles behind a lesser mountain before attacking Croagh Patrick, locally called the Reek, a 2,510-foot-tall cone of white quartz pointing to heaven.

Sheep have left their calling cards on the scarce grass. Never was a sheep who was constipated, the climber muses. After the staff, the pilgrim's best friend is a sense of humor.

Saint Patrick climbed this mountain and fasted on its summit for 40 days in 441, the story goes. He took advantage of the occasion to banish snakes from Ireland.

But Patrick was following in earlier footsteps: The tradition stretches back 5,000 years. Today there are only a few dozen climbers, but every last Sunday of July more than 2,500 souls set out. They used to walk the length of Ireland to get here. Many still climb in their bare feet.

A group of about 30 girls makes its way upward, poised between cheerfulness and apprehension. "Are you pilgrims or tourists?" the pilgrim challenges. "Neither," a girl says. "We're from Claremorris."

Their teacher, whose name is Jerry, has climbed the mountain about 60 times, including three times in one day. He tells of a 90-year-old man he once met up the mountain. "It's no bother," the old man said. "All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other." The pilgrim, who can detect a metaphor a mile away, understands he is talking about something bigger than the mountain. The fog seems to be lifting.

It's a religious thing

Ever since Adam and Eve were escorted from Eden, we have been in search of our lost selves. Pilgrims whether we go on pilgrimage or not, our exploration is inward as well as upward, beyond mountain peak and water's edge, beyond ancient ruin or sacred river, we are literally on the trip of a lifetime.

Every telling of our story includes migration, moving on, either from necessity or desire, from ancient Mesopotamia to your local airport. Sometimes we were refugees, sometimes just tourists, and often we had mixed motives as we juggled life's priorities.

The Old Testament populations were constantly on the move. The chosen people went to Egypt and later left it. While God promised them a promised land, he seemed in no hurry to settle them there. In the New Testament the small-town Messiah's public life was a constant pilgrimage.

While the early church soon took to the road, it didn't push pilgrimage. Thereby hangs a tale. In James Carroll's Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (Houghton Mifflin), there is an extraordinary statement: "Jesus is God in the way Emperor Constantine says he is." In the early centuries of the church, Carroll elaborates, the cross is seldom seen. Then, on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine was told in a vision that the sign of the cross would give him victory. When he won, he gave persecuted Christianity privileged status. But he was eager to put his own spin on the faith, and the all-too-human church went along with its new benefactor. The emperor moved the cross front and center, where it has remained.

Constantine's mother, Saint Monica, went off to Jerusalem and, according to legend, discovered the true cross. Thus began an interminable pilgrimage, first to Jerusalem, after that to a thousand places where bits of wood or one of the nails or other props from the life of Christ were said to be enshrined. The tradition of Catholic pilgrimage was forged in the arena of mundane history.

Everybody's doing it

The spiritual journey is practiced by people of every religion bar none. The Buddhists do it. The Sikhs do it. The Jews have been trekking to Jerusalem for a long time. In 2000, at the intersection of the Ganges and its tributary the Yamuna, 25 million pilgrims gathered for a Hindu festival. Muslims go in huge numbers on hajj to Mecca. But these are only highlights. For every renowned rendezvous there are a thousand locally revered rivers and wells, shrines and monasteries, groves and mountains, sanctified by history or imagination or direct divine intervention.

Each holy place is presumed to represent the most exalted aspirations of that religion. Yet many have become, instead, centers of conflict, from the Crusades of the Middle Ages to today's tussle over India's Bodh Gaya. The encrustations of history, the frequent overlap of religion and politics, the blood of martyrs and unfulfilled expectations of humanity are piled too high and deep for human tolerance.

The resulting tensions have their own twisted logic. Nicholas Shrady, in Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail, (HarperSanFrancisco), hints at the tightrope between devotion and delirium that pilgrims often walk: "They marched and danced behind troupes playing reedy, high-pitched flutes and beating furiously on drums. Men were wielding snakes, torches, banners and images of Shiva, Ganga, and Vishnu. Pilgrims halted at temples and shrines along the route, offering puja and smearing lingams with vermilion powders in a clear allusion to ancient blood sacrifices. It was as frenzied a spectacle as I had ever witnessed."

Pilgrims past

Fascinating and holy though the destination may be, the journey is the point. Apart from the primordial human urge to cross one more river, the more down-to-earth motives for pilgrimages have been petition and thanksgiving: for health or safety or fertility or a good harvest. An elaborate ritual usually attended the journey, often beginning with a special liturgical blessing. Serious, long-distance pilgrims were expected to put their affairs in order and provide for their families in case they should not return.

In what we wistfully call the ages of faith, the 500-mile trip across Spain to Santiago de Compostela was the top Christian pilgrimage behind Rome and Jerusalem. In each town the pilgrim was obliged to get a stamp of approval from the local priest. This was to discourage pilgrim cheaters, though why anyone would bother to cheat is a mystery.

Yet these were not lugubrious outings. The journey was often marked by ebullience and merrymaking, by feasting as well as fasting, while the worried clergy tried to impose decorum and sobriety. Shrady writes: "The vast sea of pilgrims included the pious and the irreverent, popes and paupers, scholars and simpletons, saints and charlatans, fortune-seekers and common criminals." Among those who made the trip were Saint Francis of Assisi and El Cid. Wrote the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Europe was formed journeying to Santiago."

Since it's hard to go anywhere without going somewhere, some religious cultures play tricks with the destination, as John Stratton Hawley writes in the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly 2002 viewer's guide: "The routes followed by some travelers as they approach Braj in North India or Shikoku in Japan are circular, not linear." In India, Hawley continues, tradition encourages pilgrims to become "renunciatory wanderers." That is, they "completely abandon the identities that bind them to settled households-brand as fiction the social conventions that constitute ordinary human life." This is a variation on the theme that we have not here a lasting city.

Timothy Joyce, in Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, a Vision of Hope (Orbis), also emphasizes this risky, otherworldly dimension: "Going off to sea in a currach (small canvas boat), setting oneself adrift without oars and letting the wind determine one's destination was an expression of this wandering and self-abandonment that characterized 'white martyrdom.'"

One who did this was Saint Brendan, who allegedly discovered America long before everybody else did. The sometimes exciting rewards of giving up everything for some hoped-for bigger prize are exemplified in the Navigatio, the ninth-century account of Brendan's peregrinations. His little group had just celebrated Easter Mass on a remote island when the island moved-they had gone ashore on the back of a very big whale.

Same journey, different destinations

From Brendan's Navigatio to Amazon.com is a stretch of the imagination. When the seeker enters the word "pilgrimage," 736 options pop up. Though the word has acquired a wide range of metaphorical meanings, it soon becomes obvious that the journey continues.

Despite various declarations that the gods are dead, despite materialism, consumerism, and entertainment as destiny, the traditional pilgrimage sites attract more searchers than ever. But "modern" destinations are equally popular: Lourdes, Medjugorje, Guadalupe, to mention just three Catholic favorites.

Yet the more things remain the same, the more they change. Journeys that once took a week now take a few hours. Huge planes descend on previously remote outposts. Near the Irish shrine at Knock an international airport has been built. A charismatic old priest persuaded Dublin's politicians to build the white elephant in honor of Our Lady. All around the world, the travel business is making a fortune from the search for life everlasting: from hotels to air-conditioned coaches to purveyors of plastic holy water bottles.

There is no need to be shocked. The pilgrim trail has always been grubby as well as glorious.

David Carrosco writes in Pilgrimage (Concilium) of an "underlying pattern" in all pilgrimages: (1) Separation from a spatial, social, and psychological status quo, and the passage into (2) a "liminal space" and set of social relationships within which an experience of God takes place, resulting in a profound sense of community, which usually leads the pilgrim (3) to re-enter society as a changed, renewed human being.

Books that guide the way

In the case of humans, though, motives get mixed. Enter the tourist. Billions of people are believers in one faith or another. Most have good intentions and high hopes. They want to go to their heaven of choice. Most are not naive and don't expect miracles, yet they know good karma has a better chance if they line up behind their God. But they also need a vacation. So they opt for a twofer.

A mother of five in Northern Ireland is making her third visit to Medjugorje to thank God for keeping her children safe and to pray they stay that way. But the same mother is a character and full of fun and loves to travel and will make friends with the world while taking for granted that odd or transcendent things do sometimes happen to people, maybe even rosaries turning to gold.

Not everyone can muster the will to put out to sea in a currach. Contemporary travelers, by whatever name, prefer more control over their destiny. They make plans. But first they read. So book publishers are on a spiritual-journey publishing spree.

A new series, "The Spiritual Traveler," from Paulist Press' Hidden Spring imprint, has just issued its England, Scotland and Wales volume. This series places welcome emphasis on lesser-known destinations. "People are redefining and reinventing pilgrimage for the 21st century," says editorial director Jan-Erik Guerth. Upcoming volumes will treat the United States, India, and Italy.

Art and architecture have always fascinated wayfarers and therefore are the focus of many travel books. Recent such publications include: Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals (Crossroad); Synagogues Without Jews (Jewish Publication Society); Holy Personal: Looking for Small Private Places of Worship (Indiana University Press). From Liguori Press comes The Liguori Guide to Catholic USA, in the wake of its Marian Shrines of the United States, while Morehouse Publishing offers A Guide to Monastic Guest Houses. Those going farther afield may wish to consult Europe's Monastery and Convent Guesthouses: A Pilgrim's Travel Guide (Liguori).

Secular shrines for a secular culture

For every pilgrim who finds an out-of-the-way monastery at nightfall, 10,000 searchers descend on Disney World, which, writes Hawley, "faithfully mimics themes associated for millennia with pilgrimage in the world's major religious communities."

Disney exemplifies the evolution of secular shrines for a secular culture. Others abound, from Las Vegas to Wall Street to halls of fame of nearly every endeavor on earth. "Lives of great ones all remind us we can make our lives sublime," the poem goes. We yearn to be significant in the most exalted way we can, not only for now but forever.

Death is the stark reminder beyond every traveler's horizon. People are drawn to graveyards for a reason. As the Holy Sepulchre was journey's end for Saint Monica, Graceland is the goal for many contemporary pilgrims. Elvis lives on, many say, just as Jesus' fans said about him.

The undying desire is to conquer death. New York's Twin Towers were a center of secular pilgrimage until they were destroyed. Now millions are paying their respects at Ground Zero as we search for a way in which the dead of 9/11 may live on. It is an interesting paradox that however worldly we get we are not ready to accept that this world is all there is.

We've launched the Hubble telescope and other hardware into space to get some perspective on ourselves. The journey to Croagh Patrick or Canterbury, we now find, is but a stutter-step in a grander jaunt through the universe.

Our earth is spinning on its axis at approximately 1,000 miles an hour, Edward Hays tells us in Prayers of a Planetary Pilgrim (Forest of Peace). The circuit is completed in about 24 hours and gives us day and night. Meanwhile, we are also traveling in another direction as we orbit around the sun at 66,600 miles per hour, a tour we complete every 365 days, six hours, nine minutes, and 54 seconds. People who think they have never left home could multiply this annual spin of 595,000,000 miles by the years of their lives, just for starters.

But that's not all. The earth, a mere speck in cosmic terms, is, along with the rest of our galaxy and billions of other galaxies, racing outward into space at 43,000 miles an hour. Asks Hays: "To what sacred destination is our planet traveling, together with the rest of our cosmic colony and the other colonies of stars and planets of this great universe?"

Because we don't know the answers, we search. Sometimes awe grabs us and leads us on. Usually the quest is more ordinary. An intriguing aspect of the pilgrim trail is the human way it descends into the low valleys as well as climbing the high hills.

Meanwhile, back on the Reek

The fog settles down again on Croagh Patrick as if it were hiding something. You need determination going up and patience coming down, a tall pilgrim with a northern accent advises. Many have died on the mountain, though few do nowadays. A climber complains because a friend told him he didn't need a staff. But most are upbeat and encouraging-"You can make it." At the top, in the fog, a nondescript chapel looms. It is locked. It is no matter-the whole point was the journey.

A few miles away is Knock, where Our Lady appeared in the 19th century. She chose the gable of a local church, on solid ground, a safer bet for the tenderfoot. But farther north is St. Patrick's Purgatory, a true test for hardy souls. Sacred since prehistoric times, it was commandeered by Christianity. Geraldus Cambrensis, in his 1186 History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin), describes half of the little island as "most agreeable and delightful, as well as beyond measure glorious for the visitation of angels and the multitude of the saints who visibly frequent it." But the other half was "the resort of devils only." Untold numbers have done the three-day, two-night pilgrimage, but in a sign of the times a more moderate one-day stay has recently been sanctioned.

The descending pilgrim is joined by a teenager from England, agile as a mountain goat. He sold his staff to the complaining pilgrim for five Euros, he says. Though not an ardent believer, he still said a prayer in the fog at the top. Just in case, he says.

The girls from Claremorris are still climbing. One is in more distress than the others. It seems to be her ankle. All you have to do, Jerry is telling her, is put one foot in front of the other.