Pilgrim’s way

Un ancien article en anglais dans le Courrier de l’Unesco

A mysterious journey – pilgrimage – The Pilgrim’s Way

Pilgrimages are a feature of most of the world’s religions

Between non-existent pillars, bathed in unearthly light, a human clone advances without moving. As he looks around or continues on his imaginary way, the perspective changes and different parts of the sanctuary float into or out of his field of vision.

The scene thus described is real enough. By means of virtual imaging technology, people wearing headsets linked to computers can « visit » the basilica of Cluny in France, « walk » around the ambulatory, « turn » right or left, « gaze upwards » at the vaulting and so forth, though they may be hundreds of miles away.

Wearing a virtual reality headset, the believer can theoretically « see » a place of worship, but could he or she thereby be considered to make a pilgrimage? The faithful of all religions would answer « no » to this provocative question, and, perhaps, condemn the very idea of such a pretence. There can be no pilgrimage without a body of flesh and blood, no pilgrim’s way without a dusty road, no effective devotion without real space. This is the first paradox associated with pilgrimage. The body must grow heavy for the soul to become light. Feet are needed to go where the spirit breathes. That is why, in the age of the instantaneous transmission of images and of rapid transport, great multitudes surge around the Kaaba, on the banks of the Ganges or on the plain of Chartres.

Far from being outmoded, pilgrimages are highly topical. But what are they, exactly? The concentration-camp survivor who revisits Auschwitz and the old soldier who tours the cemeteries along the Verdun road where the bones of the fighting men of the First World War lie mingled are commonly said to be making a pilgrimage. On a less sombre note, we talk of making a pilgrimage to the scenes of our youth or to the place where we met a loved one. But whether they are connected with death or love, respect or nostalgia, such visits to the scenes of the past are pilgrimages only by analogy, by reference to a kind of journey that should not be confused with any other.

A pilgrimage is a quintessentially religious act which creates a bond. It connects secular places with the world above, the wayfarer with the travelling community of the faithful, and the flesh-and-blood pilgrim with his second self, who will be reborn, healed or cleansed by making the pilgrimage. These bonds or bridges between orders of reality imply that there is a distinction between pilgrimages and mere ceremonies, gatherings, acts of worship, processions or devotional visits, even though pilgrimages may include all of these. They require at one and the same time a sacred place, a sacred way and a sacred goal.

Few religions have been able to do without this threefold mediation. Some have expressed mistrust of a practice, often spontaneous and originating among the rank and file, that can easily degenerate into superstition, the fetishistic veneration of relics, or the impious assessment of merits and rewards. Many Christian theologians, for example, see pilgrimages as an obstacle to contact with the divine in the form of a pointless, or impure, detour through the world of the senses. This was the attitude of the Reformation towards Catholic pilgrimages in the sixteenth century.

Buddhism is divided between its reservations about the relics or representations of the Enlightened One (since he shows the way to liberation from the cycle of reincarnation) on the one hand and, on the other, the demands of the faithful who, even in the lifetime of Gautama Buddha, begged him for places, relics or signs to help them express their fervent devotion to him after his disappearance. Just as any religion may experience a battle between iconolaters and iconoclasts (is it possible to achieve knowledge of the divine through the love of palpable representations?), so theologians waver, where pilgrimages are concerned, between fear of degeneration into idolatry or magic and acknowledgment of believers’ permanent needs.

We cannot say for certain that pilgrimages have always existed, even though there is evidence to suggest that travellers made their way to holy places in prehistoric times. In the absence of written records to shed light on their significance, we shall never know whether these hypothetical gatherings met our definition. On the other hand, we have well-attested written records of pilgrimages dating back to the Mesopotamian civilization, to the holy places of Nippur and Babylon, and of sacred journeys made by the Egyptians and the Hittites.

Though we cannot be sure that pilgrimages are a universal phenomenon, geographically speaking, it should be remarked that very few religions that have spread beyond the territorial confines of a single ethnic group have not given rise to comparable gatherings in some form or other.

Holy places

Is the symbolism of the topography of the pilgrimage any less worthy to be considered universal than the pilgrimage itself? What is the constant goal? Holy places come in various kinds. They may be mountains or rivers, grottoes or lakes, trees or springs, but by the depths from which they rise or the height that they attain they suggest a transition to another dimension than the horizontal and terrestrial where the pilgrim lives, moves and has his being. This is the first interpretation that comes to mind of the pilgrim’s destination, be it the Ganges or Mount Arafat, Athena’s olive or the Bodhi tree, the mountain top where the Taoist pilgrim climbs to seek audience, or the springs of Lourdes where the sick immerse themselves.

While most pilgrimages lead to a holy city or building, one should also add the dimension of time to that of space. The shrine, whether it contains the relics of a saint or the visible marks of a past contact with the divine, a temple, a tablet of the law, signs of a miracle or reminders of a covenant, recalls some foundation event. The goal of the pilgrimage, whether it is a place from which the faith emanates, a centre on which it converges or a commemorative representation, allows of many different interpretations. The power at work is often so great that one and the same site may be revered by various faiths, in succession or simultaneously. Thus, we learn from medieval travellers’ tales that the same tracks at the top of a mountain in present-day Sri Lanka were variously revered as the footsteps of the Buddha and as those of Adam, and drew Buddhists, Muslims and Christians alike. Jerusalem, city of peace, is sacred to the three major monotheistic religions. Peace often lies more in the significance of such places than in the logic of men.

Homeward bound

The goal is, however, nothing without the way to it. The pilgrim’s progress is a journey through space and time and within the self, a metaphor of the secular life and something that endows it with meaning. The pilgrim’s way also establishes a bond: it brings together and unites travellers at the same high point in their existence, it spreads ideas and models, and it forges an alliance between peoples who share a faith and a culture. It would be absurd to exclude Mecca, Jerusalem, or the road to Compostela, Delphi or Olympia from any explanation of the historical unity of the civilizations to which they belong. Such an explanation would lack an essential component – the idea that civilization implies transmission and circulation.

Mere specks borne along in a movement that is greater than they are, pilgrims are also transformed when they reach the end of their personal journey. They may hope for a sickness to be cured, for the remission of a misdeed, for a cleansing or even a mystical death and symbolic rebirth, but whatever happens they will end their pilgrimage different from when they began it. Regenerated by an initiatory journey, having cast off their old selves, they often celebrate this regeneration in the joyous explosion of festivities and celebrations that mark the end of a cycle. Then the time of remembrance begins.

From the Chinese Journey to the West (Hiyou Ji) to Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East and Lanza del Vasto’s Return to the Source, literature has by no means exhausted the commemoration or interpretation of pilgrimages. This may be because pilgrimages obey two contradictory principles: that of otherness (going to another place, experiencing a different time, becoming another person) and repetition (retracing a sacred route, repeating gestures, returning to a point of departure . . .). Flesh-and-blood pilgrims solved that mystery long ago. When pilgrims reach journey’s end they know they have returned to their true home.

English texts by F.B. Huyghe

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