Pilgrimage: Finding Meaning Through Travel

by Keith Savage · 16 comments


Post image for Pilgrimage: Finding Meaning Through Travel

I’ve always associated the word “pilgrimage” with a religious quest, and that is, in fact, the most common definition. Being agnostic, I never considered going on one – it’s just not my cup of tea. But that changed after I read a quote on Rolf Potts’ Vagablogging from Phil Cousineau’s The Art of Pilgrimage that resonated with the mission of Traveling Savage. I wasted little time in checking the book out from the library and diving into the text.

I was more than prepared to toss the book back into the drop box should it delve too deeply into religious parables, but The Art of Pilgrimage was not destined for that ignominious fate. At least not until I finished it. At the heart of this book lies an intensely personal, humanistic guide to creating meaning for and through travel. It is highly spiritual without being overly (for my tastes) religious.

Obviously, pilgrimage is the theme that ties the book together. In Cousineau’s view, it is always

…a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one without purpose has no soul…by definition it is life-changing. It means being alert to the times when all that’s needed is a trip to a remote place to simply lose yourself, and to the times when what’s needed is a journey to a sacred place, in all its glorious and fearsome masks, to find yourself.

One of the core conceits in The Art of Pilgrimage is that the search for the sacred, those meaningful experiences, is an internal journey. It is not achieved by going to a particular place, but rather how we see the places we visit. As Cousineau puts it:

…I don’t believe that the problem is in the sites as it is in the sighting, the way we see…With the roads to the exalted places we all want to visit more crowded than ever, we look more and more, but see less and less. But we don’t need more gimmicks and gadgets; all we need do is reimagine the way we travel. If we truly want to know the secret of soulful travel, we need to believe that there is something sacred waiting to be discovered in virtually every journey.

While this may sound heretical to those who equate pilgrimages with the journey to the tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it’s a meaty way to think about modern, secular pilgrimages.

You might have noticed that the word “sacred” has already popped up more than once. It’s littered throughout the book, including the subtitle, and it is another key ingredient in the pilgrimage. The sacred is what we seek to find through the pilgrimage, and it is disambiguated from the common religious association to mean something personally important.

…travelers cannot find deep meaning in their journey until they encounter what is truly sacred. What is sacred is what is worthy of our reverence, what evokes awe and wonder in the human heart, and what when contemplated transforms us utterly.

After setting forth his framework for discussing pilgrimages, Cousineau goes on to detail the “art” of making it happen. Art takes effort, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to tip-like vignettes on building the sacred into your trip. Perhaps it feels artificial to orchestrate a reason to go on a pilgrimage. After all, shouldn’t we be able to experience “the sacred” serendipitously on our travels? Maybe that’s what we feel on our first few trips – the sacredness of the act of travel. But as trips begin and end, the easy rush we felt from simply traveling starts to recede, to become muted. We start to fear we’ve lost the wonder of travel and so we travel to more distant and more foreign places. Or we return to the places where a special feeling was deeply felt. But it’s not the same. Ironically, it is a losing proposition going to the same place with the same “eyes” in search of the same meaningful experience you once enjoyed.

Perhaps there’s a sense of entitlement and laziness in our expectations to be changed by simply visiting a place. Does it make sense to feel disappointed or betrayed for not finding or feeling something that wasn’t identified or searched for? It’s a bit like hoping for a gift. We never find what we aren’t looking for, even when it’s right in front of us.

The Art of Pilgrimage was written for travelers looking for something deeper than diversion or escape, for travelers like me. At times, the book trails off into high-minded ideas and overly romantic and opaque language, but it has helped me realize that revelations are not paid for in plane tickets and hostel bookings wherever you go. You can only find “the sacred” if you actively seek it, and you can only seek it once you’ve defined it. Good luck, pilgrim.

Have you gone on a religious or secular pilgrimage? What did you seek? Did you find it?

Original photo by victor_nuno via Flickr under Creative Commons


Trans-Americas JourneyNo Gravatar June 14, 2010 at 9:09 PM

A true pilgrimage is certainly a different travel experience from the norm. As with many things, the more effort, sweat, contemplation and sometimes suffering that go into a project, the more rewarding the result.
We have had several pilgrimage experiences (not Santiago de Compostela though it is something we long to do) and each has been exponentially rewarding in its own way. Before setting off on what became a 4 year backpacking trip around Asia, which included several pilgramages, the ONE thing we felt we must accomplish in order for the trip to be a personal sucess was to get to Mt Kailash, a true pilgrimage.
After spending several weeks in & around Lhasa and beging our way into a visa extension we finally worked out a Dong Feng truck with 6 other travelers with a similar mission. This was not an easy thing to accomplish in ’97 when the rules changed every other day. Once the nightmare of chinese beuracracy was worked out and 100s of pounds of food and supplies were purchased we were on our way…Three weeks on the back of a truck to Kailash & the Guge Kingdom in mid-October (well after the pilgrimage season even for the Tibeteans) and a Kora around the mountain crossing the Drolma La pass at 18,200.
In the end, a difficult, painful, frigid and joy-filled pilgrimage that was a highlight of the trip and one of the highlights in our lives…that is probably the definition of PILGRIMAGE.

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:40 PM

Incredible story, and yes, that sounds like a real pilgrimage. Thanks for sharing this amazing tale.

Reply

KenNo Gravatar June 15, 2010 at 6:57 AM

This is an interesting philosophical post. You may be interested in Mircea Eliade’s take on the sacred (and profane) by way of this brief summary http://www.bytrent.demon.co.uk/eliadesp01.html. (There are doubtless many others should you Google him.) He is concerned with how “religious man” understands the world, particularly in non-literate societies. By extension, it may give you additional insight into the concept of the sacred even in a non-religious sense. Eliade was a Romanian scholar most recently at the University of Chicago until his death at age 79 in 1986.

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:41 PM

I’ll have to check out Mr. Eliade. Were you at University of Chicago during his tenure?

Reply

GrayNo Gravatar June 15, 2010 at 11:39 AM

Fascinating stuff, as always, Keith.

“Perhaps there’s a sense of entitlement and laziness in our expectations to be changed by simply visiting a place. Does it make sense to feel disappointed or betrayed for not finding or feeling something that wasn’t identified or searched for? It’s a bit like hoping for a gift. We never find what we aren’t looking for, even when it’s right in front of us.”

True enough. And sometimes I’ve gotten my expectations up too high about a place or a trip, and therefore felt disappointed when it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. I think visiting the place alone is not enough, we need to be open to whatever the journey brings us, even if it’s not what we were hoping for or what we expected. Sometimes the gift is given to us, but we can’t see it because we’re too busy looking for something else.

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:49 PM

Yeah, expectations can be killers. I’ve been the victim more than once, too. I blame my tendency to over-plan. When you read tons of guidebooks you can’t help but form a preconception of the place. Inevitably, your expectations are dashed, but equally often the highlights are the unplanned events.

Reply

MarkNo Gravatar June 15, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Just awesome. “But we don’t need more gimmicks and gadgets; all we need do is reimagine the way we travel. If we truly want to know the secret of soulful travel, we need to believe that there is something sacred waiting to be discovered in virtually every journey.”

While each person must define what their journey means to them – soulful discovery or simple escape – our travels could have so much more meaning if we searched for the sacred. This, however, requires many to step out of their comfort zone and seek the sacred in the unfamiliar, whether close to home or around the world. All my best on your journeys.

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:43 PM

By definition pilgrimages require hardship and sacrifice. There will definitely be difficult times in my future travels, but they’re not worth lamenting. Thanks Mark.

Reply

ayngelinaNo Gravatar June 15, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Wow really interesting post and one I’ve never considered. While I was raised Catholic I’d best describe myself now as agnostic although I have to say I am jealous of those who can really connect with a site as my only connection is through food.

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Some would argue that food is a religion :) Seeing the pilgrimage as a secular journey was part of the beauty of The Art of Pilgrimage.

Reply

SpunkyGirlNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 9:44 AM

I loved this post, Keith. It was perfect reading for the morning after I gave notice at work!

Reply

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 16, 2010 at 10:38 PM

Thanks Pam. Good luck on your new path!

Reply

LizNo Gravatar November 7, 2010 at 3:35 AM

Very interesting indeed. Thanks.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: