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