You can go to Nepal as a tourist or a pilgrim. Depending on which, you will not arrive at the same place. Pilgrimage makes demands. So I was reminded over dinner in Brooklyn recently by a Buddhist filmmaker from Scotland.
Many modern spiritual seekers are dabblers, disengaged from the study and disciplines of a given tradition. Experienced Burners decry “Burner Virgins” who attend Burning Man as tourists. They are considered frat boys on a road trip. There is much more to be found there than nudity and alcohol.
Charles Taylor speaks of New Copernicans’ spiritual seeking as the “nova effect”: “an explosion of options for finding (or creating) ‘significance.’” Religious seeking today finds a vast array of options all of which seem more fragile because of their proximity and frequency. For this reason, the distinction between tourists and pilgrims matters.
A pilgrimage is not wanderlust, tourist curiosity, or Disney distraction, but a decided journeying for the purpose of spiritual seeking. The Celtic tradition gave it a Latin name, peregrinatio, which means the “voluntary abandonment of home and kin for ascetic purposes.”
There are four things that characterize a pilgrim:
Longing – The pilgrim is motivated by a sense of lack or need. The pilgrim is haunted by the fear of missing out and wanting to connect with a deeper reality and a larger sense of meaning. Pascal said that there are two kinds of people: those who seek and those who do not. It is a truism of ancient wisdom that “Only seekers find.”
Community – Often the pilgrimage is a solitary journey, but it's often enriched by others who share their stories along the way. Arduous walking and fascinating storytelling are essential ingredients of pilgrimage. Seth Godin reminds us that those we travel with not only make the journey more interesting, but also make it more meaningful. He writes, “It’s because being surrounded by people on the same journey as you causes you to level up. Your path forward is pretty simple: Decide on your journey and find some people who will cause you to level up.” There is spiritual value in company.
Experience – Pilgrimage demands going somewhere, usually a place that is arrived at with some difficulty. Pilgrimage involves mud, rain, and cold—the kind of elements that test one’s resolve and makes the arriving all the more sweet. Moreover, this is not a head-trip, but one that involves the entire body. The foot blisters and sore muscles are an intrinsic part of the process. Pilgrimage is a holistic experience and is not something one can read in a book. The journey is the “thin place,” the liminal threshold that one must cross.
Reflection – Finally, pilgrimage involves self-reflection, connecting one’s personal story to the current journey. This involves more than a quick selfie. It requires journaling and retelling one’s story through the lens of the pilgrimage experience. It means embodying the liminality of the pilgrimage.
New Copernicans understand the language of pilgrimage, the open-ended seeking for a new world and a larger story. Do not substitute a faux cruise for a real adventure. Spiritual authenticity begins with the pilgrim process.
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