Pilgrimage is the kind of journeying that marks just this move from mindless to mindful, soulless to soulful travel. The difference may be subtle or dramatic; 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. Since the earliest human peregrinations, the nettlesome question has been: How do we travel more fruitfully, more wisely, more soulfully? How can we mobilize the imagination and enliven the heart so that we might, on our special journeys, "see everywhere in the world the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity," in the words of Louis Pasteur; or notice, along with Thoreau, "the divine energy everywhere"? Or recall with Evan Connell the advice to medieval travelers: Pass by that which you do not love. The earliest recorded pilgrimage is accorded to Abraham, who left Ur 4,000 years ago, seeking the inscrutable presence of God in the vast desert. His descendants Moses, Paul, and Mohammed embody the notion of sacred journeys.
The Bible, the Torah, and the Koran, the holy texts of Hinduism and Buddhism--all admonish their followers to flock to the birthplaces and tombs of the prophets, the sites where miracles occurred, or the paths they walked in search of enlightenment. We know of people as early as the fourth and fifth centuries leaving their villages to journey along the "glory road" to the Holy Land so that they might tread in the footsteps of Christ. By the eighth century, the first travelers were making the hajj to Medina and Mecca to make contact with sites made holy by the prophet Mohammed. Between the fifth and tenth centuries, the Irish made the turas, the circuit to the shrines of saints and ancient Celtic heroes. Besides religious pilgrimages, we have ample evidence of lovers of philosophy and poetry going to the shrines of classical writers in Athens, Ephesus, Alexandria, and to the tombs of Dante, Virgil, and the troubadours.
Today, the practice of pilgrimage is enjoying a vigorous revival, perhaps more popular now than at any time since its peak during the Middle Ages, when millions annually followed the pilgrim paths to thousands of shrines all over Europe. As part of the celebrations for the turning of the millennium, the Vatican has declared A.D. 2000 "The Year of the Pilgrim." In a good tourist year, 3 to 4 million visit Rome; 50 million people are expected to descend upon Rome in 2000, to touch the relics and tread the holy ground. Truly, the phenomenon of pilgrimage is thriving, though it never really disappeared. Peel away the palimpsest of the glossy images of tourism and you'll find ancient ideas.
Still, the question remains as vital as it has for centuries when pilgrims turned to priests, rabbis, sheiks, mentors, and veterans from the venerated path: How do we make a pilgrimage? Turn an ordinary trip into a sacred one? How might we use that wisdom to see more soulfully, listen more attentively, and imagine more keenly on all our journeys? Either while trekking to Mount Kailas, Mecca, or Memphis? Exploring a distant landscape, a famous museum, or a favorite hometown park? Twenty-five hundred years ago, Lao Tzu said, "The longest journey begins with a single step." For those of us fascinated with the spiritual quest, the deepening of our journeys begins the moment we begin to ask what is sacred to us: architecture, history, music, books, nature, food, religious heritage, family history, the lives of saints, scholars, heroes, artists? However, a caveat. "The point of the pilgrimage," as a Buddhist priest told the traveling author Oliver Statler on his journey around the Japanese island of Shikoku, "is to improve yourself by enduring and overcoming difficulties." In other words, if the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, it will be rigorous. Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren't trembling as you approach the sacred, it isn't the real thing. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion.
There are as many forms of travel as there are proverbial roads to Rome. The tourism business offers comfort, predictability, and entertainment; business travel makes the world of commerce go `round. There is exploration for the scholar and the scientist, still eager to encounter the unknown and add to the human legacy of knowledge. The centuries-old tradition of touring to add to social status endures, as does traveling to ancient sites for the sheer aesthetic "pleasure of ruins," as Rose Macauley described it. In the seventeenth century emerged the custom of the Grand Tour, which recommended travel as the last stage of a gentleman's education. Most recent is the phenomenon of the "W.T.," the World Traveler, renowned for drifting for the sake of drifting, and the "F.B.T.," the Frequent Business Traveler. All of these roads to Rome are legitimate for different travelers, at different stages of life. But what if we are at the crossroads, as the blues singers moan, longing for something else, neither diversion nor distraction, escape nor mere entertainment? What if we have finally wearied of the paladins of progress who promise worry-free travel, and long for a form of travel that responds to a genuine cri du coeur, a longing for a taste of mystery, a touch of the sacred?
Over the years, I've participated in many traditional forms of religious pilgrimage, as well as modern secular ones, and trekked through the accounts of a wide range of travelers throughout history. I am convinced that pilgrimage is still a bona fide spirit-renewing ritual. But I also believe in pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler. With a deepening of focus, keen preparation, attention to the path below our feet, and respect for the destination at hand, it is possible to transform even the most ordinary trip into a sacred journey, a pilgrimage. In the spirit of the poet John Berryman, who reserved his severest criticism for "unobserved" writing, I don't believe tourism is the problem; the struggle is against unimaginative traveling. What legendary travelers have taught us since Pausanius and Marco Polo is that the art of travel is the art of seeing what is sacred.