A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

To Be A Pilgrim

The fifteenth-century mystic Thomas a Kempis said that no matter where a person was he or she would always be a 'stranger and pilgrim', unable to find peace unless united inwardly with Christ: for him true pilgrimage was an inner journey along the pathway of the spirit, with the living Christ as the ultimate shrine. In John Bunyan's great allegorical work The Pilgrim's Progress, the pilgrimage is one of overcoming moral obstacles and gaining self-knowledge in order to arrive at the Celestial City. Its readers become pilgrims in the imagination, accompanying Christian as he walks through the Valley of Humiliation, resists the temptations of Vanity Fair or escapes from Doubting-Castle.

Pilgrimage may not, then, necessitate a physical journey - for Kempis and Bunyan it is possible for the pilgrim to remain in a cloister or a prison cell. Even so, inner pilgrimage, like its external counterpart, still implies movement - towards a new spiritual state of being. Therefore, whether pilgrimage is made physically or contemplatively, the idea of journeying remains central to it: the pilgrim must make a journey because he or she needs time - time to reflect upon personal dilemmas or wrongdoings, or upon the great mysteries of life, such as fate, suffering and the nature of God. For the pilgrim the journey, with all its vicissitudes, is not the wearisome preamble to truth - it is the necessary way to truth, the living, arduous and joyful process by which truth can be attained.

Pilgrimage has inherent challenges and demands, highs and lows - it is a journey not to be taken lightly. Nowadays it is possible to travel to pilgrim shrines quickly and in comfort, but many prefer to expose themselves to a slow, sacred metamorphosis, realizing that the hardship of heat, cold, rain, blisters and fatigue can open the mind up to old memories and new possibilities, and can effect an emotional and spiritual purification. The destination - the shrine, the mountain or the church - signifies not the end of the journey, but the start - a portal into a new way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.

From James Harpur's Sacred Tracks: 2000 Years of Christian Pilgrimage (2002)

My photo shows the pilgrim tree-shrine I passed somewhere in south-west France. Where it was exactly I can't remember.

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