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

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Pilgrim's Way (3): The Journey Itself Is Home

Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place. REBECCA SOLNIT

Symbols, metaphors and allegories aside, pilgrim ways are actual physical routes which take you through and to spiritually resonant and numinous places — or 'thin places' as the ancient Celts called them, places where the distance between heaven and earth dissolve and you may, if you're lucky, catch a glimpse of the divine. Some are carefully waymarked — such as the Caminos to Santiago de Compostela (due to the vested interest of the Catholic Church), some are only sparsely signed, and  some are not indicated on the ground at all. The latter require a little map reading and a lot of imagination and speculation. The famous and much-frequented pilgrim paths are well provided with guidebooks and places to eat and stay. On the less-publicised paths you are on your own, and you have to rely a great deal on supposition, and your interpretation of history and the natural and man-made features of the landscape. (Graham Robb has written eruditely and fascinatingly, if conjecturally, about the lost pathways of a pre-Roman Celtic Europe, travelled by Druidic scholar-priests, in his 2013 book The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe.)

The Stones of Callenish and the Abbey of Iona in Scotland, Glastonbury Tor and Canterbury Cathedral in England, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico City, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailas in Tibet, Uluru in Australia, Mount Parnassus in Greece — wherever you go in the world, you can find ancient and not-so-ancient foci of sacred significance. Some are popular destinations ruined by tourism and commercial exploitation; some are little-known sites, hard to trace; others are personally talismanic, meaningful only to the individual — such as the poet Kathleen Raine's rowan tree above the waterfall at Sandaig on the west coast of Scotland, once home to Gavin Maxwell and his otters. Interestingly, such personal places may later be sought out by literary pilgrims — which attaches a whole new layer of 'holiness' to them.

Yet despite the importance of these spiritual destinations, and the personal satisfaction in having reached them, often arduously, there is the idea that the journey itself is what matters and is the process where the real answers are to be found. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, observed that all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware; and the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, wrote that the wanderer follows no road — the road is made by walking. In other words, we alone create the path, and that path is the only really important path, because it's our path, even though its purpose and direction often remain unclear. JRR Tolkien wrote that not all those who wander are lost, for, even if we meander and stray, it rarely means we are completely without hope; indeed, we may find the true meaning of the path, and ourselves, in those very deviations, blind alleys and 'wrong' turnings.

A great thing about pilgrim routes is that they are not tourist routes, and pilgrims are not tourists. The routes can take you through quite ordinary countryside and less-than-pretty towns just as easily as through stunning and beautiful landscapes. Although pilgrims are not averse to a spot of sightseeing when time allows, their main concerns are the simple day-to-day desires for movement, food, drink,  shelter and rest. And perhaps a little companionship along the way. Scenery is there, and sometimes it's stunning, but there's something else, something more, something elusive, something to do with the thread of the whole journey, and how it connects up, and what it reveals. As I wrote in my poem, A Prayer: . . . I am desperate to find meaning / In something more than landscape.

One thing I'm sure of is that we are all pilgrims and our lives are pilgrimages. Pilgrimage is not the limited property of those few who are fortunate or crazy enough to tread the actual, physical pathways; after all, many of us are unable to do this, for a variety of reasons. Pilgrimage can be in the mind and an attitude of mind; pilgrimage is the path we take daily from dawn till dusk, and then in our dreams at night; pilgrimage is questioning, abandoning, discovering, accepting. Pilgrimage is life. Pilgrimage is love.

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. MATSUO BASHŌ

On the Via de la Plata in Spain.
To be continued . . .


George said...

A wonderful, thoughtful post, Robert. I couldn't agree more with your ideas, as well as the ones you cite, on the meaning of pilgrimage. The notion that "the journey itself is itself Home" is especially appealing to me — such stark contrast from the conventional idea that home is some kind of fixed place that never changes.

Ruth Mowry said...

Yes, wonderful thoughts and writing. Like George, I like the idea of the journey as home. I also like the idea of secret destinations, which maybe only the journey itself knows. I have had significant discoveries about myself and the terrain in "wrong" turnings.

Laura said...

After months away from reading blogs, I checked in today because I am planning to walk part of two different routes of the Camino de Santiago next fall (2015) - so I wondered what "The Solitary Walker" has been up to and I found this post waiting. What a treasure to have your many posts to go back through for inspiration. Thank you.

am said...

Ah, yes. Pilgrimages! The Tao. The Way.


The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.


"... the tempest may howl and the loud thunder roar ..."
(from "The Lone Pilgrim")

This is a Dashboard translation:
¿Cuántos caminos debe un paseo del hombre abajo antes de que usted llamarle un hombre?
(Roberto D.)

When I use Dashboard to translate it back into English, it comes out like this:

How many ways down have does a stroll of the man before you to call a man to him?

Blogging has been something of a pilgrimage
for me. I'm grateful to all those I've met on this path in these times. You were one of the first I met. Thank you for your thoughtful comment about the Camino at my blog!

John Pendrey said...

Thanks for such an enjoyable read. You wake that old passion. I first ran away when I was four. Now I can smell roses but there are none.

"How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests
with the image
of blossoms leading me on –
toward nothing but white clouds?"

Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

In Nepal my hostess translated a poem about perfume blowing over from the next valley.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks as always, George and Ruth, for reading and commenting.

Hey, Laura, how are you? Nice to see you again. I'm so pleased you've found something inspiring here.

Am — thanks so much for this great comment. I enjoyed your links very much. 'A stroll of the man'? Hmm... I'm trying to perfect it :) You must be my longest-surviving blog reader, and I'm grateful. Our reciprocity has been so delightful and rewarding. What a pilgrimage this blogging has been!

I absolutely loved that poem by Shunzei, John. I've copied it into my quotations folder.

Anonymous said...

As ever Robert, thank you.

What's the Robb book like?


The Solitary Walker said...

Not really the person to ask, Andy, as I have to admit I've only read bits as yet. I liked what I read, though some have reacted against the book's density and conjectural nature. I hugely enjoyed his book on Rimbaud, however, which was very readable. Would also very much like to read 'The Discovery of France'.

dritanje said...

Always so good to read your thoughts on journeys and pilgrimage. Like George and Ruth I also picked on Basho's 'the journey itself is home'. And it was reading the Martin Buber quote about journeys having secret destinations that drew me to your blog in the first place, years ago now! Because it gives such a sense of reciprocity, of relationship and dialogue of us with path, it is not just us 'deciding' or 'controlling' the way we go, there is something much bigger at work...

The Solitary Walker said...

I am very much attuned to your comment, Dritanje, about there being 'something much bigger at work'. We think we decide and control, but do we? Only partly. Perhaps only minimally. Although I don't believe in predestination, I do believe in hidden forces, daemons, guardian angels and benign (and malign) influences beyond our rational consciousness. However, I do think we have the overriding option to be masters and mistresses of our own fate, if we 'go with' that fate, and accept the unseen and intuited direction as well as the premeditated one.

Amanda said...

Any road named silver is one I want to walk.

The Solitary Walker said...

I think you may love the Spanish Via de la Plata, Amanda. I walked most of it during the winter of 2010, in wind, rain and snow! But I'd very much like to complete the journey some wild-flower springtime.