Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Art of Pilgrimage

The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau

Pilgrimage is a well-documented phenomenon that crosses religious and cultural boundaries. While I most associate pilgrimage with the medieval trips to the Holy Land, pilgrimage makes up one of the pillars of Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism also have shrines to which pilgrims travel. Then there are the literary and historical sites which draw loyal followers every year.

In many ways, any trip can be a pilgrimage though not all trips are pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is infused with meaning and purpose, a searching for something that will change you. Cousineau talks of the planning and preparation that help build the foundation for a meaningful pilgrimage to occur and then of how you must let go of your plan to allow...hmm... he'd probably invoke the fates here to shape your pilgrimage. Pass by that which you do not love is a common refrain taken from traditional pilgrim guides.

I picked up this book as part of my investigation into liminal spaces--transitions, transitory periods, journeys. It's in the liminal spaces Almost Christian suggests that the mature Christian grows and develops. Pilgrimage is the essence of liminality as you physical journey to a place and back and yearn for a transcendent spiritual experience you can bring back with you.

However, this is thoroughly a secular or at least non-Christian book. For many people, this wouldn't bother them, but the lack of particular religious focus left me a bit empty. For instance, Cousineau describes The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania and how it has become a symbol of freedom for the Lithuanian people. However, as a Christian, the symbol of the cross, while certainly standing for freedom, represents more than freedom from an oppressive government; it's freedom from Sin, Death and the power of Devil. It's nice that it has historical and ongoing political signifance, but I'm sadden by the fact that most people who make the pilgrim's journey to this hill do not have the hope that I have in the symbol of the cross.

In another section, he describes the preparation of a tour guide who travels to South America. To prepare for the journey, this otherwise atheistic person prays to an ancient Mayan god to bless his travels. I see the yearning for spiritual connection, but there's an ongoing disconnect between this person's travel and his life at home. For me, that would describe an ultimately unsuccessful pilgrimage experience, but he seems fine with it.

So as someone looking for pilgrimage as a way to increase and develop faith, I ultimately felt this book missed the point. Despite that, I think The Art of Pilgrimage provides a good method for preparing for a trip that will impact your life, that will bring you back as a better person (though I'd hope for more than just being a better person). Cousineau's applications are easy to implement. They require more intention (which will take time) than any fancy supplies.

I'd recommend it to anyone looking to get more out of their travels--religious or not. And I'm looking for ways to infuse a bit of pilgrimage spirit into our upcoming trip to Niagara Falls.

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