from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The idea of pilgrimage 

On the Op-Ed page of today's Washington Post is a provocatively entitled piece, An American Hajj written by Charles Crohn, deputy director of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He uses the Muslim obligation of Hajj, the mandatory one-time visit to Mecca as a metaphor and asks
What if every American who is able to do so made an effort to visit at least one American military cemetery overseas during his or her lifetime?

Reading that paragraph got me thinking, not merely about the idea of visiting military cemeteries, whether here (I do live in Arlington VA) or overseas. Rather I began to reflect on the idea of the journey, the process. This diary is a product of that reflection, on the idea of pilgrimage.

There are of course several possible meanings of the "pilgrimage." One is a journey, especially of distance, to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. Another is any long journey, especially if undertaken as a quest or for a votive purposse. In this latter sense traveling to visit the grave of someone you admire would qualify as a pilgrimage.

Such journeys have played important roles in our history and our culture. Think for example of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales which use as a frame people journeying to the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, an action later honored in the poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral by American-born Nobel Laureate T. S. Eliot. On a far more mundane level, the city of Memphis has benefited immeasurably from the tourist trade generated by its having the location of the home of the "King" of Rock and Roll: Elvis Preslyes' Graceland Mansion may be a commercial site, but it is clearly a destinate of pilgrimage for many.

Even a superficial examination of the behavior of most Americans, whether or not they consider themselves "religious," will demonstrate an inclination to make pilgrimages. Some are personal, perhaps taking the spouse and kids to places important in one's youth, or along on a college reunion, as many of my original college classmates have done at our various gatherings including this year's 40th. It may be visiting the graves of relatives or of dear friends, or of people not known personally but whose prior lives played a major role in one's own: all of these motivations can be seen merely by observing those visiting Arlington National Cemetery, a few short miles from where I write this, and for me a place in which I have participated in funerals both for people I know and for the unmet father of a dear friend.

It may seem somewhat ironic that pilgrimage has played a major role in my life, given that I have chosen to wander through various religions. One destination in Greece clearly carried the religious motivations, but many others were for me equally profound. I will briefly share about my own experience of pilgrimage, perhaps nudging you to reflect on your own.

I have been Jewish, Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian and Quaker. Of these the only one which has for me a pilgrimage association is the Orthodox. The Orthodox Church in America, in which I was for 14 years and in which for some odd reason I held a variety of positions from local to national levels, has several recurring events. These probably qualify as minor pilgrimage events. The annual gathering at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood NY is probably more of a fraternal gathering and a means of raising money for the seminary than it is strictly speaking a pilgrimage: while eminent men have taught there, one finds no graves at which one honors them. But at St. Tikhon's Monastery and Seminary in S. Canaan, PA, there is a graveyard containing the remains of many of the eminent leaders of the church. Orthodox have a tradition of an annual visit - pilgrimage - to burial sites (although many monasteries dig up the bodies after a year and all that one will find in a charnal house is the bones, sometimes wih the skulls labeled, sometimes not). Locally one will visit and decorate the graves on Thomas Sunday, named for "Doubting Thomas," which on the liturgical calendar falls the Sunday after Pascha (Easter). St. Tikhon's has a Divine Liturgy, food and fellowship, but a key part of the anual event is a procession to the cemetery for a memorial service for the honored department, bishops, monks, honored priests from around the country, their families, and others. This kind of pilgrimage, which I made at least 6 times, is a means of honoring the continuity of the faith tradition. It connects one with those that went before.

During my Orthodox years I also three times went to Mount Athos. This northernmost finger from the Chalkidiki peninsula has had monks on it for more than a thousand years, it is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Center as perhaps the greatest collection of Byzantine art, documents, religious objects and architecture. It is also a functioning center of worship, and a destination for male Orthodox (no females allowed) from all over the world. For a decade my spiritual home was the monastery of Simonas Petras, who spectacular setting gives one little idea of the vibrancy of the spiritual life within. I would go there for up to a month at a time, but at the direction of my spiritual father, the Abbot, also walk all over the peninsula visiting other monastic establishments, large and small. I learned to walk along the wooded paths rather than catching a ride with a logging truck or a bus or 4-wheeled vehicle along the logging roads. The great theologian and writer Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who as lay convert Timothy Ware wrote the most important introductory volume about the eastern church, entitled simply The Orthodox Church once explained why he walked rather than ride by noting that in a pilgrimage the journey is as important as the destination, something we Americans in our haste to arrive often forget. If, as my experience taught me, I am on a trip for the sacred, how I journey is as important as where I am going. Perhaps one can consider it an illustration of a secular understanding that is contrary to the insight of Machiavelli: at least in this context a noble end cannot justify an inappropriate means.

There are other places to which I have gone on pilgrimage. Oh, to be sure, those destinations may not have been the sole reason for the travel I had undertaken, but they were important enough that I ensured I set aside time to visit. That includes Westminster Abbey in London, itself the final resting place of so many of importance. It includes, since I am a musician by background, training and inclination, Mozart's Gerburtshaus in Salzburg.

In his short piece on the idea of an American Hajj to overseas military cemetaries, Krohn offers the following:
Americans visiting our overseas military cemeteries will find themselves enriched in ways I can only partially explain. At a minimum, the visit will prompt a renewed, and awesome, appreciation of those who sleep in the dust below.

Such experiences help put into perspective how our nation benefits from the sacrifice of those willing to put their lives on the line. Without such devotion to dangerous duty, the United States has little to hold itself together. Prosperity is not enough. Our history is based on service, costly service.
This insight is cogent, and clearly indicates that one purpose of pilgrimage can be to remember the sacrifices made on our behalf in a way that connects more directly perhaps because we have traveled, perhaps because we see visible - and physical - evidence. Our willingness to engage in such a pilgrimage is one expression of what we value, how we are willing to be shaped and directed.

People have sometimes noted that one could determine a person's values by at her passing examining her checkbook - where she spent her money as an indication of her values. One can certainly make a similar analysis by an examination of how one's time was spent. And I would argue that the act of pilgrimage provides a similar insight. This is true of the kinds of physical journeys I have described, my own and those more traditional. It is equally applicable to the mental and emotional and spiritual travels within one's own life. In my case the most important pilgrimage I have undertaken has been an exploration of who I am "spiritually." My journey through multiple faith expressions, something which may not yet have reached its final destination in my current spiritual abode in the Religious Society of Friends, is the most important single thread on my journey through life.

And here I realize that life itself is perhaps the most important pilgrimage we undertake. The final destination of our physical life will be our passing, our departing from this life, our death. Ware's words now carry greater cogency, for if that were the only purpose of our life it might seem somewhat pointless, the journey without as much value. But because it is also HOW we travel to that final destination the journey takes on greater importance. The pilgrimage of the journey through life enables us to grow, to take into ourselves the accumulation not only of our own direct experiences, but also experiences and insights of those we encounter, and those to whose present physical abodes we travel, be they cemetaries of the deceased or residences of those still physically in this life.

How we journey is as important as where we are going. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, with whom I overlapped at Haverford, wrote a book entitled Wherever You Go, There You Are. This is a Buddhist expression (Jon moved in this direction many years ago), and deals with issues like being centered. I mention in this diary not because I think readers need to become Buddhists (I am not) nor even practice any of the forms of meditation associated with that tradition. Reflect on the title as it applies to the idea of this diary. And see it also as Ware describes the process of pilgrimage. We are always on a journey, even if we do not recognize it, nor as yet know our destination. And even a physical journey to a place of pligrimage, religious or secular, will the first time we embark upon it take us to a place we do not yet know. Our arrival at that place will make it different merely by our presence, and how we experience it will be shaped by how we travel. If I were to "helicopter in" because I am in a hurry to "get it done" I am unlikely to truly experience as I could: my impatience will mean I come unprepared, and unwilling to accept what the place has to speak to me.

I think this is also true of life in general, of our political and social endeavors, of our human interactions. I will be changed by any journey I undertake, and the direction I choose to travel, as well as the means by which I make that journey, are both indications of what really matters to me.

So that is my reflection on pilgrimage. I will be interested both in your reactions to what I have offered, and in your own reflections, about some of the destinations to which you have journeyed, and why.

And I thank you for having taken the time to travel through these words along with me. I have enjoyed your company.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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