I have always called myself a spiritual person, but not religious. I do believe something big and magical must be going on out there, but I’m not so sure modern society has it pegged.
Nonetheless, questions of this sort were swirling around my mind as a beautiful copy of Whereabouts Press’ book, Traveling Souls – Contemporary Pilgrim Stories, appeared in my mailbox. What is a pilgrimage, I asked myself. Would I ever want to go on a pilgrimage? Or better question: I have already been on one, but didn’t know it?
But what IS a pilgrimage, anyway?
This was one of my first questions – one that I pondered after first hearing about the book. Thankfully the issue was tackled right off the bat, sort of, in the Foreword by Pico Iyer. He says:
Reading the wonderfully varied and unexpected stories assembled here, I was struck by how much the notion of a pilgrimage today has to do with retrieving a sense of purpose (and simplicity and constancy); with putting oneself, quite literally, in the footsteps of the past.
Once upon a less secular time, almost everyone made pilgrimages, and most of the great works of our early literature – Dante’s ascent into the stars, Chaucer’s wanders to Canterbury, the tales of Orpheus and Odysseus and Hercules – commemorate both inward and outward journeys; these days, I suspect, many of us travel in part to experience pilgrimage by proxy.
Most of the travelers in this volume leave home, as I have done, to partake of someone else’s pilgrimage….At the end of every pilgrimage, of course, you learn that ends are new beginnings….
Barbara Wilson, in her chapter entitled Joshua Tree, minces no words – the answer to “what is a pilgrimage” is probably itself a question:
We sometimes do a hard thing. Who knows why? To understand ourselves. To surprise ourselves. To redeem the past. To create the future.
The Stories Within
As with any book that’s a collection of authors and voices, you’ll resonate with some stories moreso than others, particularly with such a personal topic as this. Strangely, I found this book flowed with me almost like a pilgrimage itself – a strong start, followed by a wavering dip, some floundering this way and that, and a bit of a hurrah to the finish. Perhaps it was all in my head, but that’s how it went.
The stories, as the title suggests, are about contemporary pilgrims. Yes, there are people trekking to Santiago in Spain and the Ganges in India. But there are also some wonderfully poignant stories that have nothing to do with historic times and all to do with a single person’s journey. I loved the ground-level perspective on such famous, historic places but I also enjoyed seeing places I could relate to a bit more – for example, one man was making his way across the British Isles. Nothing all that exotic there, but the tales of back roads and being chased by dogs was very interested, in the most positive sense of the word.
Is All Travel a Pilgrimage in a Way?
One of the conclusions, or thoughts, that I was left with after reading this interesting book was a slightly different look at “what is a pilgrimage” question – the concept that every trip is a pilgrimage in one way or another. Question mark – I’m not sure.
I certainly have often felt the same way at the end of a short trip (even to somewhere un-exotic or not that far from home), pining for the trip to never end, as Anne Cushman did in her story, called Spiritual Discomfort:
Late last March, I sat on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh, India wondering if I should be in Kathmandu instead.
It’s a delusion that occasionally seizes me on the road – the nagging anxiety that I’ve made a wrong turn, that I’m not where I should be, that the life I’m supposed to be living is waiting for me somewhere else, pacakged and ready to go, like a take-out dinner I’ve ordered from a restaurant whose address I now can’t remember….
The most exotic experience, I reflected, is made up of the most mundane details. I was in a Himalayan cave with a holy man; back in California, I could tell that to my yogi friends and they’d moan with envy. Yet the actual experience mainly consisted of damp socks, numb fingers, sore throat and shivering jaw. Maybe my spiritual teachers were right when they told me, over and over, that all moments are equally magical, if we give them our full attention. Maybe my mystical adventure had been happening all along.
Perhaps next time you travel, you’ll think about Anna’s story – and about all these other stories. Maybe you’ve already been a pilgrim, and you just didn’t notice.
Read the book
I’d highly recommend this book. You can pick a copy up today at Amazon – it’s perfect for in flight, r a long road trip or just to relax in bed with back at home.
Photo Credit: Whereabouts Press, mckaysavage
Editorial Disclosure: The author was given a review copy of this guide, which did not influence the contents of this article.