Being a Pilgrim

pilgrim on road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba

For most of my youth, if I heard the word “pilgrim” I thought of those English settlers we studied in school who came on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony and had the first Thanksgiving. But a pilgrim had long before that been a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Coming from the Latin peregrinus, it meant a traveler (one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. The person wasn’t necessarily holy. The place was holy. Traditionally, this was a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the person or a particular religious belief system.

In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage became broader and sometimes figurative. It could refer to the experience of life in the world. It sometimes meant a period of exile or isolation. It could even be an inner journey from non-belief to beatitude.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. Hajj, the great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is an obligatory duty at least once for every Muslim who is able to make the journey.

As in the Middle Ages, modern Christian pilgrims might go to Rome, where according to the New Testament the church was established by St. Peter, or sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ (such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Sea of Galilee).

Places associated with saints, visions, and miracles, such as Lourdes, Santiago of Compostela, Canterbury, and Fatima, also get pilgrims.

I haven’t been on any pilgrimages associated with any religions. When I was in Kentucky I did go to the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had meant a lot to me when I was in college. Nothing was open to the public that day – which I suppose is a kind of message from the universe. (I also love that their website is monks.org). But it was Merton and not the place or their beliefs that made me want to go there.

In the summer between high school and college, I took a road trip north in search of something and one of my stops was that Plymouth of the Pilgrims.

Pre-pandemic we went on what my wife called the “dead writers road trip” as we made our way to visit friends in Maine. We went to Walden Pond and visited places where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville had lived. As with Merton, it was the people that drew me to those places, but I did feel something in being in the place. I can’t really describe what I felt looking at Melville’s desk and his window view of hills like a whale and Emerson’s bookcase and the Alcott girls’ writing and pictures on their bedroom walls or in walking into the “House of the Seven Gables.” Did I feel connected to those people, to the past, or to their writing and the images contained therein?

I studied for a time as a Zen monastery but the place did not feel “holy.” A pilgrimage in the Buddhist world might be to the historical Buddha’s birthplace and childhood home (Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in northern India), and the place of his death in Kushinagar, India.

What do pilgrims hope to find or experience in these places? Does being in a holy place make you feel holy yourself? There is no reason why it should make you feel holier than before you arrived. I have seen the maxim that “life is a journey, not a destination” attributed to several people, generally Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it seems mostly true. The journey is surely where change occurs, but for pilgrims reaching the destination is an essential goal.

For much of my life, being out in Nature has felt like a sacred place. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. I’ve seen that misquoted as “In wilderness” which seems like almost the same thing, but it’s not.

I don’t need a huge wilderness to feel that sacredness. That is something that immediately appealed to me about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out in 1974. Her nonfiction narrative was based on her journal writing about the little part of the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Dillard was 29 years old. It is still one of my favorite books.

I wrote another essay here about the word “anchorite” and the ideas expressed in the opening of that book. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

Annie Dillard wrote about what she saw in her walks she saw. Obviously, that included animals, birds, and plants, but her observations also led to reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she had twenty volumes of journals.

My own little plot of land is 157 acres between two suburban communities and its edge is a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s no virgin woods. Parts of it were once occupied and there are always walkers, runners, and cyclists somewhere on a trail. But I know the hidden, tangled places where people don’t seem to go. I know the several unnamed creeks that flow through it and eventually enter a manmade reservoir nearby. I have planted young trees in some places where others have fallen and have watched them over four decades grow. There are some large glacial erratic boulders that I like to sit on and have a drink or snack.

The place feels old. Ancient. I have no holy or religious associations with these woods, but I feel more connected to the universe here. The word “spiritual” seems too weak but I don’t know the word that defines it.

In Dillard’s small book, Holy the Firm, she writes about two years spent on an island in Puget Sound. Like a monk in her cell, she had a solitary window. Her company was a cat and a spider. The book is only 66 pages long but took her 14 months to write. It’s spare, which is fitting for a pilgrim who is asking herself big questions about memory, time, sacrifice, reality, death, and God.

One piece of writing advice she has given:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I don’t want to open my safe and find ashes.

Those Pilgrims we studied in school had leaders from religious congregations of Brownists (Separatist Puritans) who had fled religious persecution in England for the tolerance of 17th-century Holland. They weren’t that different from Puritan Calvinists, but they believed their congregations should separate from the English state church.

I have felt like a pilgrim for many years. My friend, Scott, says we are both seekers. I suppose I am also a separatist, though I’m not in any literal exile. I feel quite exiled from any organized religion. This past pandemic year I feel exiled from people and most of the world. My pilgrimages have been nearby and internal. I’m reaching for connection with what I call the universe. I’m no Dillard, so I can’t really describe it. Maybe that indescribability is what is most appealing.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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