I fear nothing, for God is with me
Joan of Arc's last words
To peregrinate simply means to travel on foot i.e. do what real pilgrims do. When on my Shikoku pilgrimage I had taken a photo of my naked feet pointed in the direction of the temple I had stopped at to rest, and to air those feet out of my worn shoes in the fresh air. A comment on my blog suggested that to point one's feet at a temple was disrespectful. Fair enough, each country has its own cultural straightjackets that help it to maintain its uniqueness.
But I must admit I thought this was juvenile. After all, the people pointing the fingers are not the ones walking from temple to temple, thus keeping it economically alive via donations and various payments. I was simply relaxing after a long stretch on the road. However this simple incident showed me that even pilgrims are not free of the constraints their culture imposes on the peregrination they undertake in order to transcend culture. Or perhaps they unconsciously enrich it?
In Peru I was gently reminded to take off my leather hat around the stations of the cross heading up to Qoylluriti and conversely I had to don a Jewish cap in order to visit the tomb of David in Jerusalem! Unlike the vast majority of Japanese people I have little time for petty rules. It is the heart that counts in pilgrimage, not the white vestments, the outward signs of prayer and supplication before shrines or the gathering of merit, albeit stamped in a log book. What was the true pilgrim after in essence? Why the emphasis on walking? If the body really is the temple of the soul, I argued in my blog reply to the faux pas, then the feet are holier than the temple they are pointed at. But in our materialistic enculturation over centuries we have adroitly forgotten the point: the integrity of the soul. Buildings wither and rot but the human soul, if it is anything at all must surely transcend time, space and religious superstition. The spiritual hypnosis of modern Japan I can see, replete with millionaire fortunetellers and dubious spiritual counsellors always ready to tell us about our past, orbits around many quaint beliefs that do little but emphasize a profound malaise of the soul. Pilgrimage was surely proposed by our ancient ancestors as a remedy for that. Get on the road, get real and get ready for hardship for it was through hardship that we were able to prove we were more than mere mortals; we were, and always have been spiritual beings undergoing materialistic training, not the other way around.
The global literature concerning pilgrimage is not as vast as one might imagine. Considering that all the major faiths have pilgrimage within their belief systems ask any modern city dweller in the West about books on pilgrimage and the answer is likely to revolve around two or three well known tomes. The connection between famous movies and pilgrimage authors is practically unkown. 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is now a succesful movie from the 'Chronicles of Narnia' series written by C.S. Lewis. He was an Irish writer and scholar and was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. Both authors were leading figures in the English faculty at Oxford University and in the informal Oxford literary group known as the "Inklings". Neither of these literary giants could have guessed that their works would influence far more people through the medium of film in much later years.
Lewis's works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies over the years but even avid readers of his work may be unfamiliar with his first book, The Pilgrim's Regress, a book of allegorical fiction which charts the progress of a character through the European philosophical landscape before eventually arriving at traditional Christianity. It is Lewis's personal revision of John Bunyan's 17th century novel, Pilgrim's Progress, recast with the politics, philosophy and aesthetic principles of the early-20th century. It is a very hard book to read unless you are really interested in why paganism in Europe eventually leads to fascism and why Christianity is the flavour of the day so to speak. In other words it was Lewis telling the world how he peregrinated in his mind through many philosophies before arriving at satisfaction with the Christian worldview. It was a talk at an English pub given by Tolkien to C.S. Lewis that apparently turned him into a true believer. I would have liked to have eavesdropped on that conversational gem! But Lewis of course got his inspiration from the vastly more popular book on pilgrimage and the soul that was to become an eternal classic.
The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan published in February, 1678 is a Christian allegory. It is regarded as one of the most significant works of English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print. Pilgrimage is thus an interesting adventure for many it seems. It clearly outlines the peregrination of an individual soul from bondage to liberation through an incredible series of adventure, tests and serious considerations about the nature of human sin. Though of course couched in Christian terms it is probably the best classical book on pilgrimage ever written and deserves to be read by any thoughtful individual. Its story is our story, and its hero is everyman and everywoman who has deeply inquired into the spiritual dilemma of being born on Earth.
If you think you are free then you will never try to get out of prison and if you think you are spiritual you will never go on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage has always been only for those people who realise that they live in bondage and need liberation (the East), or for those who live in sin and require redemption (the West). Otherwise, why bother? Eat, drink and be merry! Surely that is enough!
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. The tales are told by a collection of pilgrims on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the famous shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They are written in Middle English. We had to study them at my ancient grammar school in Aberdeen, founded in 1257 if you can believe. Lord Byron was one of our most illustrious graduates. None of us could understand a word of this book, one of the first to herald the entry of the English language into European culture. Trying to teach 14 year old Scottish kids about the intricacies of human foibles using this book is akin to attempting to teach nuclear physics to Irish labourers. But Canterbury Tales has always been associated with the idea of Pilgrims though I seriously doubt it communicates the pilgrim message succesfully. Books about the Camino though seem far more to the point.
The Way of St James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times and was considered one of three pilgrimages on which a plenary indulgence could be earned, the others are the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.In other words by going on that pilgrimage your soul would be spared from undergoing further religious suffering through the forgiveness of the Church in Rome. In the great movie The Mission, with Jeremy Irons as a Catholic priest and Robert De Nero as a penitent murderer we see De Nero's character on a kind of pilgrimage dragging a huge heavy bag of metal objects behind him. To modern people this may seem absurd, as if physical suffering could bring back the dead or really atone for the ultimate sin of killing another. That is because we think in terms of democracy and the rule of law. The medieval mind saw things through the lense of a key concept which we call the soul. Invisible yet real this spiritual kernel could be purified, could be saved even though its body had committed terrible acts. We live under the yoke of governments but the middle ages lived under the yoke of the Church. There is incredibly still a tradition in Flanders of freeing one prisoner a year under the condition that this prisoner walk to Santiago wearing a heavy backpack, accompanied by a guard!
Legend holds that the brother of Christ, St. James after his death had his remains carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. The Pilgrimage is a 1987 novel by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and is a recollection of Paulo's experiences as he made his way across Northern Spain on the Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela in 1986. The book starts as he fails his initiation into the order Regnus Agnus Mundi (RAM) and is then told he must complete the pilgrimage to gain the rite of admission. He begins his journey with a guide, also a member of RAM, who goes by the alias Petrus. During the journey Petrus shows him meditational exercises and introduces him to some of the more down to earth elements of Western mystical thought and philosophy.It was a worldwide bestseller from the start and tells us that the concept of pilgrimage has been renewed. Shirley MacLaine was later to also write a book entitled Camino and this no doubt further encouraged individuals in the postmodern world to review the entire idea of pilgrimage. We may not have a holy inquisition bursting out of the Church in the 21st century but we have plenty of fascism as George Bush's 8 years of crime and mayhem around the world have shown us. It is a good time for all of us to reflect humbly on the forgotten sense that we are souls navigating bodies through a very dangerous world.