“Maybe the best journeys are the ones that are worth repeating. This is how home becomes bigger, the opposite of leaving home. And home has to mean a place, so that going out the door can be going home as much as going in…This is pilgrimage, which is not as pretty as it sounds. It’s not running away, though, it’s running toward.” -Rebecca Solotnik, The Art of Arrival
I woke up at 4 in the morning soaking wet in my tent. It was pouring down rain and I had left my window unzipped. I zipped it back up in disgust, made a few grumbles along with the bulls off in the distance, and fell back asleep on top of my cold, squishy sleeping bag.
The rain never let up.
I was in Puerto Rico WOOFing with a small group of strangers-turned-friends. We farmed in the morning, ate lunch in a dilapidated old shack on the campground to cover ourselves, and then were instructed to dig a path in and out of the garden using pick axes and shovels. So we gathered our tools and walked to the garden, my beat up old tennis shoes seeping in water with every step.
The rain pelted down even harder. No one said a word. We stood there underneath the rain, thunder, and occasional lightning pulling up obstinate grass from the dirt, until one of the other WOOFers shouted, “This is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever done!” We all burst out laughing in agreement. We each let out our frustrations with our own preferred expletives until we finally reached the other end of the garden. Gritted teeth turned into mouths that smiled wide as we took a celebratory walk down our newly groomed path, shouting for joy, high fiving each other, laughing from a place inside of ourselves that shared a journey, that committed to being in it together. A journey that may have felt pointless until we laughed and celebrated, bonded closer, perhaps, than if we had our normal day of farming.
I often wonder if that is what pilgrimage is like. I usually picture pilgrimage as an epochal journey of halcyon breaths in solitude walking along trails on a mesa or in the desert or along sacred, iconic pathways baking in the sun. Somewhere scenic, perhaps a route many other mavericks and Mystics traveled, like Mecca or Maccu Piccu.
The other day I was listening to Paulo Coehlo talk about his first few days in Santiago de Compostela. “I walked for miles and miles and thought, my God! I still have another 455 miles ahead of me! What am I doing here?”
Maybe this part is every bit as much pilgrimage as the peace and serenity. Maybe we’re making pilgrimages daily, only we don’t recognize them because we’re expecting it to feel irenic, not confusing or weary. Or maybe we don’t recognize them because we’re somewhere all too familiar, in a routine we don’t question and may not even be fully mindful of with our day to day activities. And maybe pilgrimage is less about going there instead of here and more about a mindset of open palms, open eyes, open ears?
Pondering these intersections of “here” and “there,” I shared with a friend recently that I’ve been pondering the idea of pilgrimage lately. “Ohh, where to?” She asked. I hesitated. “To work?” I wanted to say. Because I am learning that maybe my morning and evening bike commute is a sort of pilgrimage. And in pilgrimage, I can sing on my bike downhill, standing tall on both pedals, “My heart is beating, my pulses start. Cathedrals in my heart…”
Similarly, maybe this journey of words on paper (or computer screen) is a sort of pilgrimage of wandering through our insides trying to expel this human experience into an art form.
Maybe pilgrimage is all around us, and within us, and whether we are on this path for the first time or the 199th, there is still something here for us. Maybe not something of a revelation, but of noticing, of paying attention, of shifting our gaze from ourselves to the sky or the children’s laughter at the park. If I approached this day as pilgrimage, a wandering toward creation, toward God, toward each other, toward the Earth and sky and stars, how might I see the world? Would my feet be more intentional, knowing my bicycle pilgrimage was being ridden on holy ground? Might the “namaste” in all be illuminated? Would I spend even more time outside, because no meaningful pilgrimage kept you inside the house? Would it bring me back to the Earth, to dirt, to baby vegetables held in cupped hands, kissing their stems as they learn to grow from the sun and water? Might I tread more gently, motivated further to buy local, eat seasonal, live simply?
Because I think that’s the power of pilgrimage: it awakens our eyes to see the things we’d usually miss everyday in our own surroundings.
I think pilgrimage is the perfect word for these sorts of spiritual experiences that have a set-apart richness that teach you as you sojourn into the rest of your life journey, taking with you all the lessons you encountered along the way. I’ll be traveling to East Africa in July and plan to experience this by hiking along the Serengeti and getting lost in the awe of Victoria Falls. But I’m beginning to think, too, that these daily or weekly life practices are their own sort of pilgrimage, and maybe both perspectives are equally transformational, extending pilgrimage beyond a noun or verb, becoming a posture, an orientation, an approach to living out our own humanity.