Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Pilgrimage? Why Today?

Each episode of PBS’s new series “Sacred Journeys” begins with a challenging statement. In a cheery, inquisitive voice, host Bruce Feiler says, “Today organized religion is more threatened than ever, yet pilgrimage is more popular than ever.”

The juxtaposition is puzzling and meant to be. It’s what you call a teaser.

First of all, good for Feiler for pointing out religion’s precarious position in today’s culture. He does not expand on the thought. He only posits it: “Organized religion is more threatened than ever.” The second statement, about the popularity of pilgrimage, clearly is meant to make us wonder, to evoke interest, to get us to watch. 

I am convinced of Feiler’s goodwill and bona fides. He seems a genuine enough searcher. But I wonder whether, as he states the circumstances, pilgrimage’s popularity is such a good thing.

Is it necessarily ironic that “pilgrimage is more popular than ever” in a world that threatens organized religion? Or is it a symptom of our new, relativistic, necessarily shallow approach to religious devotion that we happily substitute a two- or three-week experience in “cultural tourism” for the real, arduous, day-by-day, lifelong adventure that is discipleship? In the case of the Christian, I mean the adventure of following Christ.

As presented in “Sacred Journeys,” pilgrimage is both an expression of the deepest wishes of the human heart and “something interesting to do on holiday.” Clearly, today’s rage for pilgrimage is a function of a global culture in which it is simply easier than ever before to get to Lourdes, Shikoku, Jerusalem, or Nigeria. And cheaper.

When I walked the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012, I saw two extreme types of pilgrim: the (very rare) devout Catholic walking to the burial place of one of the Twelve as an act of devotion and/or penance and the (far more common) “cultural tourist,” some of whom were doing the Camino in stages, over several years.

In between was the most interesting group, I think, and they probably comprised the majority. These were the spiritual but not openly religious pilgrims who had deep questions about their lives and thought, sensed, or believed that leaving their quotidian lives and walking this ancient path would help answer those questions. Somehow.

These pilgrims seemed moved by an uncertain, often vague, but palpable longing for the real, the authentic, the true. And so they went off to find St. James. Or something.

I will watch the coming episodes of “Sacred Journeys” with great interest. And many questions too.

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