Sunday, January 4, 2015

More on the Meaning of Pilgrimage

Attempting to plumb the meaning of pilgrimage, I came across an article in Crisis this week: “On Pilgrimage: The Analogy of Departure,” by Timothy J. Gordon and Joseph Polizzotto.

The article is good if a bit scattered. I mean, why lead off with a crime-movie dialog between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro? You can judge its relevance for yourself. Maybe the authors thought a direct plunge into salvation history would be, well, too direct.

I was interested in sections on “Pilgrimage in the Bible,” beginning with Abram/Abraham’s; “Pilgrimage in Salvation History,” with a focus on the Desert Fathers; and “Pilgrimage and Analogy in the Anthropology of St. Thomas”—though, seriously, I didn’t understand much of that last section. The mere mention of Aquinas, with his towering intellect, massive gut, and impenetrable Summa, makes my intellectual berries shrivel up.

But the article revealed new meaning in the word pilgrimage for me. I already knew the basic etymology. In the Online Etymology Dictionary, you will find:
    c.1200, pilegrim, from Old French pelerin, peregrin "pilgrim, crusader; foreigner, stranger" (11c., Modern French pèlerin), from Late Latin peregrines, dissimilated from Latin peregrines “foreigner” of Italian pellegrino, Spanish peregrino), from peregre (adv.) “from abroad,” from per- “beyond” + agri, locative case of ager “country”

Basically, a pilgrim is a foreigner, someone “from away,” as Mainers say. But away from what? The Crusader was a pilgrim away from home, and so he was called. But all of us are pilgrims separated from our true home, heaven. We are “foreigners and strangers on earth,” as the Letter to the Hebrews has it (11:13).

Estrangement, being a “sojourner,” is not only the state we find ourselves in, however. It is the preferred state of the Christian seeker who must never grow too comfortable in his present state or place. The authors explain, “The Bible teaches without contradiction that comfort and autochthonous stasis works against, not for, the salvation of the Christian.” (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too. Autochthonous refers to an indigenous inhabitant of a place, i.e. the opposite of a pilgrim.)

More striking still for me was the etymological connection the authors draw between peregrination and parish. Parish derives from the Greek term paroikia (as in parochial), used in the first century to refer to local churches:

“Pope Clement, in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth (92−99 AD), refers to his local community as ‘the church that sojourns—paroikeo—in Rome’ and addresses the Corinthian church as the ‘church that sojourns in Corinth’; Dionysius of Corinth and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century would later use the use parioikia in their letters as well.

“This usage of the Greek term is the origin of the Latin term paroecia from which we derive our word parish. As these historical details show, the early church appears to quickly associate the pilgrim state with not only the identity of each Christian but with the collective identity of Christians as well. In its very terminology for the Christian communities, therefore, we are a pilgrim church.”

And each parish, by such analysis, is on a pilgrimage of its own.

Here might be a fresh meaning for the much-bruited new evangelization—how we can all be evangelizers. It is easy to grow comfortable in parish life, to think “This is my community and I’m happy here.”

But a parish within its community, like the Catholic Church within its culture, should probably have more of the troubling, dusty, unfamiliarity of the foreigner, the confirmed pilgrim about it.

We Catholics are all strangers in a strange land. We should maybe celebrate our strangeness a bit more than we do.

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