So last night I was at a meeting in Riversdale, exactly 2 hours and 19 minutes from home. The navigation system ascertained that I wanted to go home and plotted a route for me. It wasn't the one I would have chosen, i.e. the one I could drive blindfolded, but one that headed off in what seemed to me to be entirely the wrong direction. But what the heck, it was only 9:00 pm, I wasn't going anywhere else, so I decided to follow where it led. And that was a way which, 24 hours ago, I didn't even know existed. It turns out that a maze of gravel roads runs in a line which roughly parallels state highway one, following small river valleys, carving around hills and through pine forests. It isn't in bad repair though it often gets down to a single lane. There are frequent large dayglo pink signs which say
!It was dark. I was caught in the tension of wanting to get home as quickly as possible and knowing that taking corners too fast in gravel can be tricky, particularly if you don't know where the road is going after the corner. I only lost my footing once, and I got home only 7 minutes slower than I would have done via the more conventional route, which means that I had to concentrate very hard on the road and be very present to it. In other words, for about an hour, I found myself on pilgrimage.
A road, and please be patient while I state the absolutely bleedin' obvious, is a path between where you are now and where you want to be. Few roads take the straightest and most direct route. They must conform themselves to the geography, human and physical which lies between their starting and their ending which means they curve and rise and fall and climb and dip. They form because a number of people follow them, then they become fixed in place and are entities in their own right.
Halfway to Dunedin last night I realised that I was, to all intents and purposes, lost, although the GPS didn't think so. It gave me a path. The only way to get home was to trust that the path would take me there. That is, my only participation in my destination was it's presence in the path I was on. And here is the heart of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is about following a path to a sacred destination. The destination is of course symbolic, a metaphor for the spiritual and intellectual goals which we are pursuing in "real" life. The Pilgrim path symbolises the life journey we are on from where we began, through where we are now (mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically) to the place we want to be. And, as with any road the pilgrim journey and our inner journey both are shaped by the geography (cultural, personal, physical) through which they are passing. Further, the great goals of our "real" life: happiness, union with God or whatever they may be are not actually real yet; they are anticipated, and we are pursuing them but we don't yet have them (otherwise why would we be pursuing them?) and the only reality our great goals have are the limited, anticipatory way they are present in the path we are walking at this moment. The path is the place of tension between our origins and our goals; between that which we have left behind and that which is anticipated but not yet real. We give ourselves to the path; and to the extent that we manage to be present to the path we are also present to who we are and where we are going, as these things are expressed in the path NOW. We do this symbolically in pilgrimage, but in a strange, sacramental way, as we pursue the metaphorical goal of the pilgrim journey somehow our "real" life goals get worked out.
Pilgrimage is not tourism. It is not good healthy exercise. It is not sightseeing. It is not meeting lots of really interesting people. It is not enjoying an exotic cuisine and culture, although at times it bountifully encompasses all those things. Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice, which encourages, for a few weeks, living in the moment. It is a practice in which engaging with a very real path makes some quite abstract realities - our origins and our destination - very present and puts these realities into close and sometimes painful tension.
Last night I drove through the dark, under a full moon and the cloudy remnants of a rainstorm. I was present - to the road; to my safe, warm, frugal, comfortable car; to myself. The goal of Glenfinnan place became a sort of sacrament and I was aware of the larger path in which this small path through the hills of Otago was held. I was slow home. I was greatly blessed.