An accidental pilgrimage

I have a new car. Not that you would have noticed because it is exactly the same make, model and colour as the old one. The crucial difference between old and new is the row of digits in the odometer, but there are a number of changes that Mr. Mazda has seen fit to implement over the last 3 years, mostly small, mostly cosmetic, which are probably only apparent if you have sat in the old one for 90,000 km. It is quieter, and has a newly designed gear lever, and a different font in the electronic read outs, for example. It  has a much improved stereo,  not that there was anything wrong with old one and there is a new and improved  navigation system.

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.


Kate said…
Nowness in terms of step-by-step moments on a path from What Was to What Will Be?
Kelvin Wright said…
Yes. I guess that's it. I'm still figuring out what pilgrimage is about and there is surprisingly little written about it - or at least surprisingly little that I have found yet. Perhaps that is my job.

I'm interested in the sacramental aspect of the journey. The experience of most who undertake the Camino Santiago is that, although they never set out with this in mind, or even guessed that it might be a possibility, at the end of the journey their great life projects have been mysteriously forwarded. And I'm starting to have an inkling of why that might be, clumsily and tentatively expressed above
Elaine Dent said…
On pilgrimage now. Over 400 miles done; 100 left to go. Yes, yes, yes: it is very much about staying in the present moment--- not wishing for the steep climb to reach the top or a cool wind to come, but looking for God's gift in the path I am currently on now. Easier said than done. There is a lot of letting go of thought and plans in order to be open and present to the given path. Yet I sense there is some soul work going on and that God is using the time on the trail to change me...according to God's plans, not mine.
Kelvin Wright said…
Yes Elaine you have got it EXACTLY. I'm 2 1/2 weeks away from my next fix of this particular addiction. I'd live to do the AT as well but Clemency is not so keen on the backwoods and the bears