Pilgrimage is one of the oldest of human traditions, and it shows up in varied forms across varied cultures. Always, however, the pilgrim is driven by the desire for transformation—and a belief that transformation is achievable. That's a fundamentally hopeful disposition, and it's predicated on an assumption that there is purpose and meaning to our lives. Pilgrimage involves searching—but the pilgrim believes powerfully that there is something to be found. The pilgrim may not know exactly what that is—but he or she knows that it's divine.
The theologian Mircea Eliade, whom I studied as an undergraduate and whose work was central to my honors thesis on pilgrimage, wrote about a "dialectic of the sacred." This dialectic is “the infusion of power into ordinary objects and experiences” (Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 197). To seek an encounter with the divine is to experience the sacred, and in turn to seek the sacred is to invest oneself in the pursuit of the encounter. The “sacramental” experience of which Eliade speaks defines the nature of the encounter with the divine.
Having a pilgrimage mentality about our lives means having a disposition of hopeful, patient, resilient openness to growth. It means respecting the path we've traveled—both the beautiful and terrible parts—for having taught us more about being human. It means believing that there's more to our story around the next bend. Fundamentally, though, I think it means an awareness that the most important part of the road is the one on which we find ourselves in the present of any given moment. Because the present is the only time we get to do anything.
Our stories are not already written—they are being written. We are writing them. Now. There's an urgency and a vitality and a life-centeredness to that disposition. That life is about who we are, now. Not just about who we were, or who we might someday be. Now matters most.
I also think having a pilgrimage mentality about ourselves goes a long way toward living and working well with others. Because if we can acknowledge that others, likewise, are on the pilgrim path, we can enter into a kind of solidarity with them. That might take many forms—empathy, patience…maybe just a little more willingness to listen to fellow travelers.
In my role directing formation and professional development programs for faculty, staff, administration, and trustees at my Jesuit high school, I've been focusing on this theme lately. Because if we are charged with accompanying students on their pilgrimage, we must be attentive to our own, too.
We've looked lately at two "paradoxical" dynamics:
1. The paradoxical demands of pilgrimage and
2. The paradoxical gifts of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage demands both steadfast determination and openness to change. These can be viewed as paradoxical, since focus on an outcome might well engender closed-mindedness. But embracing a pilgrimage mindset means the opposite. Even as we believe we are headed for something—that there is something to be gained, learned, discovered, and achieved—we must be open to where the road takes us, and be ready to adapt to varying and unexpected terrain.
The pilgrim earns the seemingly paradoxical gifts of humility and confidence. The road—with its challenges and lessons—poses an invitation to humility. We recognize our limitations and our brokenness. And yet, by contrast, these same challenges and lessons can imbue us with genuine confidence for having experienced them. Oddly, then, the things that make our shortcomings and failings manifestly clear can be the same things that lead to genuine confidence in ourselves.
Do you have a pilgrimage mentality? If not, could embracing one be a gift—both to yourself and those you love?