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To Be A Modern Pilgrim

To Be A Modern Pilgrim

Places of Pilgrimage

People go on pilgrimages for many reasons, but often the journey becomes one of self-discovery and revelation.

Last week I came back from a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, an old medieval pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. You can begin anywhere—some pilgrims even start from their doorstep—but the most popular route sets of from the French border and winds 780km across Spain to Santiago. It has become hugely popular in the past two decades. In 1984, only 484 pilgrims are recorded as having finished the pilgrimage in the Santiago cathedral. Last year, the figure was 237,810.

Places of pilgrimage

Photography: © Instituto de Turismo de España (TURESPAÑA)

Most of the pilgrims are European Catholics from Germany, Ireland and France, but this year I noticed a lot of Koreans and Chinese and several Americans who had been inspired by the Martin Sheen film The Way. “This is nothing like the movie,” complained one lady. “Where are all the dinner parties?” The religiosity of the pilgrims ranges from the hardcore (one pilgrim I passed prayed “Ave Marias” the entire route) and the New Age (another pilgrim I met was a Wicca witch) to agnostics who simply enjoy the walking, the countryside and the Rioja.

Some people even do the Camino to hook up. I met two separate pilgrims who went on the Camino to decide whether to stay in their marriages and perhaps to have an adventure on the road. It reminded me of Chaucer’s frisky Wife of Bath, who sets out on the pilgrimage to Canterbury as a sort of 14th-century version of Ashley Madison.

This was the second Camino I have done. I did the whole route in 2010 when I was writing my first book. I’m now writing my second book and felt like walking for two weeks to clear my head and shake of a lethargic depression that had settled on me. Walking is a great cure for depression—the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle walked twice a day, into his eighties, to keep the black dog at bay. It’s also great for inspiration; a study from Stanford University last year found that people are 60% more creative while walking.

What’s unique about the Camino, compared with other trekking routes, is the community. There is a pilgrim solidarity born out of the genuinely tough physical experience of walking 780km up some very high hills, sometimes in 30°C heat. You can get bad blisters, tendonitis, sunburn and ‘pilgrim groin’ (OK, I made that one up). And then you sleep in a dormitory filled with 20-50 other pilgrims, some of them snoring away like post-priapic walruses. It’s not a pleasure cruise.

But maybe that’s good for us. The more comfortable our life gets, the more neurotic and spoilt we can become and the more incapable of enjoying ourselves and appreciating what is in front of us. We can behave like the heiress who last year insisted that a plane turn round mid-air because she was served nuts in a packet rather than in a bowl. As the comedian Louis CK put it: “Everything is amazing and we’re all miserable.” He said: “I was on an airplane, and there was high-speed internet on the plane. Newest thing in the world. And then it breaks down, and the guy next to me goes, ‘This is unacceptable’. How quickly the world owes him something he only knew existed 10 seconds ago.”

It reminds me of a sign hanging in one particularly austere dormitory: “The tourist says ‘Give me’. The pilgrim says ‘Thank you’.” In fact, that was a particularly crummy dormitory, and I chose to walk on for another 10km to stay in a hotel and actually have a bath. How sweet that bath was! But then I was on my own, while in the dormitory I would have had the company of my fellow pilgrims during dinner. These are the trade-offs we have to decide on in life—airtight personal autonomy versus messy collective humanity. The marketplace allows us to be more and more private—in one hotel in Japan, they are even replacing the receptionists with androids. No more of those messy human interactions! But the cost of that privacy can be loneliness.

Places of pilgrimage

Photography: © Instituto de Turismo de España (TURESPAÑA)

What I like most about pilgrimage is it teaches me—a single-dweller and freelance bachelor with intimacy issues—to open up and share more with strangers. I think that’s good for me, as well as difficult. I remember, for example, a sort of pilgrimage I made on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Lake Baikal several years ago, to interview some Siberian shamans. I didn’t realise that there was no food available on the train, and I hadn’t bought any for the week-long journey. Luckily, my roommate—a Russian soldier—kindly shared his food with me for the entire journey. Pilgrimage and tourism have different economic models. Pilgrimage is based on a gift economy, tourism on a market economy. They are also based on different ideas of space. Pilgrimage is based on the idea of sacred space, tourism on private space. What is it that makes a place sacred? Historically, it might be an important religious event in the past. Or it might be the miracle- working bones of a saint. Such events supposedly create an intersection between the spiritual and the terrestrial, a ‘thin place’ where the boundary with the spiritual becomes diaphanous. But in naturalistic terms we might say that when we deem something sacred, we are saying this is worthy of reverence and protection.

I think of John Muir, the young Scot who moved to California in 1868 and lived as a shepherd in the Yosemite Valley. He was so moved by the place, which seemed soaked with the presence of God, that later in life he campaigned to turn it into a National Park, protecting it from logging and over-development. When we deem something sacred, perhaps we are saying ‘this should not be subject to the logic of the marketplace. This is not for sale.’ Perhaps a true pilgrimage isn’t so much about a particular place being magic or miracle-working as about the intention with which we go on a journey.

Journeys take us out of the familiar and into the strange and marvellous, and this can take us into an altered state of consciousness where we move from the rational to the mythological, and everything we encounter is woven into a narrative of self-discovery and revelation.

This is the idea at the heart of medieval romance literature in which the hero journeys from the ordinary world into the world of fairies to undergo trials and perhaps gain a boon from the spirit world. In modern culture it’s also the idea behind road books such as Huckleberry Finn and On the Road, and road movies such as Easy Rider and The Wizard of Oz. When we are in that older and more magical form of consciousness, everything becomes part of the journey, everything seems to have purpose and significance, and everything has a goal. This is the idea sold by New Age writer Paolo Coehlo, whose book The Pilgrimage inspired many people to do the Camino. Although we live mainly in a rationalistic culture, we still yearn for that older form of consciousness.

It’s a very seductive way of thinking, though it can also be dangerous. When I was 18, I travelled across South America, keeping a journal all the way. I describe in the journal how I had just met a mysterious traveller, who read my palm and was now travelling along with me. “Once again the universe brings me a magical encounter,” I gushed. The next entry takes a somewhat different tone. “He stole my camera!”

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by Julian Evans