The Modern Day Pilgrimage

By Jennifer Miller   |   July 16th, 2014   |   Comments (2)

Pilgrimage is a concept as old as humanity itself. Human beings, across cultural and religious boundaries, historical and economical spectrums, regardless of race or gender, have been taking pilgrimages from time immemorial.

The idea of a pilgrim conjures a lonely figure on an endless road, staff in one hand, religious beads or momento in the other, an icon, high on the hill in the distance. It implies hardship, suffering, perhaps penance, and the fulfillment of the spiritual man, if not the physical. It contains the concept of transcending the every day to attain something more, something just out of reach, around the next bend, a reward beyond our daily bread.

Pilgrims are characterized as faithful, devout, true believers, somehow one rung above the rest of us. There is an element of the quest, an idea most associated with the middle ages. We can’t help but romanticize the notion of someone giving up everything that makes logical sense to chase a windmill, or a follow a voice in the night, or a vision on a hilltop.

We can’t help but romanticize the notion of someone giving up everything that makes logical sense to chase a windmill, or a follow a voice in the night, or a vision on a hilltop.

I’ll never forget the beauty of men returning from the haj during the winter we lived in Tunisia: sweeping off the airplane, black turbans and dark, mirrored sunglasses, white robes billowing around them, followed by an entourage of lesser men, and finally black robed women in niqab with kohl rimmed eyes. They looked majestic, like people who had found what they were looking for and who were worthy of the journey.

Camino sign

I’ll always remember the mystery of the orange robed monks, stubble covering their shaven heads, bowls in hand, circumambulating the golden spire of the stupa in plastic sandals, smoky fingers of incense dancing between them. They walked with perfect peace and assurance that wherever they were going, they were getting there.

I’m fascinated by this: by the persistent belief, the dedication, the consistent walking in a particular way, by the physical need to pursue a spiritual longing. I was raised in a Christian family but have stepped away from any particular belief in favor of worshipping in the church of “I don’t know (and neither do you!)”

I’m a relentless observer and questioner. I have a sincere desire to understand and to learn. There are plenty of things I would love to believe are true, but the reality is that the more I learn, and grow, and understand, and experience, the less seems to be absolutely true or certain. I’m okay with that, but these are not qualities that would make me a very good pilgrim.

How I became a modern-day pilgrim

Camino - France

In fact, pilgrimage is not something I’d ever given a second thought to. But then, about a year and a half ago, a childhood friend contacted me, asking, “Have you ever considered walking the Camnio de Santiago?”

There was silence, and then I laughed, “I’ll have to Google that; I’ve never heard of it…”

“Well, it’s an ancient pilgrimage route. I want to walk it next year, for my fortieth birthday, I thought maybe you’d go with me.”

And with that simple exchange, I became a pilgrim.

Jade was that girl in high school who ate lunch with Jack Kerouac more often than she did with us.

Jade was that girl in high school who ate lunch with Jack Kerouac more often than she did with us. She talked about esoteric things. She studied philosophy. She was planning adventures that involved hitching across the country, playing music in smoky bars, and maybe hopping trains at some point. She was a hopeless romantic. She had an advantage over all of us, because her parents had been real hippies.

Twenty-some years on, life has changed her. Marriage. Children. A university degree. A house in the suburbs. It’s not that she didn’t get her dreams, its just that some dreams became more important than others and life sneaks up on a girl.

She never took off with her backpack. She didn’t vagabond across continents. She hasn’t taken her Kerouac style road trip. In fact, she hasn’t left Canada, except for the odd family vacation to Disney World.

She is still a philosopher. She still talks about esoteric things and is a believer in many senses. Her hair is still beautiful and wild. She still sees in me a friend, a confidante, and partner in crime and adventure. I feel wildly lucky to have been invited along on her adventure, her first international trip since childhood, and on a pilgrimage that she hopes will be a turning point in midlife.

Twenty-some years on, life has changed her. Marriage. Children. A university degree. A house in the suburbs. It’s not that she didn’t get her dreams, its just that some dreams became more important than others and life sneaks up on a girl.

Jade is a proper pilgrim, in the traditional sense. I am somewhat of an impostor.

It is our unlikely dichotomy in this project that has me asking so many questions. It’s got me thinking about the concept of pilgrimage, in the modern sense, and why so many folks are still drawn to religious quests, when so many of us have let go of the bright red balloon we held so tightly in childhood.

So many questions swimming in my head

Pilgrims

  • Why is it important to my friend to take this particular walk?
  • Could she not have taken her mid-life break on a beach in the Bahamas, or at a restful cabin in the great north woods?
  • Why the Camino?
  • Why something that is braided tightly into her Catholic roots?
  • Why something that she knows damned well is going to hurt before she’s done?
  • Why plunge into the deep end of a culture and language she does not know in order to find her path on this side of the world?
  • Is the concept of pilgrimage something that’s really tied to our religious inclinations, or is it something deeper than that, woven directly into the essence of our humanity?
  • And if so, what’s that about?

Being me, I’m also thinking a lot about the hundreds of other people that I don’t know yet, who are preparing, in their own ways, all over the world, to meet us on the Camino. I’m thinking about the life changing friends I haven’t met yet. I’m thinking about the mystery of serendipity and how this always happens for us, everywhere we go: people who are living now, all around us, but who haven’t presented themselves yet, are preparing to rock our worlds forever. I love that. I’m already thinking about who they are and what they’re doing. I’m thinking of what to talk about with them and the questions that I most want to ask. I’m thinking about pilgrimage, and how the mystery of that timeless act is drawing me in, in spite of my disbelief.

It’s impossible not to think about the greater significance of participating in something that has been life-changingly meaningful for countless hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people before me.

When I told Jade I’d go, I fully intended to just rock up with my boots and take a walk, which is exactly what I’m doing, but it’s impossible not to think about the greater significance of participating in something that has been life-changingly meaningful for countless hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people before me. What’s that about?

What is a modern pilgrimage? Why are we still doing this?

With those two questions echoing in my cranial cavity, I’ve got a couple of projects up my sleeve.

I’m unplugging, largely, for nearly two months to take this walk. I’m dedicating the time I have walking and talking with other pilgrims to asking these questions and collecting the answers. I’m taking my camera and conducting as many interviews as I can, curating the stories that find me on The Way.

Jade has also, graciously, allowed me to open the window to her soul and document her journey, even the hard and ugly parts. I want to answer those questions in a very personal way for just one pilgrim, the one I love most, the one I’ll be walking with.

If you have a few minutes, I’d like to introduce you to my lovely friend, Jade:

Do you have questions about this idea of modern pilgrimage? Perhaps you’ve taken a pilgrimage yourself and have a story to share? Leave a comment, or contact me, I’d love to include you in the project!

Photo credits: Miguel Angel Garcia, aherrero, aherrero



Leave a Comment

  • Aaron Rose said at 2014-07-17T06:05:13+0000: Best thing I ever did! Changed my perception of a lot of things including travel and the way I travel. Ever since completing it about 5 or 6 years ago though I have been looking for something similar to challenge me, does anyone have any ideas about something similar? (Also good luck with it! When times are tough carry on - if you are like me and so many others I met you will look back with only the fondest of memories at the end).
  • Cristina Puscas said at 2014-07-16T19:02:10+0000: I would love to do Camino de Santiago one day. Not for the religious significance but for the "being active" part. Just don't ask me *why* this particular route. I just got stuck wt this idea after reading some articles on best walks / hikes in Europe.