The Pilgrim sets out on a journey. And the pilgrim knows where they are going. They may know that the way will be difficult – and sometimes this is a meaningful part of the pilgrimage, but in a sense both the way and the destination are known.
There may be surprises on the pilgrim’s journey but these are secondary. Being on a pilgrimage may be enjoyable but the enjoyment is not the point. There is a difference between a pilgrimage and a holiday; between a pilgrim and a tourist. For the pilgrim there is a purpose and to depart from this purpose is to stop being a pilgrim.
The pilgrim sets out on a pilgrimage for a known purpose – to pay a debt, to express penance, or to seek a blessing. A pilgrimage in this sense is a closed loop – it can be planned, a pilgrim is not open to any experience but chooses among experiences. A pilgrimage has focus and perhaps even a touch of austerity. A pilgrim does not take our everyday concerns and involvements with complete seriousness – they are moving on.
To be immersed in the everyday, involved in our normal relationships, fulfilling our usual roles, is not compatible with a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage may not be a lifestyle, it can be limited in time, but it relies on the everyday – the pilgrim is sustained by their own past and others current work. Just as in modern life our holidays rely on the work that we have done and that others do.
The pilgrim is an old archetype; it comes with a quite medieval flavour. There are of course millions of people on pilgrimage every year. In this sense there are lots of modern pilgrims. But there are figures that feel much more modern to me – the worker, the tourist, even the scholar.
What feels different to me about the pilgrim is the sense of time involved. In some sense the pilgrim is set apart from the everyday; the pilgrimage is a time apart from ordinary time. For me, the modern doesn’t have this sense of a different time – time in the modern world feels all the same. It is simple duration marked off in seconds, or days or years. Time is not qualitative in the modern world, it is always the same. A time of mourning in the modern world can have the sense of a particular amount of time, rather than being a time devoted to a task and characterised by particular feelings.
I think the pilgrim doesn’t quite fit with our modern time sense – with our measurement and precision. And I wonder if this modern time sense isn’t in some senses a loss. If pilgrimage was an honourable and important part of our lives I don’t think we could be so clock driven. There would be a sense of a different order, a sense in which clock time is judged and evaluated – and by more than efficiency.
In brief, I think what I’m reaching for is the sense that, for the pilgrim time can have meaning; it is not only a quantity.
I’m wondering if you have been on a pilgrimage, or, perhaps have the sense of being on one? Do you have the sense that some times are more special than others for you? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments on this post.
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