The Accidental Pilgrim
by maggi dawn
Pilgrimage is not just for the benefit of the pilgrim: it’s for the world:
“Anthony the Great, sometimes called ‘the father of monks’, set the example here. He went to live in complete solitude in the desert in about AD 285 and attracted plenty of followers. After twenty years in the desert, he left his hermitage to act as spiritual father to a group of coenobites. Five years later he again retreated into solitude, where he remained until he died at the grand old age of 105 – except for two occasions when he visited Alexandria, once to encourage Christians who were under persecution there, and again in 338 when Athanasius called on Anthony to help him stand up against the heretical teachings of Arius – thereby making it clear by his actions that pilgrimage is not just for the pilgrim, but for the wider world, the ‘other’.”
Pilgrimage is about more than just going on a long walk – in fact, you can be a pilgrim without going anywhere, or walk a thousand miles on a pilgrim route and never be more than a hiker:
“For me there was, perhaps, a touch of irony in falling accidentally into pilgrimage only just at a point in my life when circumstances began to limit my freedom to travel. As a result, it seemed to me that even as I was learning the rules, I was rewriting them. But I have come to the realization that pilgrims have always rewritten the rules. The impulse to travel and the urge to find transformation have collided in different ways, so that a great patchwork of interpretations has given shape to the idea of pilgrimage both as a journey to illuminate life and as a journey through life itself. Abraham, Jonah, Helena and Brendan needed to make actual, physical journeys to find the key to life, the Desert Fathers and monastics chose the wilderness, while Luther called people simply to stay exactly where they were. St Paul spent his life travelling, but preached that the true journey was in another dimension. But of all the examples available to us to follow, and of all the writers who have left a record of their own pilgrimage, none of them suggests that we should simply follow their instructions; each one has also left us a mandate to break with convention and reinvent pilgrimage just as they did.
Whether inspiration comes from the reckless adventures of the peregrini, Helena’s concern for historical connection to the place, the lateral, imaginative vision of a poet, or the solitary pursuit of a hermit, the common thread is that every kind of pilgrimage pushes us into uncharted territory, either mentally or physically, and the end result is a transformation of a kind we couldn’t have anticipated. In the end, whether by accident or on purpose, it’s not where you go but who you become that makes you a pilgrim.”