The art of pilgrimage

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DRAWING ON THE ARTS BY ELIZA FERNBACH

Pilgrimage

Outside of church bulletins, where annual trips to sacred places are advertised as holy holidays for the faithful, the experience of a pilgrimage has lost its place in the rituals of human development.

The Robert Louis Stevenson tale, “Kidnapped,” is in fact, a grandly recounted pilgrimage. The central character sets out to claim an inheritance that he imagines will set him up for life. In the course of his quest he is assaulted by everything that money cannot solve.

The details of his discoveries along his way make for exciting reading. The details of Justin Bieber’s demise and so many other now quotidian horrors that are broadcast more widely do not make for exciting reading or viewing – even if they are more readily available than the carefully written, edited and presented pages of our former information highways: books, newspapers and magazines.

Since the Internet brings everything to us, there is not much necessity for travel to anything. But I still believe that going to the thing you desire is the most exciting and enriching way to have the pilgrim experience. Sometimes just getting away from the things you are certain of can be as enriching as having a goal. That journey to discovery was never more evident to me than the day a new friend here in Pictou county answered a question about the way to get from New Glasgow to Pictou like this:

“Well, it is down the highway. There is an exit and you can get there in 20 minutes or you can take two weeks. It is up to you.”

When I’m in a hurry and I want instant gratification, I remember the beauty of his answer. It is an answer that holds much of the power of a pilgrimage. A journey that is on the way to some place or person or thing which reveals the road inside. The path of hopes and dreams.

Somehow the hitchhiker has become a suspicious example of this kind of journey, but in a time when we were less sure of everything by technology, and more interested in finding out about ourselves by knowing others (not like-ing them by clicking on a button), a stranger on the roadside on their way somewhere was someone who might bring more information or the answer to a long-held question. This is a partial explanation of the possibilities that a pilgrimage offers. Some take trips assured by a specific tour guide (church or community or travel agent aligned) while others prefer to pilgrim all by themselves in the company of strangers who become friends. Sometimes the new friend is the inner stranger who today is bound and gagged by the Internet and its clever devices. Some days when I have to get to Halifax for a specific reason, I speed intently down the highway. I have a desire that makes all pauses brief. Other times I am free from the bounds of that want and I faithfully traipse along allowing myself to stop wherever my heart puts on the brakes or wherever I notice I am needed.

The Jesuits, an all-male Catholic order, still maintain the practice of the pilgrimage for their hopeful candidates. In a quaint nod to the founder’s solo wanderings which were driven by pride and vainglory, the Jesuit novices are sent off for a month with a bus ticket and $35. They know they will return to the fold when they have completed their little trip. But a real pilgrim sets out without a defined return. In fact true pilgrimages are not advertised or prescribed. They arrive along the way we call life by attending to desires. Sometimes this means a pilgrimage is a journey into pain. Sometimes it is a voyage out of suffering. The best thing in our voraciously consumer-driven times is that a pilgrimage is free. Or rather a pilgrimage costs the very most expensive price one can pay: time and attention. 

There is an old cliché that says strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. Sometimes think I am a stranger to myself until I get out on the roads of our county and at the same time brave the paths of my own imagination. The month of June marks the beginning of many such summer pilgrimages. Whether you are going to see friends, relatives, a concert, an ancestral home or just following your heart along the highway, I hope your pilgrimage reveals interior riches and affords you enchanting discoveries that will take the rest of the year or perhaps the rest of your life to savour. As I write, I hear the whistle of a distance freight train. It reminds me of one of my grandfather’s pilgrimages. He hopped a freight train at the age of 14 in Manitoba and landed in Montreal. There, he found his first newspaper job as the mailroom clerk at the Montreal Gazette. Several years and some pilgrimages later he became the managing editor of that paper and then retired to edit a country newspaper in rural Quebec. He was my first example of the pilgrim spirit; a spirit that I hold dear and carry on my way; here there and everywhere my Pictou county heart takes me.

 

Eliza Fernbach is a filmmaker and Vice President of the Visual Arts Nova Scotia Executive Committee.

Organizations: Jesuits, Montreal Gazette, Visual Arts Nova Scotia Executive Committee

Geographic location: Pictou, New Glasgow, Halifax Manitoba Montreal Quebec

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