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Pilgrimage: Going Out and In

Almost all the world's religions value pilgrimages to holy sites: for example, davening at the ruins of the temple's Western Wall in Jerusalem, walking the long road to the bones of St. James at Santiago de Compostela, undertaking the Hajj to the al-Haram mosque, or planning simple, family outings to Shinto shrines in the verdant countryside of Japan.

It's all founded on an old concept: the deepening of holiness or divinity or spirituality or some otherness in a specific, geographic location. It's as if you can pinpoint God on a map. "Here." Or if not God, then some emissary of God's presence, as in the virgin at Lourdes.

As such, pilgrimage involves map-making: real, physical steps to the manifestation of the divine. If the divine is localized, you need to know how to find it. Some geographers believe the mapmaking impulse is actually predicated on religious pilgrimage.

Religious scholars claim the oldest command of holiness is "Come here." The oracle sits at Delphi, the Buddha sits over Hong Kong--and your job is to get there. Religious duty, then, involves moving toward the divine in a specifically spatial context. To wit, the basic rubric of Torah, the so-called "Old Testament," is "come." Jerusalem is to be the localized presence of God, a city that calls to others, the place where the sacrifices are made to appease God's wrath, where the priests beg for forgiveness. If this is where humans meet God, you'd better get there. In the Hebrew text, almost all journeys to Jerusalem involve some concept of "up," as if Jerusalem is at the height of an arduous ascent--that is, a pilgrimage, even on mundane market days.

All that said, the basic format of pilgrimage changed with the coming of that renegade Jewish sect known as Christianity. The basic religious command was powerfully altered from "come" to "go." If God indwells each believer, then your job becomes moving out of the religious circle and into the world. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel," Jesus said. It's one of the most radical revisions of religion ever made. His emphasis is no longer on coming to a specific site. Your job is to take God into the unknown. You don't go to God; you carry God to others.

Islam followed that Christian paradigm but also held onto  the older notion of localized religious sites. Even Christianity eventually faltered, despite its founder's best intents. Bones and grails and shrouds became pockets of divinity; Rome morphed into another Mecca. To muddle matters more, many traditional "come here" religions became imbued with the burgeoning spirit of "go" in the more easily traversed, modernizing world: the Dali Lama comes to New York, the ultra-orthodox plant synagogues in the wilds of Litchfield county.

For our purposes, that confusion between "come" and "go" that now pervades many of the world's religions also changed the nature of pilgrimage. It caused the focus to shift from the end of the journey to the journey itself. As you "go," you have to begin to align yourself with your goal. The inside has to come to match the outside, "go" to line up with "come" (and "come" to "go"--but that's a much more complicated notion, that the site of holiness begins to morph to match your coming).

Pilgrimage itself then becomes a process of alignment. It's not enough to go and hear the oracle, to march around the Kaaba, to listen to the hermit in his cave. Two things have to come into closer and closer harmonization: the pilgrim and the object of the pilgrimage. Suddenly, as you walk St. James way to Compestelo, it's no longer about there; it's about getting there.

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