Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pilgrimages to urbanity?

Whan that Aprille, with hies shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendered is the flour...
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

This week my talk in the "Sense of Place" series dealt with religious and natural places. Most of what I said I've discussed in my April post on Roger W. Stump's classification of sacred spaces and my own classification of individual relationships to sacred space. But a number of people mentioned that they were hoping to hear a good bit about pilgrimages. This surprised and alarmed me, because (a) pilgrimage sites are but one type of sacred cities, which itself is only one part of Stump's seven-fold classification; (b) I don't know that much about pilgrimages. I've read The Canterbury Tales, and I know about Santiago de Compostela from the movie "The Way" and Loreena McKennitt's instrumental track "Santiago," and I can spell Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca which is sort of obligatory for all Muslims). That's about it.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, from Wikipedia
Just thinking about those three pilgrimages, though, an interesting pattern emerges. None of these stories focuses on the pilgrimage site, the path taken there, or the religion that underlies it.

Pilgrims to Santiago, from
The pilgrimage story (shift to the singular is intentional) is about the encounter with other pilgrims. Consider:
  • The tales qua tales in The Canterbury Tales are told by the travelers to each other when they meet by chance in an inn along the route. The pilgrimage has thrown together a random bunch of pilgrims who in that stratified society might otherwise never have met: a knight, a miller, a cook, a man of law, a prioress, and so forth.

  • Martin Sheen's character in "The Way" intends to do the pilgrimage to Santiago by himself as a memorial to his dead son. He encounters others unwillingly at first, but by journey's end has acquired a little community of friends he would never have befriended back home, most memorably the brassy Canadian played by Deborah Kara Unger.

  • On Santiago, Loreena McKennitt wrote in the liner notes to her 1994 album "The Mask and Mirror": Santiago in the years 900 to 1500... rivalled Jerusalem and Rome as a pilgrimage destination, playing host to a motley tide of humanity pursuing both religious and more earthy goals. It was also the site of unprecedented cross-cultural fertilization between the Christian, Jewish and Moorish communities.

  • Going on the Hajj changed Malcolm X's life. He returned still angry about racism in America, but with a new vision of getting to a post-racist future. He wrote to an assistant in New York: There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white... [O]n this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.

    Malcolm X on his 1964 trip to Mecca, swiped from
      The miracle of these pilgrimages is not anything supernatural, but creation of diverse communities. In encountering diverse people in meaningful ways, we learn their stories and gain empathy and broader social perspective. Which is what urbanism is all about, too. (I hope my pilgrimage fans come back next week to hear about that.) A good pilgrimage site, like a good city, provides the impelling form that brings people together. And then--magic!--community happens.

      1 comment:

      1. It was interesting to hear in your lecture how Malcolm X felt compelled to change how he thought about race relations after being in the environment of the Hajj pilgrimage.

        I heard some news last week about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hosting some Israeli college students to allow them to ask him questions. That is a step in the right direction. It seems that both sides have a "sacred sense of place" that is so strong that peaceful coexistence is only a dream.


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