In its issue of August 7, 2014, the influential German news magazine Der Spiegel published a story about pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), which for centuries has been the route of a pilgrimage ending in the town of Compostela in the northwest of Spain. Its cathedral is believed to contain the remains of the apostle Santiago/St. James the Greater (I don’t know what happened to the body of St. James the Lesser). Santiago, one of the Apostles, is supposed to have been martyred in Jerusalem, after which his remains were for some reason transported to Compostela. When the cult of Santiago began, Spain was a territory fought over by Christians and Muslims (Moors); the saint became a patron of the Christian reconquest of Spain (reconquista); he is rather embarrassingly still known as Santiago Matamoros/St. James, Killer of Moors. The town came to be called Santiago de Compostela, the destination of pilgrims ever since the 9th century. The pilgrimage was very popular throughout the Middle Ages, then was rarely undertaken for several centuries. There has been a rising interest since the 1980s and 1990s, with the number of pilgrims growing from year to year—in 2013 there were over 200,000. They now come from all over the world, the largest group of foreigners consisting of Germans (they know the Camino as the Jakobsweg). A book about it is currently a bestseller in Germany and a German television documentary is about to be shown. The pilgrims are a heterogeneous crowd—of different nationalities and religious backgrounds, young and old, coming with different motives.Catholics are probably in the minority now. (The Spiegel article did not pay much attention to them, reflecting an anti-Catholic bias that has characterized the magazine ever since its foundation by Rudolf Augstein right after World War II.) Of course there continue to be pious Catholics among the pilgrims—they obtain a plenary indulgence (forgiveness of sins) for undertaking the pilgrimage in a sincere spirit of devotion, there are chapels and even a Benedictine monastery along the Camino for the spiritual care of the faithful, and there is a solemn Mass in the cathedral to be attended at the conclusion of the pilgrimage. Thus there is a religious continuity between Catholic pilgrims today and those a thousand years ago—a source of inspiration and comfort for believers.But many contemporary pilgrims come for reasons not based on Catholic faith—a search for some sort of spiritual experience, a temporary life of simplicity that helps one understand what is really important in one’s life and what is not, but there are also purely secular motives: physical exercise and health (weight loss!), fashionable exotic tourism, even (horribile dictum) good opportunities for erotic adventures. A difference is made between “genuine” and “false” pilgrims: The former go on foot for the whole journey, sleep in primitive dormitories, and consume cheap food and wine—just as pilgrims did in the Middle Ages. The latter go by car for some or all of the distance, stay in modern hotels, and even celebrate the completion of the exercise by staying at the luxury hotel across from the cathedral in Compostela. Some pilgrims choose accomodations which advertise Internet connections, others say that they enjoy the absence of emails. All pilgrims receive a certificate upon arrival, if they can show that they marched on foot for at least one hundred kilometers. There are different traditional routes, the most arduous one begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France—at a distance of 769 kilometers from Compostela. There are souvenir shops all along the Camino, their products exhibiting the Santiago logo—T-shirts, scarves, condoms(!).[A confession: I was a “false” pilgrim many years ago. I travelled with my wife and our then young children in a rented car that kept breaking down. When we arrived and wanted to check in at the aforementioned luxury hotel, a so-called Parador (this was an occasion to splurge), it turned out that the hotel was on strike, as were all restaurants and cafes in the region. We were allowed to sleep in a room with unmade beds, where we ate bread and cold cuts which we purchased in stores that were not on strike. After a perfunctory visit to the cathedral, we abandoned the car at the airport and took a plane to Germany. It was indeed an experience of the simple life, but, sorry to say, quite bereft of spiritual benefits.]I was struck by two episodes reported in the lengthy Spiegel article. One concerned Gabriel, a thirty-year old man who had been studying theology in Germany and intended to become a Catholic priest, and Monika, aged 29, a fiery and stunningly beautiful Hungarian. Monika was prepared to battle the whole Catholic Church in order to lure Gabriel away from his intended vocation. The Spiegel reporter did not stay long enough to know the outcome. The other episode involved Justin and Patrick, two middle-aged Americans, close friends since childhood. Justin is mortally ill, will probably die soon. He happened upon on a TV program about the Camino and was strongly drawn to it. He spoke about this to his friend, who said “I will push you”. So he did. The journey was particularly strenuous for both of them, of course especially for Patrick. On the last leg of the journey (their wives were waiting for them in Compostela) they were met by seventeen fellow-pigrims from ten countries, who helped the two exhausted friends to make it to the end. Both said that this journey was “the best time of our life”.I think that the Camino is an excellent illustration of a very ancient piety interacting with modernity, seemingly without serious tensions. Even very “genuine” pilgrims expressed tolerance of the commercialism along the way (even if they probably did not purchase condoms with the Santiago logo). This interaction also throws interesting light on the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality” without specific religious ties.Pilgrimages have occurred throughout history and are still important in many places today. Compostela is not the only destination of Catholic pilgrims today. In addition to Jerusalem and Rome, the two cities that were such destinations since ancient times, there are the more modern cases of Lourdes and Fatima. Pilgrimages have become an important aspect of the post-Soviet revival of Orthodoxy in Russia. The Western Wall in Jerusalem, the only part of the Second Temple still sending, is visited by Jews from all over the world. The Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca is enjoined for every Muslim who is able, at least once in a lifetime. There are innumerable pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists. Two very close to each other in northern India are Benares (now called Varanasi), where pious Hindus can immerse themselves in the holy water of the Ganges (in defiance of modern hygiene), and Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon in its Deer Park. I visited both places on my first trip to India, many years ago. I remember the stark contrast: The scene on the riverbank in Benares is tumultuous: throngs of pilgrims crowding the steps leading to Mother Ganga, corpses being burned on the many ghats just above, holy men (some completely naked) available to recite mantras or give spiritual advice. At least then, Sarnath was a quiet place: few pilgrims, some monks in saffron robes going back and forth between the temples (most from eastern or southeastern Asia), the park kept orderly and well swept—a palpable scene of Buddhist tranquility. If one goes back in history, pilgrimages were commonly undertaken as an attempt to bargain with the gods—I will walk barefoot and hungry for many miles to this or that sanctuary, and you will make me pregnant or heal my child. This kind of negotiation is still going on very often today. A more common motif is prevalent today (as indeed it was in the past, along with the effort to cause supernatural interventions). It is an expectation of something wonderful and redemptive waiting in this particular place for those who come there with true devotion.Daniele Hervieu-Leger is one of the most insightful sociologists of religion working today. She is on the faculty of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris (she directed it in 2004-2009). In 1999 she published a book, The Convert and the Pilgrim (in French). It delineates two important types of individuals prominent on the religious scene today—those who claim to have attained certainty about a significant truth (often through a powerful conversion experience), and those still searching for it. Hervieu-Leger has emphasized that, because of the fact that in a modern society few religions are taken for granted, individuals engage in bricolage, putting together into a personal construct bits and pieces from different traditions, like a child tinkering with Lego pieces. The American sociologist Robert Wuthnow (Princeton) has described the same phenomenon as “patchwork religion”. Bricolage and “patchwork” are terms very relevant to the so-called “nones”—people who enter “none” when asked in surveys for their religious affiliation. Many of them will also say that they are “spiritual but not religious”.The Unitarians are one American denomination that defines itself as “a community of seekers”. The Unitarian Universalist Association (abbreviated as UUA; the term “church” is deliberately omitted) resulted from a merger in 1961 between two quite different groups, both originally Protestant: the Unitarians, originally characterized, as the name implies, by rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Universalists who asserted that at the end of time salvation will be universal (hell emptied of all its denizens). The former group has a more impressive history. It came out of New England Congregationalism, became prominent in Boston in the 18th century in the intellectual elite that rejected the earlier Calvinism (Harvard was an original center). For convenience’s sake, members of the denomination are simply referred to as Unitarians. Today Christianity is optional. The website of the UUA describes itself as “a theologically diverse religion that encourages people to see their own spiritual path”. Asked about the common content of this “religion”, I suppose that most Unitarians today would say “none”. There are jokes about this vacuity: “What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who goes from door to door and doesn’t know why.” “What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan? Someone who burns a question mark on your front lawn.” (Both jokes were told to me by a Unitarian minister.) I will not enlarge here on the irony that a progressive political orthodoxy has replaced the Christian theological orthodoxy by Unitarians. (Perhaps a certain climax of this was reached when the UUA declared its headquarters on famed Beacon Hill in Boston to be a “nuclear-free zone”, thus, I suppose, allaying fears that Unitarian terrorists are building an atomic weapon in the basement—perhaps to use against Republican pro-life activists?) But for now let me just suggest that that you don’t laugh for too long: There is something attractive about a group that honestly calls itself “a community of seekers”. The term nicely fits most of us.Another term for “seeker” would be “agnostic”. That is a very different thing from an “atheist”. An atheist claims to know that God does not exist; an agnostic admits that he doesn’t know whether God exists or not. Preachers commonly propose that the opposite of faith is unbelief, which they tend to see as a sort of sin. I think that this juxtaposition is misleading. The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. A freshman taking a Philosophy 101 course may try to convince me that I cannot prove that the skyline of Boston I see outside the window is not a figment of my imagination. That hypothesis may be a useful exercise for an introductory philosophy course, but that is playing a mental game. Actually, I do know that the world exists. Unless I have had a mystical experience, I don’t know that God exists. But I can say that I believe (have faith) in him. Atheism is a rather childish business, depending for its effect on the availability of fundamentalists who can be upset. Agnosticism, on the other hand, describes the situation of most of us. As I have argued elsewhere, faith laced with a penumbra of doubt is the likely outcome for most religious believers in the pluralist modern world. In other words, almost all of us are seekers, not converts.The most famous (and infamous) pilgrimages of European history are the Crusades. They began in 1095 CE when Pope Urban II at the so-called Council of Clermont addressed a large crowd, mostly of knights and ordinary people from France, calling for the raising of an army. The immediate aim was to respond to an appeal from the Byzantine emperor for help against the Muslim Seljuq Turks, who were conquering large territories on his borders. But the aim became much larger: to free Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim domination. This larger purpose inflamed the imagination of Christendom, and led to wave after wave of individuals of different social ranks to “take up the cross” and march east to the lands they called Outremer (“Beyond the Sea”). The Crusades lasted for about two centuries, after which they were swept away by warriors of resurgent Islam. Jerusalem was captured early on, and a number of Latin Christian states were set up in Syria-Palestine and Asia Minor.The Crusaders were a mixed lot, some of them actually armed pilgrims intent on what they thought of as a holy task (the crowd at Clermont had responded to the Pope’s address by shouting “Dieu le veult!” (“God wills it”, in medieval French). Other Crusaders had more mundane purposes—to acquire feudal estates, titles and booty, and sheer adventure. The Crusades also perpetrated a string of atrocities, massacres on the way of Jews (especially in the Rhineland) and conquered Muslims (including a savage one right after the Mass celebrating the fall of Jerusalem). Ironically, given the fact that the whole business had begun with an appeal for help by the Byzantine emperor, in 1204 an enraged horde of Crusaders sacked Constantinople, massacring many Orthodox fellow-Christians. It is no wonder that ”Crusaders” has become a term of opprobrium in the Middle East to this day. These revolting facts do not expunge the note of high romance that animated the Crusading enterprise from its outset to the tragic episode of the Children’s Crusade in 1212.Harold Lamb’s still very readable popular history, The Crusades, was published in 1931. It captures the romance and the hope of redemption, as well as the atrocious underside. Lamb ends the book with the statement that there will always be those seeking “that Jerusalem which lies forever beyond all the seas of this world”.
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Published on: August 13, 2014
Religion and ModernityPilgrims
There is something attractive about a group that calls itself “a community of seekers.” The term nicely fits most of us today.