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Monday, 17 November 2008

pilgrimage to a better place

One of things i loved about the year of anthropology i did at university was that it taught about how institutions and social conventions can be stretched by practice and necessity to deal with the wonderfully wide range of human nature.

If one looks carefully you will see the same actions through a thousand social lenses. One activity that has always fascinated is that of pilgrimage, both religious and secular. It serves many purposes, social, personal and more besides. However, notwithstanding Catholic pilgrimages to Lourdes and the like, much of western society has lost the structure of a formalised pilgrimage and it is no surprise to find many of us filling in the gap with our own myriad forms.

These days any trip to any place that holds any degree of importance to any one can become a pilgrimage.... and yet aren't we missing something here? Pilgrimages were never just about the destination, they were about the journey and the difficulties faced along the way. These trials gave us questions and challenges to our selves and became in our own small way hero quests, when a person leaves their home and sets out through a series of trials to gain knowledge and wisdom to bring back for the benefit of the self and the community.

We have diluted the pilgrimage and lost some of the essence that was of such great benefit. Journeys are all too often too easy, involve no hardship and sacrifice that serve as such deep teachers. Even travelling to the four corners of the world does not necessarily represent a struggle. What matters is how the journey is done and what can be learnt along the way.

Can the pilgrimage be revived to serve our emotional needs? Amongst other things it can deal in part with emotions like loneliness, it can be used to teach compassion, something so sorely lacking in this world. It can teach almost anything if framed correctly. And we need not limit ourselves to one pilgrimage, but many to fulfill certain roles for the community and its individuals.

One caveat to a wider concept of pilgrimage would be scale - the nature of mass action means economies of scale both material and spiritual come into play. The Islamic Hajj is a prime example, though it still retains much force for Muslims. The pilgrimage has become an industry and it is a testament to Islam that some of the spirituality that can benefit pilgrims survives.

I think a pilgrimage should be a decentralised, localised affair, and dare one say it, but possibly one that requires the pilgrim to travel solely by foot... they are not meant to be easy, for no lessons would be learned. But they can be rooted in their communities and made relevant to the communities needs.

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