The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground

The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground

by Rosemary Mahoney


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The Singular Pilgrim is a riveting account of one woman's personal quest to find the root of belief among modern religious pilgrims. The intrepid Rosemary Mahoney undertakes six extraordinary journeys: visiting an Anglican shrine to Saint Mary in Walsingham, England; walking the five-hundred-mile Camino de Santiago in northern Spain; braving the icy bathwater at Lourdes; rowing alone across the Sea of Galilee to spend a night camped below the Golan Heights; viewing Varanasi, India’s holiest city, from a rubber raft on the Ganges; soldiering barefoot through the three-day penitential Catholic pilgrimage on Ireland’s Station Island. A fiercely observant traveler and an insightful writer, Mahoney offers a witty and provocative chronicle of her adventures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618446650
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/11/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 418
Sales rank: 769,356
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ROSEMARY MAHONEY is the author of Whoredom in Kimmage, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the New York Times Notable Book The Early Arrival of Dreams. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, she lives in Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION A few years ago a friend of mine, whom I know to be an intelligent and compassionate woman, listened carefully as I told her about a Greek Orthodox pilgrimage I had witnessed on the tiny Cycladic island of Tinos in the Aegean Sea. Each year on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, which marks the spiritual and bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, the Greek Orthodox faithful travel great distances to Tinos to venerate an icon of the Virgin housed in a church atop a small hill at the end of an avenue of marble paving stones. The icon, which was discovered in the early nineteenth century amid the rubble left by an earthquake, is said to have worked miraculous cures and to have granted many pilgrims their individual wishes. The pilgrims arrive by ferry. The moment the gangplank touches the dock, they rush forward, fall to the ground, and begin making their way to the church on hands and knees. Some slither the half-mile on their bellies, poling themselves forward with their elbows in the manner of besieged soldiers creeping through underbrush. Some lie across the street and, like horizontal dervishes, roll themselves slowly up the gradual incline across stones baked torrid by the August sun. As they proceed they pray for miracles and for mercy. Some weep, others call out the name of the Virgin. Many carry on their backs offerings of wax candles the length of their bodies. In the terrible heat the candles droop and sweat. Elderly white-haired widows in black dresses inch their way silently up the hill, humbling themselves in hope of the Virgin’s attention, their frail backs forming saddles for the punishing sun. (Many women in need of divine intervention in some grave family matter—an illness, a wayward or disobedient child, a financial bind, an unfaithful husband—vow to return to Tinos every year if the Virgin will grant the desired outcome.) By the time they reach the church after several hours of crawling, their hands and knees are galled into raw and bloody emblems of their belief. Once before the icon they prostrate themselves in a rapture of spiritual desire.
My friend, who had listened patiently to my story, suddenly shook her head and said with disdain, “How pathetic!” Her remark struck me with a disorienting slap of surprise. It was uncharacteristically dismissive, and it was far enough from my own response to the Tinos pilgrims that I suffered a moment of self-doubt. Had I been wrong in my view of them? Were they in fact pathetic? It was true that standing at the edge of that Tinos street I had been astonished by what I saw, had even looked with skepticism upon some of the more ostentatious displays of piety, and when a military parade of admirals and ensigns came quick-marching up the street in honor of the Virgin I had found the procession pompous and incongruous. But at the end of that day (the flow of pilgrims ran long into the night), after watching untold numbers of elderly women crawling gravely, silently toward their goal, making their souls vulnerable by extending an invitation to one they deemed infinitely superior, something in me was impressed. Belief, whether blind or examined, divinely guided or superstitiously misguided, had made those pilgrims singular and bold, strange and determined. I am attached to reason and am not easily awed by the miraculous powers of the Virgin Mary, but I was awed by her pilgrims. It wasn’t their religion that interested me so much as their faith, that palpable surge of the soul. Were they pathetic? I didn’t think so.

Not long after my visit to Tinos I found in a trunk in my basement an old college notebook in which, nearly twenty years before, I had written: “I’m too forgetful to pray and I fool with religion as though it’s some kind of game to be resumed when I have the urge.” The words surprised and unsettled me. I was thirty-eight, and that was still an accurate description of my relationship to spiritual concerns—a curious but evasive flirtation, one that burgeoned when it was convenient and died when it wasn’t. For years I had been aware of something faintly glowing at the back of my own soul, and for years I had effectively ignored it. To thoroughly examine one’s spirituality, to question with care the source and the essence of creation was a maddening, sometimes nauseating struggle. I had simply found it easier to fend off those questions with the false promise that I would deal with them later.
Spurred by the Tinos pilgrims and the words of my younger self, I .shed out of the same basement trunk my college Bible, the only one I owned at that time, and began rereading the New Testament. In the Gospel according to Matthew, I found several passages that I had longg ago marked with a dull pencil. One stood out: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, norrrrr two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.” I had drawn a mushy graphite box around the words. Unlike most of my other underlinings and bracketings, this was not a pithy aphorism or a wise piece of advice that I thought applicable to myself. It was a command from Jesus to his disciples to trust, travel humbly, and spread his word. As soon as I read the passage I knew why I had marked it. It had seemed—as it seemed now—entirely unrealistic. No money? No provisions? No change of clothing? Live off the generosity of those you encounter along the way? Find out who is worthy? It was a command to wander and spread the word, and in the age I lived in, that proposition was not only preposterous, it was dangerous. (Within six months of my noting those words in Matthew, Ronald Reagan and the pope had both been shot at, and John Lennon had been shot dead.) I put down the musty Bible, called my mother, and asked her how she would react if I gave away all of my material possessions, my extra clothing, and whatever tiny wealth I had accumulated, and went walking across the country with no cash on my person, nothing but one pair of sandals and a tunic, and no plan but to seek God and spread the word of Jesus Christ. Would she think I had lost my mind? Would she worry? Would she be horrified by the direction my life had taken, as parents often are when a child under the influence of a religious cult radically alters the course of his life? My mother, a devout Catholic, answered with certitude, “Not at all. I would think that finally one of my children had got it right.” (For my mother the redeeming factor in this hypothetical journey was its particular focus on Jesus. Had I proposed the same scenario of material divestment and extended travel with, say, Buddha as my inspiration and spiritual focus, or Krishna and Shiva, or Allah and Muhammad, or the Hebrew God, or Mother Earth, or Elvis Presley, I am certain that her answer would have been markedly different.) Although the possibilities and meaning inherent in the human search for spirituality had always inspired curiosity in me, and though from time to time I had been nagged by uncertainty over the lack of spiritual focus in my life, my rare attempts at spiritual enlightenment had been halfhearted, conventional, and thwarted by a wavering faith. Upon reading the New Testament I may have mused about embarking on a spiritual peregrination, but there had never been a time in my life when it was even remotely likely that I would take to the road with nothing but a pair of sandals on my feet, looking for God. My experiences with shrines and holy places, as at Tinos, had been strictly touristic—glancing and accidental observations of the devotions of true pilgrims, whose realm I stood apart from. I had never been a participant.
When I lived in China in the late 1980s, I watched with fascination the scores of Chinese peasants who walked hundreds of miles in flimsy cloth slippers from their farms to the city to pay homage at Buddhist temples in hopes of a prosperous planting season. I had seen Irish Catholic pilgrims climbing the mountain Croagh Patrick on their knees in order to save their souls. In New Mexico I had seen crutches and canes hanging from nails driven into the wall of the Santuario de Chimayo, where the soil of the chapel floor is said to have curative properties. In Coptic Cairo I had seen evangelical Korean Christians singing hymns, eyes closed in devotion, near the purported hiding place of Jesus and Mary.
Though my interest in such pilgrimage exercises was passive, it was never difficult for me to sense the spiritual weight of these holy places and the weight of feeling the pilgrims carried with them, believing wholeheartedly and seeking unabashedly as they do. Their pilgrimages triggered in me a small degree of envy. If it is true that the largest human gatherings in the world are those of religious pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem during Holy Week or Mecca during Ramadan or the banks of the Ganges at the Kumb Mela festival, what inspires that phenomenon, and why hadn’t it managed to reach me? Why wasn’t I drawn to participate in such activities?
I read Jennifer Westwood’s comprehensive guide, Sacred Journeys, and learned that across the ages the forms of pilgrimage have been as varied as its goals and results. Some pilgrims see the very difficulty of their physical journey as the ultimate source of redemption and renewal. Medieval Christians, for example, felt that mortification of the flesh was the most direct route to salvation: for each arduous journey to a European shrine of note, centuries were believed to be subtracted from the stay in purgatory. Hindus also believe that mortification of the flesh leads to higher spirituality and virtue as well as the expiation of sins. Other pilgrims see physical contact with or proximity to the relics of saints or prophets as salubrious. Still others focus on geological wonders that are thought to be invested with a divine force. Many pilgrims, seeing their journey as a transaction, set off with specific temporal rewards in mind: a cure, a change of fortune, a better job, high marks on an examination. (Westwood writes of a shrine in Mexico where drug traffickers annually pay homage to a dead bandit—lighting votive candles, wearing scapulars, seeking the bandit’s intervention for a healthy harvest for the cocaine and marijuana farmers, as well as blessings for the safe passage of drugs into the United States. “Their hit men reputedly ask him to bless their bullets.”) Whatever its purpose, pilgrimage seemed both a preparation for death and a hedge against it.
Drawn by the subject of pilgrimage, I began reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and found myself asking new questions. With the modern corrosion of organized religion and the emergence of quick spiritual fixes and alluring self-help seminars now available in exchange for little more than money, why was the religious pilgrimage—a practice that reached its height in medieval times—not only still thriving at the end of the twentieth century but enjoying a marked resurgence? How had the ease and swiftness of modern travel altered the traditional pilgrimage? What stories lay behind contemporary spiritual searches, who undertook them, what exactly constituted a pilgrimage, and why, at any point in history, have human beings felt the need to leave the place they know and travel great distances to envision or experience God at a previously ordained site? Why do certain places on earth seem to possess a greater holiness than others? Why would God be likely to show his face in one place and not another? The self can certainly be transformed by a physical journey, but in what way would it be changed by a physical journey with a spiritual intent?
What most appealed to me in Chaucer’s tales was their revelations about the nature of medieval secular life precisely as it intertwined with the religious devotion of his pilgrims. Their stories create an entire world in which the physical body is contrasted with the spirit, and the basest impulses of human nature coincide with the highest. The concerns of the Canterbury pilgrims run the gamut from proper social mores, chivalry, piety, and honor to blasphemy, lechery, lasciviousness, and buffoonery. The pursuit of God in the face of mundane pressures and demands, the force of true belief, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to transcend their humanity and find spiritual solace are elemental and have remained fundamentally unaltered through the ages.

In 1999 I was inspired to explore several religious pilgrimages that interested me and to write about my experiences, the people I met, and the meaning of these journeys undertaken in the name of an unknowable, unseeable God. I visited the shrine at Lourdes, walked the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela, participated in the penitential Irish pilgrimage at St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island, spent two weeks in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, attended the Anglican pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Walsingham, England, and visited several pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. While the resulting six chapters are discrete, each with its own particular cosmos and religious references, they are all parts of one longer journey.
At its core the pilgrimage search concerns the relationship of the individual self to God, beyond the standard rituals of a religious institution; it is an attempt to achieve a direct personal connection with the divine. As a result, this is less a book about religion than a book about belief. In the two years that I spent on the road I met a variety of pilgrims from diverse religious backgrounds; the one constant among them was belief. If I was struck by anything, it was the shared human struggle to find reason, to confront our natural fears of uncertainty and obscurity.
Concluding the second chapter of The Way of Perfection, written for the Discalced Nuns of Our Lady of Carmel of the First Rule, Theresa of Ávila wrote: “I do not remember what I had begun to say, for I have strayed from my subject. But I think this must have been the Lord’s will, for I never intended to write what I have said here.” Starting out on these pilgrimage journeys I felt uneasy—religion as a topic as well as my own uncertainty about God made me uneasy. I used my curiosity and my intentions as a writer as an excuse, an apology, an explanation to myself. I told myself it was merely my job, an intellectual pursuit, that I was writing about the religious aspirations of real pilgrims, which had little to do with me. But I am approximately as strange, conventional, fearful, susceptible, and pathetic as the next person. I don’t look forward to death, and whether I want to admit it or not I share in the human struggle to find reason. What I carried with me on the road was myself, with a history, a disposition, an opinion, and a sensibility through which my experiences were filtered and which, in turn, my experiences altered. I set out to discover one thing and discovered something else. Looking back now, I realize that, like Theresa of Ávila, I never intended to write what I have written in this book.

Copyright © 2003 by Rosemary Mahoney. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

3El Camino de Santiago74
5The Holy Land253
6Saint Patrick's Purgatory335

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