I want you to envision soul—not the soul of dogma that lives on after death, but the living quality of soul that the refulgent Mr. Emerson proclaimed as the remedy for the dead churches of his day: “...first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore soul.” (Someday I will make a more thorough case for the Unitarians as the first “soul” church.) Specifically, I want you to envision what the Irish poet William Butler Yeats memorialized as “the pilgrim soul” in his celebrated poem “When You Are Old”:
“…many loved your moments of glad grace.
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;”
I’m talking this morning about “the pilgrim soul in you and me”
Pilgrim is a vivid image for Americans. In the popular imagination—New England-centric—the Pilgrims of Plymouth were the first settlers: religious dissenters from a hostile Church of England, who covenanted among themselves, freely if not democratically, as they crossed the Atlantic in search of a free (at least for themselves) home, who wrested a home from a so-called wilderness, and who in gratitude established the Thanksgiving feast. In their quaint costumes, the Pilgrims of Plymouth seem more lovable than their radical Protestant cousins, the dour Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.
I’ve long been fascinated by one aspect of the John Wayne cowboy persona—his mature character’s familiar drawling moniker of not buddy or friend or stranger, but of pilgrim. Pilgrim in this regard has a favorable cachet, is a friendly salutation—suggesting, perhaps, a fellow traveler—probably one who’s known some suffering but who is still on a journey.
Whenever I think of pilgrim as a moniker, I think Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of 1974, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which, arguably, had significant impact on the popular understanding of what the condition of a pilgrim might be. Ms. Dillard’s writing in Tinker Creek and subsequent works established her as one of the significant thinkers who bridge the secular and the sacred, demonstrating the secular is sacred. Her writings establish her as a contemporary pilgrim in search of the sacred in the everyday and close at hand.
In recent decades, a more expansive spirituality as contrasted to a narrow religiosity, has recognized pilgrimage as one of the unifying motifs of world religions. Religions have their sacred places and their adherents travel to those places to experience them.
Pilgrimage has become a significant postmodern spiritual discipline. My favorite pilgrimage site/event is the old adobe Sanctuary at Chimayo, New Mexico, on the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe, during Holy Week, when tens of thousands trek to it along narrow highways. A quick search on the Internet brings up a host of businesses that organize religious pilgrimages to sacred places around the world, touching nearly every faith tradition.
And scores of contemporary books have been written about pilgrimages and pilgrims—both as travelogue/tales of discovery (here is a sub-genre, for instance, of the mid-life crisis pilgrimage of self-discovery) and as more analytical studies of the quest or journey for the sacred.
Mathew Fox, a leading voice of contemporary spirituality, describes pilgrims in apt terms: “Pilgrims are not ‘know-it-all’ people but seeking people. They go on pilgrimage to find something they know they do not have—usually something of the heart. A pilgrim is one who does not have all the answers. A pilgrim is not steeped in righteousness, but in humility, with an awareness that we must all be willing to learn together. A pilgrim seeks what s/he does not have. What his/her country, religion or economic system has failed to give. A pilgrim has looked at the dark side of life. A pilgrim people are keenly aware that they have not arrived, are not yet there. The reign of God still eludes us.
“For the pilgrim, the place one seeks is not to be seized, controlled, owned by anyone. A sacred site is a place of reverence. It is not to be manipulated. One’s shoes are to be taken off. One is to be silent, to listen, to pray, and to open one’s heart. A sacred site can change us, but we do not seek to change it.”
And whenever I think of pilgrims and pilgrimage, I recall the narrative poem of Geoffrey Chaucer, “Canterbury Tales,” dating from the fourteenth century. On their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury the various characters agree to tell each other stories along the way. The stories are entertaining and revealing of the teller. Pilgrimages are often group journeys where diverse strangers discover commonalities and comradeship.
So what are characteristics of a “pilgrim soul?”
Aspects of a Pilgrim Soul
A pilgrim soul has depth. Contemporary commentaries about pilgrims are quick to contrast the pilgrim with the tourist who only brushes the surface of a place, who wants to be entertained rather than transformed. A pilgrim soul wants to be transformed.
A pilgrim soul has an instinct for the sacred that is also a love for Creation, including the most intimate expression of Creation: the Self. A pilgrim soul’s answers to Creation—deep resonating to deep.
A pilgrim soul seeks to experience life first hand. The pilgrim soul’s restlessness and yearning is really zest for experience.
A pilgrim soul is curious and often takes a simple and even mundane act and makes an adventure of it. In this regard pilgrim souls are not turnpikers in a hurry to get to a destination, rather they are shunpikers apt to take the blue highways of life to squeeze experience from the journey.
A pilgrim soul is teachable and perhaps fears most of all the conservative sin of “a foolish consistency.” Again, a pilgrim soul’s curiosity is not for mere entertainment but for knowledge that may transform—leading deeper into the depths. A pilgrim soul pays attention to other pilgrim souls—hearing the stories and telling them, too, like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims.
A pilgrim soul is ever growing. Because the pilgrim soul plumbs the depths, her or his experiences are mottled: the tragic marbles the excellent. A pilgrim soul is etched with a quiet wisdom—is truly soulful. Being a pilgrim soul is not a matter of youth or mid-life but continues to death. A pilgrim soul becomes richer and richer.
A pilgrim soul is companionable because he or she first at peace with his or her own self. Yet a pilgrim soul is also her or his own best counsel.
A pilgrim soul is beautiful and useful, as Life is beautiful and useful. A pilgrim soul abets Creation rather than uses or consumes it.
Discover the pilgrim soul in yourself.