I’m about to embark on a pilgrimage.
It’s a funny word, pilgrimage. Kind of old-fashioned. Definitely religious; it comes hand-in-hand with the word pilgrim, which is hard to disassociate from the Thanksgiving lore of wide collars and big-buckled hats. It’s the sort of word you might hear on the news – hundreds of thousands make pilgrimages to the Wailing Wall every year – rather than something you might drop into a casual conversation: After I come back from that business conference, I think I’ll take a few weeks and go on a pilgrimage.
What a pilgrimage is, at its core, is a journey to a place where you can find an answer to a profound question.
And I want one.
About the Place
Nearly every religion in the world, and not a few non-secular philosophies, tell us that the answers to all our questions can be found within ourselves. The religious among us believe that is because God is within us. The philosophical believe that is because truth is within us.
I don’t know that it matters what one calls it. The basic essence is that you are supposed to look within.
Which means that the place you go for answers is all in your head.
We have trouble with this. I certainly do. It’s more difficult to see oneself as a holy place than it is to see, well, a holy place as a holy place. If my body is a holy place, then my holy place recently overfilled the laundry basket and didn’t go for a run this morning. It is hard to believe that the sun-damaged, slightly overweight holy place that looks back from the mirror has answers.
Temples, churches, sacred ruins, even a beautiful forest, a desert under moonlight, are much easier. These places look like someplace that answers can be found. And because they look right, we believe that they are right, and that belief makes it far easier to ask the questions and find the answers we seek.
Yet even these places owe their holiness to the thousands of people before you who came for the specific purpose of looking inward. They came for prayer or meditation or sanctuary or solace. Every one of them stopped the rest of their lives in this spot to look inward, even for a few moments.
That sort of devotion wears its marks into the stones. It’s impossible, no matter what you believe or what your faith, to go somewhere where the devoted have been and not feel the presence of all that belief. It is impossible not to want to do the same.
About the Journey
There are rituals for every pilgrimage. Often these take the form of markings or clothing one wears; the rituals are designed not only to show others that you are on a pilgrimage, but also to remind yourself that the journey is not just any journey. It is not a mere moving from one place to another.
The journey is part of the reflection. Rituals – certain foods to eat, certain clothing to wear, certain words to say – help to remind you that even if the place is where you will find the answer, the journey will prepare you to ask and to hear it.
About the Question and the Answer
A pilgrimage always comes with a question. Sometimes it is as simple as where do I come from? Sometimes it is as complex as is what I believe real? or what should I do?
Some go on a pilgrimage seeking guidance without knowing what the question is, and this always a mistake. As Douglas Adams noted, a correct answer without the correct question is useless. If the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42, then what was the question?
I’m embarking on a pilgrimage because I want to know what the quest is.
I’ve been on many quests. Some of them weren’t my own. Some were accidental. Some were grandly conceived and promptly failed the moment I set foot on the road. I have never in my life decided on a singular quest and wholeheartedly pursued it for its own sake.
I would like to. I would like to have one goal to which I can bend myself until it is complete.
And then I will choose the next quest. And the next. I haven’t gotten that far yet.
I want to know what the first quest is.
The First Quest
Usually I tell a folk story. This is a story from my life.
The man I’m in love with found his first quest not long ago.
He had never before asked himself what quest he wanted. He took them as they were given to him, and he performed admirably and well. He was respected and admired by those who knew him; they spoke of him as a good and an honest and a hardworking man, and he prided himself in being all of these things at all times.
I asked him once what he wanted in his life – what quest, what ambition – and he told me about the near future plans, the next project, the next few years.
No, I said. What do you want to have accomplished in your life? What legacy?
His answer made light of the fact that it was no answer, but it hurt him. I could see that it hurt him. It was not something he wished to think about. And he tried very hard not to think about it for some months, while the world around him grew worse and worse, and all of the many virtues he’d cultivated in himself were met by indifference and deception, promises broken, lives torn.
He held on to protect his people, which is what he always does, and he slowly fell apart inside.
One day he told me he was leaving me. Something was wrong in the world inside him, and he had to seek out the dragons and vanquish them, or at least come to peace with them. He loved me, he said, and he would come back.
I let him go.
He is methodical, and I know he will track down his dragons one by one, and that the only thing on his mind as he confronts them will be this one dragon. He cannot think of other dragons, though they are impending; or of home, which is a comfort; or of me, who he loves. For this moment there is only the quest.
Why I Pilgrimage First
He had never asked the question, and when he did he had a single answer. He will have other questions later, and other answers that lead him to new quests.
My problem is not that I do not ask the question. My problem is that I ask a thousand questions all at once, and this gives me a thousand potential quests to follow.
I have never narrowed my vision to a single one.
I think perhaps it is time to do that. Especially since I am truly terrible, when my partner is gone a-questing, at being the one who stays behind, waving a handkerchief from a high window.