Pilgrimage: Learning through longing
Pilgrimage: Learning through longing

Pilgrimage: Learning through longing

You can spend a lifetime aware of something, reading about that thing in private, studying it in public, reflecting on it in worship, and yet only finally come to know it by being in its presence.

July 18 th 2011

Although it was over a decade ago, my memory of the philosophy professor's words is vivid: "When we seek to understand and define a concept, we identify examples of that concept and not-examples of the concept."

As a series of P's and not-P's began to cover the blackboard, the mathematics teacher in me was aroused while the humanities student in me, groping for the safety of the Oxford dictionary, was repressed.

Pilgrimage is a strange concept for a careful Protestant like myself. We folks of Northern European descent fondly encourage one another to relish our roots in the sixteenth-century Reformation and spend much time and considerable energy nurturing a cautious, rational approach to life.

Yet suddenly I found myself going on a pilgrimage. The great Conductor in an apparent moment of humour had decided my husband and I would be invited on a Catholic pilgrimage to Israel—the holy land. In my confusion at the extravagance of the invitation I thought, "But I'm not Catholic." And I'd certainly never been on a pilgrimage.

Or had I?

As I pondered the opportunity, I realized that although the week-long trip was credibly orchestrated and carefully planned to the quarter hour, the "pilgrimage" aspect seemed vastly irrational to me.

Why was it called a pilgrimage? I wondered if we would be chasing after emotionally-laden experiences, moments of grippingly passionate insight, blazes of blinding spiritual wonder. As we packed and planned for the trip, I focused on the physical stuff of travel and, aside from re-reading the gospel of Mark, ignored the strange detail that this was meant to be a pilgrimage.

As that January week rushed by, the pages of my journal filled with scribbles describing the places we visited: the maniacal technological marvels of Herod at Caesarea on the sea, the tiny footprint of the Nazareth of two millennia ago, the dismal windy border at Lebanon, the gentle slopes of the Mount of Beatitudes, the shore of the Sea of Galilee where a breakfast fire had been prepared so long ago, the lapping of water on a wooden Tiberian fishing boat, the trickle of the Jordan, the fertility of the desert city of Jericho, the ragged scar of the barrier fence wall that marks too much of the landscape, the ancient olive trees in Gethsemane, the glistening glare of the Temple Mount, the sustained desperate crying of a beautiful young woman leaning on the Wailing Wall, the gentle hills of Bethany, the shocking artifacts in the Israel Museum, the gaudy town of Bethlehem, the repeated slam of metal gates behind us as we walked to the West Bank, the close breath of the one who whispered for alms as I knelt at the holy sepulcher, the Muslim call to prayer competing with our conversation with the priests at the Jerusalem Nuncio as Sabbath fell over the city, the oasis village marking the visitation of two pregnant cousins, the haunting sights and sounds of Yad Vashem, the light-filled marble halls of the echoing Knesset softened by Chagall murals, and late night drinks in the King David Hotel.

What then of the notion of this being a pilgrimage? I wondered, as we wiled away the hours in the luminous Tel Aviv airport before returning home.

I found myself lingering on moments that had been marked by emotion, moments touched by waves of tenderness, by breaths of awe aroused when words of response could find no voice. I thought of Father's reading of the Psalms of Ascent while driving west from Jericho through the hills towards Jerusalem. I recalled the beautiful harmonies of my plain voice blending with those of several hundred in singing Venite Adoremus through the cloud of incense in the grotto of my Saviour's birth. I remembered the tender communion in the tear-drop shaped chapel of Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives where my own grief for choices made by loved ones mingled with the tears of others across the millennia. I recollected the Mass celebrated in the beautiful and marvelously aesthetic space beside the Upper Room, the ache in my knees and the passion in my heart as I knelt during the quiet majesty of Mass at the site of the annunciation. I reflected on the smooth warm touch of the rock and the twinkle of the candles of the devoted at the site of the crucifixion. I paused again over the modest scale and quiet space of the synagogue at Capernaum where early Christians once gathered. The blessed memory of the rocky slopes of the gentle fields over which hosts of angels once sang stirred within me again.

When else had I spent a lifetime aware of something, reading about that thing in private, studying it in public, reflecting on it in worship, and yet only finally come to know it by being in its presence? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Slowly, I came to wonder if perhaps I had indeed been on a pilgrimage before. A dozen or more years earlier, Truth had resonated in her customary quiet manner when I was reading the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason. After exhausting all of her known published works, I yet longed to know her philosophy better and to share in conversation about it. I soon found myself at her graveside in northern England with others who knew and loved her ideas. We walked the lanes she had walked; we poured over her original letters and manuscripts in an Ambleside museum on the campus of the teachers' college she started. I returned home more content and more convicted than ever that Mason indeed had something to contribute to our twenty-first century conversations about elementary and secondary education.

Part of my desire to further understand included more deeply probing Mason's notion that education was life, that education ought to fill, to nourish, and to provide sustenance as a necessary banquet for the mind as food is for the body. I became particularly interested in her ideas about the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing such life into educational settings, and more broadly about how the Spirit brings all of creation to life. Thus I began studying the 1365 fresco that served as a foundation for Mason's Great Recognition with its visual demonstration of the Spirit's working through history, through people, through ideas, to unfold the potential embedded in creation. Rather stimulated with reading the few references I could find on it, I viewed photos of the fresco, prepared talks and presentations on it, and drew elaborate labeled diagrams to explain the symbolism in this painting. Yet it remained at a distance from me. And thus, not so long ago, I found myself, a pilgrim again, in Florence this time, on a Saturday afternoon, standing in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella where the fresco adorns one full wall of the space. Hours of being entirely engrossed in the complexity of the message and the beauty of the space passed. My hunger was satisfied, my longing fulfilled, my knowledge seemed more complete.

As I marveled further on the concept of pilgrimage, I thought of the stories of my parents' births and childhoods in war-ravaged Holland. Food and medicine were scarce for too many years and poverty was a present companion—something many Europeans who lived through that time identify with. Yet there were also reasons for joy in my family that included a famous national site in one of the fields on the medieval-style estate where my grandfather worked the land; in return for his efforts he was provided a straw-roofed home and food for his children. Still, it was not until I found myself under that thousand year old tree, in the spot where my mother had played as a child six decades earlier, that I finally felt I knew my ancestors. As we stood in warm twilight, the leaves of The Thick Tree overhead sparkling as the rays of the setting sun bounced off the dew left by the rains of the day, I grasped the struggle and sacrifice they knew and yet also the reward and gifts from those times of scarcity.

Were these journeys indeed pilgrimages? How were they distinct from other trips where I'd happened on memorable sites, the beauty of which has stayed with me, where my mind has been furnished with places to which I can return for comfort, for enlightenment, for amusement, for courage?

I recall, for example, being surprised by the sculpture and waterfalls at the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C., by its caricature of our people. I remember the amusing sensation of history suddenly folding in a sort of time accordion when I came upon the unexpectedly juxtaposed graves in Santa Croce of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei, all of which were steps from one another and from the memorial statue to the 19th century playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini which later served as the model for the Statue of Liberty. I still delight in memories of the cell of Savonarola, the early Italian reformer, and how the architecture of the convent of San Marco where he lived when he was in Florence reflected both community (open attic above) and individuality (isolated cells), and I continue to be inspired to think further about how our space can, and perhaps ought to, embody our ideals. Occasionally I recall the tremendous strength, dedicated focus, and delicate elegance of the 20-something surfers braving the cold March waters of the California Pacific at Huntington Beach and find myself imagining how our own son would be different had his life been lived on those shores. During the decade or so while I lived elsewhere, I often thought of the numerous waterfalls in my hometown, the tranquil narrow creeks that turn into world-class plunging rushes of water spilling through deciduous forests over gentle jags of limestone escarpment. And when winter lands for six months or so where we live, I am often warmed by thoughts of the lapping waters of the Gulf of Mexico as it washes on the gentle sands of southwest Florida or the reaches of the Yucatan peninsula. I still recall and am inspired by the surprisingly vast collection of children's art books in the La Jolla public library, a charming space even without consideration of its extensive collections. My memories of sunsets over Lake Huron and late summer evenings beside the glowing embers of illegal campfires with family and friends around are precious.

And yet these are "not-P"s. As charming, warming, inspiring, and comforting as each of these places and spaces are, the visits to them were not and probably will not ever be pilgrimages.

Pilgrimage does involve journey. It does involve place. But not all journeys to all places, even to memorable places such as national monuments, cathedrals, monasteries, beaches, waterfalls, and civic buildings, are pilgrimages.

It seems to me, as I scan these four proposed instances of pilgrimage, that a pilgrimage is characterized by at least three distinct aspects. It begins with longing, an initial desire to better understand, to more completely know a thing that has already shaped one's thoughts, actions, and identity. Pilgrimage then proceeds with a physical act: going, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, sensing, feeling, inhaling, being in the presence of, perhaps even physically weeping over or smiling over that thing, that space. And it ends with a rich contented satisfaction, the wash of warmth that accompanies deep communion, a sense of finally more fully, more completely knowing the place, the person, the idea. Longing, seeing, knowing.

With full respect for the teachings of my philosophy professor, and yet given my limitations in extracting the finer nuances and aspects of these examples and non-examples of pilgrimage, and given the limited and incomplete listing of examples, this conceptual analysis would be more robust if we now turn to a few trusted sources for further definition. The Dictionary of Etymology traces the word pilgrim back to old French for "foreigner" and to Latin for "from beyond the field." The Encyclopedia of Catholicism defines it as "a religiously motivated journey to a specific location to visit a holy person or to commemorate a special event that occurred there . . . [characterized by] belief . . . conviction . . . and desire . . . to seek . . . to thank . . . to petition . . . to atone . . . "

Pilgrimage is wholly emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual. In a desire to more fully know, we leave the known terrain, become a foreigner, journeying with a soft and responsive heart and mind, offer ourselves in and for communion, and return embraced in confidence and contentment, encouraged to live, to rest, and to be in the truth of the thing.

Blessed are those who have longed, have seen, and are quietly wrapped in the comfort of knowing.

With thanks to Dr. Frederick Ellet for the memorable classes on conceptual analysis and with gratitude to Father Raymond De Sousa and Judy Zelikovitz for the memorable experience of pilgrimage.

Topics: Education
Deani Van Pelt
Deani Van Pelt

Deani Van Pelt is a Cardus Senior Fellow, the President of Edvance Christian Schools Association, and a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, where she formerly served as the Director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education.


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