What Is a Pilgrim?

Caught somewhere between an adventure hiker and a religious zealot lies a pilgrim. Some of us are closer to the one than to the other, some of us aspire to be both. What I have found, though, is the majority of the pilgrims I have known are simpler souls who prefer to keep their allegiance to themselves.

It was a poem by David Whyte that prompted me to consider pilgrim more as a concept than an identity. He writes:

But your loss brought you here to walk
under one name and to walk under one name only,
and to find the guise under which all loss can live;
remember, you were given that name every day
along the way, remember, you were greeted as such,
and treated as such, and you needed no other name;
other people seemed to know you even before you gave up
being a shadow on the road and came into the light,
even before you sat down,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:
Pilgrim they called you again
and again. Pilgrim.

Excerpt from the poem ‘Camino
From ‘Pilgrim: Poems by David Whyte’
Many Rivers Press © 2013

In so many of our lives we are named by what we do: firefighter, actress, flight attendant. These names replace ours when we act in that role. The flight attendant asked us to take our seats, or two firefighters were injured fighting a fire. When pilgrims walk, or saunter as it is also described, we become that name we are given: peregrino. Even though we might also be a firefighter or a flight attendant, those sins are washed away the day we step out with a sea shell on our backpack and a hopeful look on our face.

Maybe it is that very anonymity that is so compelling, so seductive. At home, my job, my age, even my house will define me and close me in, but as a pilgrim I am from where I start walking and I belong to the elements. I belong to the centuries of pilgrims before me. If you ask me a question where you can guess the answer, like how old are you or are you from The States, my answer probably will be pretty close to the truth. But if you ask me what I do, I can tell you anything. I can be anything. I can start quoting the Bible by verse or singing hymns and become that zealot, or I can tell you about my previous walks so you think I enjoy hiking a lot more than I do. I can be a writer or a photographer or maybe I say I’m a mom and we start talking about my children. It’s just another way not to talk about myself.

In many ways it’s a similar situation on any commuter subway train where I might strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me. We share something anonymously that is very freeing. We are subway riders. We are going someplace together purely by happenstance and coincidence. And our goal is always on our minds, regardless of the obstacles, like track work or mechanical malfunctions, that might delay our getting there.

It is a waste of time to try to characterize why people put their lives on hold to become pilgrims. There is no rule, no generalization, no clue that will encompass even a handful of pilgrims because even though I might say, I am walking because, it might not be anything more than the hat I am wearing that day. Today, I’m a writer, tomorrow I may be atoning for my sins, the day after I could be seeing how far I can travel in a day or how many villages I can photograph – and in each instance, it is still that I am a pilgrim.

I am merely “a shadow on the road,” like so many before me. Free as the bird flying over me. Untethered, going to a place in the distance: from everywhere, but not from any place at all.

 

If you’d like to read more about the Camino de Santiago, try my new book!

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