If life is an odyssey, each day is a pilgrimage. Last Friday begins with 5 a.m. light filtering into my bedroom. Awake, if not quite “woke,” I continue reading my bed-table book, Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan, who traces the history of Christianity and Western Europe on his long walk, a few years back, from Canterbury to Rome. Yet he has another motive: coming to terms with his own faith — finding out what, if anything, he believes.
Fascinating book, especially if you grew up Catholic … or Protestant … which is to say “Christian,” though its grisly, bloody, un-Christian history might make one question one’s membership. Whether organized religion is worthy of faith remains an open question; many have closed that door in contempt and disgust. The author has not. As I write this, he has just arrived at the Alps, so I don’t know yet what he discovers on the other side. On the other hand, the title “Pilgrimage to Eternity” implies a walk with no finish line.
Most pilgrimages have a destination. Pilgrims like endings, preferably the happy sort. The destination of life’s pilgrimage, however, is death. We don’t know what’s on the other side of that door. Might consciousness continue on in some fashion? That is humanity’s unanswerable question and longing. Do we survive death? Some lay claim to the answer, nay or yea, but the only “proof” offered is the firmness of belief. No one knows, and anyone who claims to know is selling something, as Dread Pirate Roberts says in “Princess Bride.”
But asking the question makes us, as Teilhard de Chardin said, spiritual beings having a human experience (instead of the other way around). So each day is a pilgrimage. It begins with said sun invading bedrooms or a clock radio bursting forth with the urgency of latest developments in the world at large. We traverse the arc of each day, paralleling the sun’s arc overhead, sometimes obstructed, sometimes aflame, dawn to dusk — and beyond, to deep sleep’s carnival of dreams, a journey within the ongoing journey.
Each day we set out with our daily goals, meeting challenges and delights with prayerful awareness if circumstances grant us the luxury of awareness, the monks of our monasticism. We plant seeds and tend them, love where we can, praise where we find reason, help where needed, laugh at the world’s comedy or our own, stay present in someone’s life, ease pain where possible, wonder about the lives and burdens and delights of fellow pilgrims, regard each day as a gift, feel the upswelling of gratitude, give our gifts in return, pay attention to what is begging to be noticed, each day ending with a string of pearls passing before our eyes, meaning to be mined.
Give us this day our daily pilgrimage. May we reach our mecca or help someone reach theirs, treading lightly on the path, welcoming other pilgrims without getting in their way. And at day’s end ask, “What can I do better?”
Give us this day our daily plans, but let them be flexible, to make room for surprise, to embrace adventure. Forgive us our changing minds. May our trespasses lead to greater wisdom and our mistakes to atonement.
Begin and end, and in between we go somewhere. Pilgrim’s progress. Moving forward toward … something. Walking — the act that messages the mind. We trace a “route,” however random, however many right and left turns.
Walking mirrors the inward “travel” our longing calls for. We may not even know where “there” is, may not recognize it when we get there. Maybe going is all there is. Maybe it’s enough.
When I walk, I sometimes look far ahead where the parallel lines of the sidewalk converge to a single point that I will never reach, am in no hurry to reach. I call it “the long walk to forever.” That is the pilgrim’s path.
On this perfect mid-May mid-afternoon, perfumed by lilac and lily of the valley and adorned with bridal veil, trees leafing toward fullness, three old friends, accompanied by our past pilgrimages and imagining future journeys, make our way to the Gross Point Lighthouse in Evanston and sit on a bench overlooking the blue of Lake Michigan, a ruffled, many-shaded mirror of the cloud-strewn sky — this faux infinity, water stretching beyond the limits of vision, this rehearsal for the death we hope is no ending, because we can’t help but hope, even if we suspect otherwise.
I could sit on this bench, on this day, forever.
On the return trip, I mention Timothy Egan’s pilgrimage of faith, the one with more questions than answers, seeing the potential in religion despite its appalling, faith-crushing fallibility. I wonder where my companions are on their pilgrimage of faith or non-faith. We talk instead about the faith and courage of Joan of Arc, whom Egan writes about, and wonder whether Greta Thunberg might be our Joan. Whether courage is a function of will or age or simply the fortune of body chemistry.
I think courage is continuing on the pilgrim’s path to its unforeseeable conclusion.
I wonder how far our pilgrimage will take us, together or alone, now that life expectancy gives us a more visible horizon, a more precise actuarial guesstimate.
How long will our bodies carry us on our long walk to forever, made so much more enjoyable with good company? And what will our daily pilgrimage entail when our limbs finally give out?
As if reading my thoughts, a fellow pilgrim pipes up:
“I’m thinking of buying a bike.”