What is my experience of Hajj?
I am rather sad to report that I have never had an experience of hajj, nor will I be able to have this experience in my lifetime. This spiritual practice is reserved for Muslims. Those outside Islam are not allowed inside the holy city of Mecca and are forbidden from taking any part in this sacred pilgrimage. In order to attend the hajj, registration with specific paperwork is required, signed by one's imam. Proof of one's status in a Muslim mosque and community needs confirmation. It is dishonourable to the Muslim faith to attempt to break this clear boundary. And, with many checks and balances in place, it is near impossible to accomplish.
What is the experience of pilgrimage in the Christian tradition?
Christianity centres around Jesus, and thus there has been a long tradition of Christians traveling to Jerusalem as pilgrims. With the emergence of the Muslim faith in the 7th century, and the later animosity that arose between Muslims and Christians, the city of Jerusalem has as often been a symbol of war, as it has been of holiness. The current on going tensions between Palestine and Israel, continue to associate Jerusalem, and the religions that cluster around it, with violence and disruption. But it glows, never the less, like a beacon, to Jew and Christian and Muslim alike, and many have taken the journey to this holiest of places for the purpose of devotion to one's faith, and perhaps, hoped for illumination.
A pilgrimage is a trip one takes to a sacred site for the purpose of spiritual reflection, and possibly, transformation. Within the Christian tradition of earlier centuries, a pilgrimage might be taken as a penitence for wrong doing, as preparation for undertaking holy orders, or as a show of devotion to one's faith. But it is at the heart, a spiritual practice. And one that takes a goodly amount of intention, action, energy, planning, and money. A pilgrimage is not taken casually or lightly. It is not a vacation. In our modern mindset, trips can be planned to places of religious interest for a variety of reasons – the desire to experience a place within our own faith tradition perhaps, or simple curiosity. But this does not make them a pilgrimage. Though pilgrimages are most often made to a place of specific religious significance, the destination is not what grants meaning to the undertaking. It is the internal journey of the person undertaking the voyage, that grants the trip its magnitude.
What is my personal experience of pilgrimage? I have been to several places people go for pilgrimages. But none were pilgrimages for me.
I have been to Israel. But it was not a pilgrimage. It was a stop over as part of a cruise. I was delighted by the piles of fresh fruit at the open air markets, the crowded streets, the smell and sight of all things ancient and the vague idea that I was somewhere important. I was young and more inclined to sunbathe than search my soul for shadows. The idea of pilgrimage was unknown to me then.
I have been to the Vatican, Rome. It certainly has the wow factor going for it. There was all that impressive architecture, those staggeringly large paintings, and well, a lot of gold. As I was working in television and film at the time, I was intrigued by the way light and sound was used for deliberate effect, seeing much of the theatre arts on display. But it was not a pilgrimage. I had yet to understand about indulgences and the cost of all that fine artwork.
I have been to Assisi, Italy. I was enamoured by tales of the gentle St. Francis, the beauty of the Italian countryside, and the pizzas covered in fresh artichokes. I sat for several hours staring at the marvel of blue ceiling with its freckle of stars in a sanctuary built to honour St. Francis, but no doubt would have horrified him. But it was not a pilgrimage. Though the light was beginning to dawn within me that there was more to this world than its outward splendors, I had not yet the means to journey inwards.
I have been to Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, a local place of pilgrimage for many in the Catholic tradition. It was the first European settlement in Ontario, a place where Jesuits and native Canadians conversed, then died together - a combination of conversion, the rising Iroquois tribes, and small pox ravaging the settlement, and all who gathered there. But I am suspect of conversions of the kind that press one's faith upon another, and ever aware of the horrors we have inflicted upon the indigenous people of my country. I had desired to go here on a pilgrimage this last winter, but truth be told, I did not have heart for it, for the sorrows of my Canadian heritage in this new understanding are too raw for such a journey.
Now I know about pilgrimage I am longing to walk the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, to sing with the young people in Taize, France, to wander the halls of the Iona Abbey and the Scottish hills that surround it, and to rest in the quiet memory of Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.
The Place I Go On Pilgrimage
But, truly, I need not go very far to go on pilgrimage. I go down to my river. It's not mine, really, of course. But it runs along the back of the land where I live. For 18 years she has been my consolation, my solace, and the answer to every prayer I have ever asked. My sweet river is only 30 minutes away. But as the sages say, the longest journey is the journey inward. Sometimes that 30 minutes takes on eternity. This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is a journey of the heart that travels along perpendicular lines, creating some thin place for us to walk, alone, even when in company, as intrepid travellers exploring the richness that is within.
I go down to the river when I am utterly lost.
I go down to the river when I am radiant with adventure, resplendent with impossible dreams that cannot be contained within my fragile skin.
I go down to the river when the only path before me seems to be a bloody, empty mess curled up to die at the foot of the great butternut tree hidden in the woods, thriving in our frosty climate when all her cousins have long ago moved on south.
I go down to the river to rage at God, that great bruit of a force, unyielding, unwilling to compromise, bullish, and full of thoughts for his people as though I were not one of them. Oh, how I yell, wailing my anger at the stoic cedar trees, standing steady like monks with their arms folded and tucked up the sleeves of their grey brown robes. They have seen it all before. They watch and wait, hold steady until I am broken by my own weakness, tamed, and humbled.
I go to down to the river when my children seem too far away and I am filled with worry, fretful for their souls, regretful I have not given them all they need to manage in this world. I sit on the large rock that is out a way from the shore, surrounded by the moving water, steadfast during movement, a living icon to draw me to stillness.
I go down to the river when it seems that all I am doing is dropping balls, failing people, forgetting matters of import, and unable to care for all those who cry out for solace,
I go down to the river one woman. And no matter what it is I bring, the river embraces me in her fold, offers me sanctuary, a place where no feeling is forbidden, no dark thought cannot be expressed, where love waits to be received.
And when I return I am another woman, born, as they say, again, and again, and again, for it is endless the rebirths the river offers without counting.
This is the heart of pilgrimage – to be able to walk, to go, to move, however slowly and unevenly, through the long gallery of mirrors to find ourselves once again, face to face. And know ourselves loved.
I sing this song often. But it is Alison's voice I hear, because, well, really, no one else can sing it like she can. Angels, maybe. But I'm thinking she must be one.