Contemporary pilgrimage serves as a means of rebellion and dissent against encroaching norms.
Like herding Catholic cats—that’s what it felt like, sometimes, leading a group of pilgrims on a 111-kilometer Camino to the Sanctuary of Fátima, one of the world’s most significant Marian shrines, in central Portugal.
Part of the, I won’t say problem, but rather challenge, is that Catholic pilgrims often turn out to be headstrong. There were times during the nine-day pilgrimage—usually at dinner following a few glasses of red wine—when it felt as if I was surrounded by impassioned 20-year-old university students vehemently railing against the wrongs and injustices of society. Except most of these pilgrims left university about 40 years ago.
Those mealtime declamations, along with our discussions on the trail, ranging from the problems with Net Zero and increasing restrictions in the name of environmentalism to Vatican reforms and agendas, to myopic media narratives about Covid-19 lockdowns and abortion, left me thinking: Pilgrimage serves as an act of rebellion against the modern world, against its prevailing orthodoxies and tinpot Caesars. Of course, it continues a tradition started by a small group of rebellious Galileans more than two thousand years ago.
Going on pilgrimage is, firstly, a physical act of rebellion against our sedentary desk- and laptop-bound lives. Against the encroaching E.M. Forster-esque isolated bubbles in which we only communicate with people through screens and message boxes. During pilgrimage you are on the move in the manner you were designed for—one foot in front of the other—while encountering strangers face to face, both within the pilgrimage group and all along the route in chance and spontaneous encounters.
Pilgrimage is a counterweight to the brave new world that extolls us to see ourselves only as individuals and to communicate via electronic means. It provides an antidote in the form of rubbing shoulders with other pilgrims, walking and talking together. You become part of something bigger than yourself, moving beyond the microcosm of mundane challenges bequeathed by the petty tyrannies of modern life. It’s a re-engagement with the intrinsic needs of the human condition.
True, the result is often messy, stressful, bamboozling, but it is also funny, uplifting, heartening, and very human—the antithesis of the sanitized, frictionless, clean, gated-community-type existence that many seem to seek these days.
Ultimately, it is reassuring too: You realize you do not fight alone, despite media narratives and progressivism’s shrinking parameters. You make a physical declaration in defense of your beliefs through every step you take and get a chance to develop your ideas with your fellow pilgrims.
Going on pilgrimage is, secondly, a spiritual act of rebellion against humanistic secularism and the cold rationalism and cynicism that goes with it. It marches against the unforgiving competitiveness of a more ruthless capitalism unmoored from ethics. So many people today who—in terms of resources and possessions—have all they could need feel strangely persecuted even as they are unable to pinpoint the exact source. They are desperate to find a reprieve.
“Everything is done at walking pace, in contrast to a world that, now more than ever, is ceaselessly rushing ahead faster than we can quite compute,” Peter Stanford writes in his book Pilgrimage: In Search of Meaning. “To catch a glimpse of the transcendent, otherwise impossible in the hustle-bustle and hassle of modern life, requires making one almighty and counter-intuitive effort—like going on a pilgrimage in a secular age.”
Especially a pilgrimage to Fátima, where “heaven touched the earth to remind us of the relationship between our life in time and the life we are called to beyond death,” as one of the guide signs puts it, and which inhabits, as a son of one of the pilgrims put it in a message to his mother, the more “mental end of Catholicism.” There is a lot to take in: The Virgin Mary appearing six times in 1917 to three shepherd children, proclaiming to them, among other things, that Russia must consecrate itself to her Immaculate Heart to achieve peace in the world, while throwing in visions of hell—including clergy swimming in the fires—and promising the Miracle of the Sun that would be witnessed by 70,000 people.
Pilgrimage has offered countercultural opportunity for centuries. Recent books on the good wife of Bath, the most (in)famous character from Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century tale of pilgrim ribaldry, highlight how pilgrimage enabled women to escape the physical and social confines of the home and medieval perceptions about a woman’s role in society. Now, with the equality, or is it equity, of restrictions and pressures more evenly inflicted on both sexes—everyone increasingly hemmed in by economic and ideological forces—what better way to break out at least for a moment than flipping the spiritual bird to all that and going on a pilgrimage.
“On a spiritual level, most human beings suffer from the equivalent of asthma, but are only very obscurely and fitfully aware that they are living in a state of chronic asphyxiation,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Devils of Loudun, his 1952 book about demonic possession in the 17th century, which also explores the immutability of the human condition and our propensity for hypocrisy through the ages. “A few, however, know themselves for what they are—non-breathers. Desperately they pant for air; and if at least they contrive to fill their lungs, what an unspeakable blessedness!”
That said, pilgrimage can be tough, beyond the blisters and lashings of the midday sun. The modern pilgrim is in for an uncomfortable experience in that interior space we tend to avoid. I can’t deny that part of me was relieved to get away from Fátima. There is an almost oppressive quality to the place—especially when you consider the absurd weight of what the Virgin Mary placed on those poor children. But just as Mary decided uncomfortable truths needed to be told, we are facing a similar reckoning now.
“Banking crashes, the rise of populism, seemingly insoluble conflicts and terrifying pandemics individually and collectively are causing us to question the very foundations on which our post-religion twenty-first-century lives are built,” Stanford writes in his book. “Our belief in what until recently was taken to be the inevitable progress of science and humanity—and hence the marginalization of faith—has been stopped in its tracks.”
Pilgrimage helps keep your focus where it typically should be—directly to your front and engaging with what you encounter during your daily experience. When you do that, you’ll find that, in fact, things don’t seem too bad. If anything, and in contrast to the panicked the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket messaging, reality can be rather glorious.
All along the route to Fátima, Spring was in full flow. Wildflowers garlanding the pathways included the star-of-Bethlehem, petticoat narcissus, anemones, toadflax, figwort, and orchids. It helped that the group containing an enthusiastic botanical academic; one of the rewards of pilgrimage is the talents that emerge from within the group, and as the pilgrimage progresses these various skill sets interweave and bounce off each other, empowering and lifting everyone. There were even strawberry trees.
Streams and rivers were a constant presence. The permanent deacon accompanying the group noted the balm provided by the sound of flowing water, and thus when they occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula the Moors set great stock in making fountains and waterways. As the group strode along limestone pavements, we passed old windmills, fields of grass peas, and groves of wild olive trees—some a thousand years old. Little shrines marked junctions, “reminding us of the convergence of life and souls,” as small birds darted across the trail, many returning from wintering in Africa.
After nine days of all that, it’s hard not to feel somewhat buoyed. Until you next check Twitter.
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