“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
A traditional Celtic blessing adopted by the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way
I had my first experience of walking the Way of St James in Spring this year. I walked the Way of Central Switzerland, which starts in Einsiedeln with its Benedictine Monastery with Black Madonna and finishes on Brünig Pass, linking Central Switzerland with the Bernese mountains. The views were breathtaking and it was quite moving to see how many smaller and bigger chapels and churches there are along the way, always adorned with the ubiquitous scallop shell – a symbol of the Camino de Santiago. It was like walking a sacred labyrinth unravelling a golden thread. There were also quite hard stretches along the way – such as waddling through snowy mountains with heavy backpacks on our backs. The liberating feeling of being at one with the land was especially palpable in these moments. All peregrine spiritual teachers came to mind (without immodest comparisons) – from the Peripatetic (i.e. walking) ancient philosophers, to Jesus and the Buddha, who wandered for seven years before he reached Enlightenment.
I later read what the actor Shirley MacLaine wrote about her own “journey of the spirit” along Camino de Santiago. For her it was a “‘walking meditation’, along what she said were the ley lines that the route followed, which communicated the spiritual energy of the earth.” (1) A very old derivation of the word “pilgrim” suggests that it may be connected with the Latin per agrum, “through the field.” (2)
In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit wrote:
“The walker toiling along a road toward some distant place is one of the most compelling and universal images of what it means to be human, depicting the individual as small and solitary in a large world, reliant on the strength of body and will. In pilgrimage, the journey is radiant with hope that arrival at the tangible destination will bring spiritual benefits with it. The pilgrim has achieved a story of his or her own and in this way too becomes part of the religion made up of stories of travel and transformation.”
The Greek word oime (path or the way of the song) was used by Homer to describe the way along which he, the poet and his readers travel along. How incredibly similar is this idea to the Australian songlines of the Aboriginals, who also call them the Footprints of the Ancestors. (3) Songlines come from a period of time called Dreaming “during which their ancestors took animal forms and created the topography of the land by traveling and leaving behind tracks in the earth.” (4) These tracks live in memories of those who inherited the stories of their ancestors, who in turn inherited them from previous generations. This chain possibly goes back thirteen thousand years. (5) The Aboriginals view the landscape as sacred, as was the landscape seen with the eyes of the Ancient Greeks. The Aboriginal Dreaming tracks not only mark routes on the land but they also follow the movement of the stars. As O’Connor says in her book:
“In the night sky, the white cockatoo is represented by the star Fomalhaut, which appears in the northeast in late July, heralding a change in seasons. It is also a part of a celestial songline that begins with the Creation Dog in the north and stretches across the sky to include the stars of the Rock Cod, Eagle, the Big Law Place, Red Ant Doctor, White-Faced Grass Wallaby, and Catfish Law, and ends with the Bats in the southern sky. The Bats, the constellation the Greeks called the Pleiades, represent the children and teenagers who will be initiates. By following this celestial sequence of stars, one would have been able to navigate to the traditional place of the ceremonies.”
This is an intricate and sophisticated system of connections, a real science of the heart. Such “story maps” were also part and parcel of the mythology of the indigenous Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, who believe in the trickster character “who gives the universe its shape through his travels and whose adventures are passed down through generations.” (6)
O’Connor argues very convincingly in her book that even we moderns use “story maps” when we engage in wayfinding:
“Consider how you get from your home to work. Do you see a picture of the whole route, a bird’s-eye view from above, and begin charting your course? Likely not. Rather, you know your starting point and the series of decisions you will make, and you have a visual memory of the route that follows. It’s an experience that is perhaps more akin to recalling a melody…
Maybe navigation is more like singing a song than following a map.”
But it is when we hear a voice that “calls to our pilgrim soul” (7) that we open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing the oneness of Above and Below. An act of pilgrimage does not need to be religious in the narrow sense of the word. Any sacred walk with a soulful purpose is a pilgrim’s walk. For me it was a journey to Carl Jung’s birth house, for the poet Joseph Brodsky it was his constant returns to Venice; the possibilities are endless. Looked at with the eyes of the soul, all roads are pilgrim’s routes. Cousineau recalls an anecdote about Rainer Maria Rilke in his book. The poet, who had temporarily lost his ability to write, was advised by the sculptor Auguste Rodin to visit the zoo in Paris every day and look at one animal. This is how Rilke’s seventy-two poems about the panther were created. Similarly, the same run-of-the-mill route to work may turn into a songline when looked at with “the right eyes,” as Rilke put it.
To me the most fascinating aspect of the pilgrimage is its message of equality, connectedness and openness. Brilliantly, Stanford compares pilgrimage to a political protest march “being deployed with new enthusiasm against entrenched power, usually but not always in favour of openness, the individual and civil society.” A pilgrim inscription along the route to Santiago de Compostela says: “The Camino isn’t a speed competition or a race. Rather it’s a pathway of brotherhood and universality.” Walking the path of the ancestors does not call for haste or precedence. On the contrary, pilgrims “draw sustenance and self-insight precisely by not being the first and instead walking in the footsteps of others who have been that way before, in the process retelling and reliving their stories… .” (8)
Fascinatingly, one of the meanings of the word Compostela is derived from Latin campus stellae – “field of the star”. A pilgrim moves slowly, with reverence with a starry field above. He or she is guided by the scallop symbol, which comes from the tale of the ship that carried the remains of Saint James and crashed at sea. Miraculously, the body of the saint “was washed up undamaged on the shore, encrusted in a protective layer of scallop shells.” (9) Contemplating this image, I cannot help but think of the Buddhist doctrine of the diamond body of pure awareness; that indestructible spiritual core which is the vessel that carries us through the waters of life. The conch is also a symbol of listening and being attuned to the source. (10) The labyrinthine markings on the surface of the shell bring to mind the sacred spiral and the sacred centre of the mandala. Found on the bottom of the ocean, the shell is a symbol of the unconscious. Therefore the pilgrim connects not only with the field of the stars but also with the watery depths of the unconscious. Like newly-born Aphrodite emerging from the sea on the shell, so does the soul get reborn and transformed as a result of pilgrimage. An empty shell, finally, stands for “the soul’s departure to immortality.” (11)
Walking, pilgrimaging, navigating, wayfinding are all popular and apt metaphors for human existence. The wayfinders of the past relied on “sun, sky, stars, wind, trees, tides, sea swells, mountains, valleys, snow, ice, anthills, sand, and animals” to guide them to their destination. (12) In her book, O’Connor argues that our reliance on electronic devices and our worship of speedy travel has deprived us of the meaningful connection that our ancestors felt with the land. We have lost the feeling of “embodiment in time and space.” We have also become oblivious to the spiritual aspect of navigation as we have stopped to rely on our senses, sensations, instincts and feelings when engaging in wayfinding. O’Connor also laments the decrease of “the right to roam” that we grant our children. Sadly, also women are severely limited as most of us would not dare to wander alone.
In a way we moderns are like the panther from the famous poem by Rilke, who described an animal kept in a cage:
“His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly–.
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.”
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)
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(1) Peter Stanford: Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning, published in April 2021 – a highly recommended read; the motto to my post was also found there
(2) Phil Cousineau and Huston Smith, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred
(4) M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
(7) Phil Cousineau and Huston Smith, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred
(8) Peter Stanford: Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning
(10) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg, p. 212
(12) M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World