We Are Pilgrims: Journeys In Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston

Review by Linda Lappin

As Bruce Chatwin relates in Songlines, our remote ancestors revered features of their landscape:  mountain, rock, river, tree, cave, imbuing them with spiritual meaning and celebrating them in myth and song. Then at some imprecise moment in prehistory, a hairy-knuckled hand grabbed a charred stick from a bonfire and drew a bison on the wall of a pitch-black cave. Elsewhere in that twilight era, huge slabs of granite were quarried, floated downriver hundreds of miles to be later chipped, polished, and set up vertically in rows or circles. Pillars were erected to frame the solstice sunrise; pools dug deep in artificial caves to catch the moon’s reflection. Our forerunners have left impressive evidence of their keen sense of wonder and their desire to leave a trace upon their territory by means of astonishing engineering and architectural feats. Yet no one knows why any of this was done. To delineate sacred space? To communicate with mysterious forces or commemorate an event of collective importance? To channel fertility and abundance?

 Not only did early human beings feel the need to create sacred space in their environment, they also felt compelled to seek out similar places in other areas. Well-trod pathways have connected distant sanctuaries since Neolithic times. Evidence found at many holy sites reveals periodic occupation by migrating peoples over thousands of years. Eons passed;  first camps, then cities sprang up along those pathways.  As we became more sophisticated, our artifacts became more refined. Rough menhir, cairn, tumulus, tholos became temple, pyramid, stupa, cupola, cathedral, minaret, peopled with heroes, spirits, and gods whose miracles and myths became enmeshed with the terrain itself.  The urge to see these shrines with one’s own eyes has never lessened, and still pulls masses of people from one spot on the globe to another. Throughout history, we have been pilgrims. The question is: WHY.

Victoria Preston explores the answers to this question in her superbly researched new book We Are Pilgrims, leading the reader on an epic ramble across continents and millennia.  Zooming from prehistoric fertility shrines to rock festivals and spaceships, she shows how all cultures are interconnected by the universal compulsion to seek spiritual rewards through travel.

Philip Cousineau has defined pilgrimage as a journey to a sacred center – which may be a site of  religious, historical, or personal significance to the traveler. Preston narrows it down, defining pilgrimage as “a ritual journey to a place of shared spiritual meaning,” with the emphasis on “ritual” and “shared,” and is chiefly concerned with pilgrimage as a collective phenomenon. Early in the book she excludes journeys to historical sites which may have a special meaning  only to the individual traveler –for example, a club where one’s favorite band debuted thirty years ago. Yet she concedes that pilgrimage is a “highly individual experience.” (p.1) What counts most is the frame of mind in which one makes the journey and one’s motivations for setting off in the first place.

Pilgrimages are often undertaken to fulfill a vow, make a sacrifice, or receive the beneficial influence of a particular place or entity. As a pattern of human behavior, the tradition of religious pilgrimage was well-established by the time Chaucer penned the Canterbury Tales in 1387.  In the Prologue he informs us that it is the longing to see far off, sundry, strange lands, or to pay back a debt to St Thomas à Becket that puts people in motion. Chaucer distinguishes among different types of pilgrims – professional pilgrims drawn to exotic lands; others stirred by seasonal restlessness; and those obeying the call of religious duty.  In We Are Pilgrims, Preston suggests that it is the traveler’s intent that gives spiritual power to the journey. She identifies ten chief motivations: Survival, Kinship, Faith, Wonder, Solace, Redemption, Hope, Gratitude, Liberation, and Enlightenment, dedicating a chapter to each theme.

Brilliantly compressing centuries of history while providing a comparative, multicultural view, she travels from milestone to milestone: Blackfoot communal hunts,  the Eleusinian Mysteries,  Chinese New Year, the Kartika Mela,  the Appleby Horse Fair, Ramadan, Amritsar, Compostela, the Via Francigena, Shaolin, Glastonbury – all linked to places she has had the great good fortune to visit during years of research.  Her engaging, informative historical accounts are interwoven with vivid gleams of her own spiritual experiences in the sites she visits, which make this book as much a personal story of search as an academic enquiry into the nature and purpose of pilgrimage.

“As the rosy- fingered dawn broke over Mount Parnassus, I finally felt it in my core: the potency of this place at the belly button of the world.”

Yet she returns again and again to her emphasis on pilgrimage as a social phenomenon.

“There are many accounts of how a pilgrim journey has been a catalyst for change at the personal level, “ she writes, “but time and again throughout history it has proved to be a powerful tool in shaping society.” (p.84)  In discussing such diverse figures as Gilgamesh,  Alexander the Great,  Siddhartha , Helena of the True Cross, Thoreau, Nehru, Kerouac,  and Malcom X, she shows how one person’s pilgrimage may contribute to the shaping of collective religious or political identity.

It’s not always easy to tell the pilgrim from the tourist – they can be all  jostled together, as Chaucer noted. Yet true pilgrimages generally tend to share certain features:  they are challenging, transformative, mindful and require a disruptive break with routine and a stripping down to the essentials. Arriving at the final destination, the pilgrim inevitably discovers that it has all been a journey into oneself as well as into the immensity of the cosmos. In letting go of the habits and masks that inform our mundane lives, we come to know the part of ourselves that is at home in the greater universe.

At times, the secular academic and the intuitive seeker seem at odds in this book.  The academic addresses issues such as  place-branding, territorial control, the mass production of relics, and prayer as a form of barter. The seeker observes herself in  sacred spaces, trying to sense her connection to those who came before as she receives the influences flowing into the particular spot where she stands.  There are places on the earth, she reminds us more than once, where heaven is just a little closer. But she does not take up the suggestion that the special energies infusing certain places may emanate directly from the earth itself. Or as DH Lawrence put it in The Spirit of Place:

“Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.”

The author offers her book to her readers as “an aid to private contemplation.” The range, scope, and scholarship of We Are Pilgrims make it an invaluable resource to serious students hoping to understand the impulses underlying pilgrimage in a variety of historical and religious contexts. But it is the “underglimmer” of personal insights – those of the author and of the pilgrims she interviews in the course of her research – that make this book such a truly rewarding and thought- provoking read.