Re-evaluating Pilgrimage

In Chapter eight of Graham Speake’s excellent volume, Mount Athos : Renewal in Paradise, there is an intriguing section entitled “Pilgrim or Tourist ?” (p234). The author makes a convincing case for the notion/concept of a ‘destinational pilgrimage’ (my effort at a summary phrase), that is, pilgrimage is all about what you do when you arrive at a holy place, be it a monastery, church, abbey, or graveyard (for example, St Xenia’s grave in the Smolensky cemetery of St Petersburg). So this may involve attending a service, venerating relics, joining other pilgrims in prayer, quiet reflection on the holy place or even, if you are lucky, conversing with a monastic person. Thus for Speake a pilgrimage is not really about the experience of traveling to the holy place – the ascent to Tabor, if you will – rather, it’s the spiritual riches gained from the place, its features and its inhabitants. A contrary position articulated by Philip Sherrard (p235) posits that a true pilgrim is sensu stricto a ‘spiritual seeker’ who sets out to eschew his normal worldly life and deliberately engages in the hard uncomfortable work of prayerful, unhurried hiking for long distances between holy monasteries remote from any trappings of civilization. Anything contrary to this degenerates into mere ‘tourism’.

While one sympathises with the Sherrard position it is de facto elitist in character; faced with the practicalities of a three day diamonitirion (visitor’s permit) the traveler/pilgrim is forced to utilise any form of motorised transport he can find. Usually this means dashing from the quay at Daphne, cramming into the first bus to Karyes and upon arrival there frantically figuring out which bus to catch next. For travellers not used to the Greek/Russian style of “queuing” the scrum that develops as bus doors open can come as a shock. But with experience the subtle use of elbows and American Football style ‘blocking’ can deliver one on board a bus with little fuss and no loss of good humour. Thus for the plebian pilgrims travelling to and between monasteries on Mount Athos, far from being a languid, reflective time for self-examination while hiking on gorgeous footpaths, more frequently ends up being stressful, tense and exhausting as one desperately tries to get to one’s destination monastery before Trapeza, or heaven forbid, before the gates close for the evening.

And what perhaps does such pilgrimage feel like from the monastic’s perspective ? Every day one’s sacred space is saturated with unwashed, impious hordes of pilgrims/tourists (tourgrims or pilgrists ?) many of whom being Greek or of Hellenist persuasion seem to feel that they own the place : “hey, I always turn up late to Vespers, I’ll stand wherever I like”. We then invade the Trapeza and converse loudly, often complaining about the food or accommodation. Respect seems to be last on the menu of observable pilgrist behaviours. So contrariwise, being, or rather becoming, a true pilgrim involves adopting a strong measure of humility. We are visiting a holy place under sufferance; it’s a privilege, not a ‘right’; we have nothing to offer apart from our prayers, in fact we are de facto parasitic on the place itself. Thus it behoves us to behave with honest and authentic piety as far as we are able, always to act in a respectful manner and to accept without murmur such admonitions from those in authority that we most certainly deserve.

For myself, an integral part of the pilgrimage experience as a whole is the process of prayerfully working to create a sense of Christian fellowship, of koinonia, among the disciples of Christ with whom you are sharing this pilgrimage, and who you know in your heart are more worthy of attention than yourself. Reflecting upon spiritual outcomes from the pilgrimage one discerns that one gains spiritually not only from the monastery and it’s inhabitants but also from the prayers & interactions with one’s fellow travelers in Christ.