One of the few things I remember from reading Canterbury Tales in high school with our teacher Mrs. Doyle was hearing the first lines in Old English—if someone checks my memory of it against the text no doubt they will find me misremembering—the opening “whan Aprile showrs hay pierced to the roote.” I got enough of the meaning of the Old English to get the meaning, but also I got enough of the music and verbal feel to find it a fetching characterization of spring time. Then Chaucer tells us “then folk longen to go on pilgrimage.” Mrs. Doyle said “pilgrimage” in a way that rhymes with garage. Pilgrimage is probably the last thing we associate with springtime—the closest we might come today is a summer vacation. Maybe pilgrimage is the medieval peasant version of that.
Pilgrimage, today, though is a rare idea. I want to define it—travel to holy sites for purposes of veneration in hopes that there will be an epiphany (another religiously laced word). Epiphany—”an appearance of the divine”–or– in a more secular vein “something unexpected and wonderful.” The urge to pilgrimage, if I understand it right, is to get out of the ordinary in the hopes of some kind of special appearance or revelation.
My first trip to India was motivated academically as “research” into Buddhism in its native setting (also I needed a break from teaching). However it turned into a pilgrimage—they were not necessarily “my” holy sites—I wasn’t a Buddhist. But others were there explicitly as pilgrims and when I joined in the mix, I experienced epiphanies, insights but most important, I think a communion with the others I was with. My second trip to India—was more intentionally a pilgrimage. I had vowed to return after my first visit—but I couldn’t keep the vow the next summer because my son was murdered. After the murder I also vowed that I would not let any good “drop to the ground” as a result of Casey’s death if I could help it. So the second time, I went I was keeping the vow but I also wanted to use the time away as a pilgrimage and retreat. I wanted to learn to practice love of enemy in preparation for the murder trial I would face when I returned.
Now I am going a third time. This too is keeping a vow. I had vowed to introduce others to the experience I had. It is also a bit of an experiment. Will others be changed by a pilgrimage like I was? That remains to be seen—I am hopeful and am saying prayers for the group and for myself.
In preparation for the trip I am reading a book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. In it he suggests the idea of going on a pilgrimage as an important part of inter-faith communication. The idea of pilgrimage is old, but the Dalai Lama gives it a new twist by saying the people of different religious traditions should go with each other to one another’s holy sites. The Dalai Lama talks about how this has been very deeply moving to him. He talked about how he had been to Lourdes “not as a tourist but as a pilgrim”. He writes:
I drank the Holy water, stood in front of Mary’s statue, and thought that here, on this spot, millions of people experience peace and tranquility. As I looked at the statue of Mary, a deep appreciation of Christianity arose within me. I prayed, “May this holy site continue to serve millions of fellow humans in the future as well as now.”
I think something like that happened to me at the Buddhist sites. The Dalai Lama goes one to explain something that happened to him at the Virgin’s shrine in Fatima, Portugal.
There I had a mysterious experience. After laying a Tibetan scarf beneath the statue and after a period of silent meditation, I turned to leave but looked back for the last time and, unless something was wrong with my eyes, I actually saw Mary smiling at me. I felt a powerful surge of profound experience at that instant.
Pilgrimage, epiphany!!! Quite unexpected but surprising, profound and delightful. I do not think the Dalai Lama is chasing down strange experiences, nor that we will be seeking these kinds of wonders—but being open to the unexpected is part of what a pilgrimage is about. I think the more down to earth kinds of revelations will be there and just as surprising. One thing, I think that meeting Tibetan refugees and making friends will be the main staple of epiphany—how much we have in common, how we are different—these are important revelations to have.
Part of a pilgrimage is not just arriving at the destination of a holy site—but the journey is also part of the experience. What happens along the way is just as important. But that is the subject for the next blog.
 HH Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, p. 149
2 HH Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, p. 149