I have worn glasses almost as long as I can remember. Still, to my dismay, some days my perception grows dull, and no simple lens will correct it because it is obscured by a cataract of the inner “eye.” I experience a clouding of my heart’s own awareness, a brume shrouding the world’s “under glimmer,” as the poet Basho once put it, leaving me in a place that is colorless and blurred – or sometimes, just so customary that I fail to notice it.
A pilgrimage is a call to unveil and reawaken our inner vision or awareness. Whether it’s a journey to a historical or holy site, like the Hajj that, before the pandemic, brought several million Muslims to Mecca annually; or a tracing of an ancient path walked by many before us, like the Camino de Santiago; or a personal quest on an uncharted course; any of the many forms of pilgrimage invite us to observe the world anew. “Peel your eyes,” my mother used to say, as if the rind of routine looking could be pulled back like potato skins so we would notice something important. This is what we do on pilgrimage: we let the scales of familiarity fall away to restore our perception, and to stir our wonder or impel our action.
A pilgrim leaves behind the repose – and the certainty – of home not only to discover new places in the world as any tourist might, but also to explore the foreign terrain carried within. Traveling an external route on the earth, the pilgrim takes an equivalent path in the soul, outer and inner journeys mirroring and illuminating each other and inviting a larger wholeness. “I only went out for a walk,” said naturalist John Muir describing the pilgrimage of a single day’s wilderness hike, “and . . . going out, I found was really going in.”
You don’t have to venture far to take a pilgrimage; but it does require more than the average amble around the block. A pilgrim travels light, leaves comfort behind, climbs the steep path, encounters the stranger, becomes the stranger, greets the unknown, and surrenders itineraries and sometimes even maps. Pilgrims find their way by opening their senses wide and reading the signs all around them; and as they do, their inner awareness sharpens too and they themselves are changed.
Often, it is not just the place visited but the community around us that awakens us on a pilgrimage – the community of our fellow travelers, of others we encounter in the moment and of those who have made the pilgrimage before us or will make it after us. When Malcolm X performed the Hajj in 1964, he was astonished by the equality and kinship of the pilgrims making the Hajj together, sharing meals and drinks, words and silence, movement and rest with royalty and commoners alike, and with people of different races and from many parts of the world. Never before had he experienced such mutual regard and relationship across racial difference and such a profound oneness with them, and it changed him. “I could look into their blue eyes,” he wrote in a letter describing his experience, “and see that they regarded me as the same (Brothers).” He said, it “forced me to ‘re-arrange’ much of [my] thoughts pattern and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.”
In pilgrimages, it is often the group making the pilgrimage together that both sparks and supports the transformative power of the journey. Our conversations with one another, before, during and after a pilgrimage, help each of us to let the challenges and discoveries of our encounters open new understandings within us, and sometimes new identities as well. Perhaps we are all pilgrims now on a challenging trail that winds through a pandemic and longterm racial and economic injustices, a pilgrimage made by many before us. The question is how will we travel it now? Are we willing to leave comfort behind, to climb the steep path, to encounter the stranger and become the stranger, to greet the unknown as an invitation to our own transformation and into a world also changed?
As a child, I remember receiving my first pair of eyeglasses and walking to grade school the next day agape with wonder. Astonished by the sharp clarity of the street signs and the faces of my classmates in the distance, I wandered slowly down the sidewalk taking in the great abundance of detail and dimension. Across the street from the school, I paused at the curb agog. I stared in awe at the intricate grid of mortar outlining each brick in a building that had grown familiar to me as only a single blurry block that I approached and entered every morning.
On that morning, my vision was sharpened, and like so many pilgrims whose perception has been cleared, I walked into a world made fresh with crisp and shining patterns emerging everywhere around me. And the world and I, we would never be the same again.