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to be a pilgrim

June 28, 2010

How many British schools were founded to that tune?  I went to a school where I wore a brown pleated skirt and once every three months we’d hold daffodils and sing that song.  (What’s weird is that traditions never die so they must still be singing and daffodil holding…)

If I were a real pilgrim then today would have been the climax of my journey.  At around 5.20pm (Israeli time) I was on my knees crawling around the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre (meaning Holy Tomb) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on a hill in Jerusalem, a little to the North of Mt Zion.  Like millions of pilgrims before me, most of whom will have done their journey over months and by foot, I kissed the tomb that Christ had risen from, the one he’d magically escaped from three days after his death.

I suppose in the olden days you were given more than three minutes alone with the tomb.  My visit was rushed – lots of tourists behind me who also needed that hit.  I was annoyed because I was after the authentic experience but my wailings didn’t come until I’d left the holy place and was in a souvenir laden souk feeling very light-headed.

If my journey to the Middle East had been all about the experience of reaching that tomb then I would have felt short-changed.  But big it up, as a tourist trade reliant on pilgrimage must, I can’t believe that even in the olden days a pilgrimage was about the destination.  For me and them it wasn’t the five minutes spent alone with two slabs of rock (although I shouldn’t play this down so much – I was in breathless tears after though I can’t quite unravel why) – instead it was about the journey that brought us there. 

And what is true with medieval and modern day pilgrimages is true about all sorts of things.  I liked the bit in Obama’s book where he said that he preferred (as a politician) taking the bus, or at least not taking the private jet, because it meant that anything could happen – that he could keep his head to the ground and really hear what people had to say. I like it in Casablanca when Humphry Bogart says ‘we’ll always have Paris’ because neither he nor Ingrid had planned for Paris to happen – it was just a crazy affair that happened along their way and for a while was more important than whatever their planned destination had been.  And it’s also why I like hitch-hiking (or why Devla Murphy likes cycling), because the moment you leave some space open for all sorts of change is the moment when you escape the heaviness of fate and have hope in the moment, in people and in yourself. 

It’s definitely a more rock’n’roll way to travel (by which I mean out there / exciting / unexpected) but it has a bigger purpose than just being some new way to court attention.  The Guardian says on the back of Devla’s book that it’s a way of bringing her closer to her subject.  Her subject is the Balkan Wars and her lens is through the indiviual survivors. 

When you’re standing on the side of a road you have no idea how or where your day will end.  When someone is driving towards you, they can’t know until they have resolutely passed, whether or not they will stop for you.  You don’t meet the tour guides, or the English speakers, or the outgoing – you can of course, you can meet anyone and they can offer you anything – it’s in their hands but it’s also in the space between you, the wordless space you share.  It might be a lift to the next junction, a lift to the next service station and an ice lolly, a lift and dinner and more than you asked for or a lift and organising the next lift and a place to stay and maybe they’ll visit London in August. 

You begin a story with each person you meet, but more than that you play a part in their story and they play their part in yours.  For a moment you are comrades, relying on each other to understand the other.  And these moments of complicity across age, gender, religion and race are important because living another person’s life, if even for a second, beats years and years of top university learning.

So what does it mean to be a pilgrim?  I think it has something to do with moving your feet and opening your heart.  As for the destinations: arriving at amazing places along the way is a good way of measuring the time and keeping the spirit high.

As ever with religious stuff I feel more silly and confused than evangelical and erudite.

I think it is good to have an aim.  It helps with that enormous black hole of meanignlessness to have a bit of ambition. But whatever, whatever.  In the end there’s only the moments before, the decision you make and what it means for the moments that inevitably follow.  It’s in these moments that we define ourselves, that we make the place where we’re aiming better or worse, so three things I will take with me from this journey…

1. flying in aeroplanes really is a bullshit way for a lot of people to travel.  In the days when it was rare it was probably an incredible way to travel.  Now it’s cheap and tacky and it’s taken the magic out of the journey and turned the place that you’re going to into a quick wank of commodity.

2. it’s impossible to get close to your subject (if your Devla Murphy) or to give space for humans to be human without taking some risks.  It’s impossible for them to feel human unless you give them that space, sometimes again and again and again.

3. ‘Who so beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound – his strength the more is. No foe shall stay his might, though he with giants fight.  He will make good his right, to be a pilgrim.’

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