Pilgrims are seekers searching for the transcendent.
And seekers are pilgrims, because they are in search of the ultimate or absolute.
According to the Latin etymology of the word, a pilgrim is someone who travels through the fields (per agra). The pilgrim passes through lands as a foreigner or a stranger. But in many religions, since ancient times, the pilgrim has been clearly distinguished from the vagabond or the simple traveler. Pilgrimages have spiritual motivations and objectives, even today, when the behavior, clothing, and lifestyles of these "walking seekers" often make them look more like tourists or hikers.
The old Roman Catholic catechism used to list one of the works of mercy as "giving lodging to pilgrims," in accordance with the biblical tradition of hospitality. But hospitality is a word with ambivalent origins. Hospitality, hospice, and hospital all have a common Indo-European etymology: ghos-ti means "enemy" or "stranger" (in Latin, hostis); ghos-pot means "host," one who receives or entertains guests (host in Middle English; hospes in Latin). The traveler who asks for lodging may be a friend or an enemy; he may engender hospitality or hostility. Is this not just what happens with religious pilgrimages, which can be either a collective symbol of a peaceful community or a fanatic demonstration? Perhaps one should always ask pilgrims why they are walking and what their objective is.
In fact, the metaphor of the path is one of the important symbols leading to the mystery of the sacred. Buddhism is the way of enlightenment. Confucianism is the way of harmony in human relations. Taoism is the return to the primordial unity of the Way. Shintoism bears its name because it is the way of the kami, or divinities. All Muslims are obliged to travel the way to Mecca at least once in their lives. The community of John the Evangelist placed in Christ's mouth the confession of identity: "I am the Way"; and in the city of Antioch, before the followers of Jesus came to be called Christians, they were known as "the people of the Way."
Religious processions, though they are not without their ambiguities, manifest a search for holiness on a popular level. But sometimes it is just a small step from a procession to a riot, from a gathering of the faithful to a revolt of the masses. That is what happened in Ephesus, when the silversmiths rebelled against Paul. The people who bought the smiths' objects to offer at the temple (in the process affording the smiths lucrative earnings) were manipulated and whipped up by the traders, and what began as a procession to a temple of the goddess Diana ended up as a demonstration against Paul. Luke describes it graphically: "Everyone was shouting something, because they were excited, while the others did not know why everyone had come together" (Acts 19:32).
Whether alone or in groups, members of the faithful with the most diverse beliefs, as well as people without any particular belief but who are in some way seeking meaning, identity, or hope, all travel the routes of the pagodas and relics of the Buddha in India and Sri Lanka, or the road to Santiago in northern Spain, or the paths that lead to Mecca, or the route that passes through the eighty-eight Buddhist sanctuaries on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Is there not a common character in all of these pilgrimages?
Every year as a teenager during the spring and autumn festivals, I made the pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Maria de la Fuensanta (Mary of the Holy Fountain) in the mountains of Carrascoy, five kilometers south of my hometown, Murcia, in Spain. Fifty years later, on the occasion of a trip from Japan back to my hometown, I repeated the same pilgrimage. At that time I reflected on the polysemy of the pilgrimage: walking meditation, which is complementary to zazen (seated meditation); walking encounters with fellow pilgrims, sharing the stories of their lives while going on in their pilgrimage; hospitality, offered to each other by the pilgrims and to the pilgrims by the people of the small villages on the way; healings, reconciliations, spiritual insights or disclosures, and so on, during a journey that can be both self-seeking and seeking for the ultimate. As the theologian Roger Haight says in his book Spirituality for Seekers, "Seekers live in the context of the large questions of meaning and purpose in existence. . . . Seekers are not content with the answers to these basic questions as they have been proffered them, and are looking for symbols." Spirituality as a "dimension of life prior to and more basic than membership in a religious community is compatible with being a seeker." The pilgrimage is a living symbol of a spirituality of seekers.
Pilgrimage is an emblematic image of spirituality and the search for the meaning of human life. Pilgrims are seekers searching for the transcendent. And seekers are pilgrims, because they are in search of the ultimate, or absolute. As Pascal said, freely quoting Augustine: "You would not seek Me if you had not already found Me and you would not have found Me if I had not first found you." But when meeting on the way other pilgrims from other religions and cultures, all of us should remember that none of us has the monopoly of the finishing line and none of us has reached perfectly the goal of "the Way."
Juan Masiá was previously a professor of Christian ethics and the history of philosophical anthropology in the Faculty of Theology at Sophia University, Tokyo, where he is now a professor emeritus. In 2008 he published a Spanish translation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. He also serves as a special fellow of the Peace Research Institute affiliated with the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.