Pilgrim's Regress

Travelogues as a search for faith.

THE SHELVES OF BOOKSTORES are crowded with new and recent titles about people lighting out for sacred places. I found a reason for this in the first of these books I picked up—The Spiritual Tourist, by Mick Brown. "[It is] a symptom of collective uncertainty, in an age when . . . the traditional institutions of church, family and community appear to be breaking down," Brown writes. "It is a symptom of a disenchantment with the values of materialism, and a weariness of science. . . ." This, I think, coupled with the late-millennium urge to tell, has created a glut of pilgrimage narratives. The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief

by Mick Brown (Bloomsbury, $24.95) Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail

by Nicholas Shrady (Harper, $22) On Pilgrimage: A Time to Seek

by Jennifer Lash (Bloomsbury, $24.95) I read three such books: Brown's, Sacred Roads by Nicholas Shrady, and On Pilgrimage by Jennifer Lash. (I tried, too, to read a guide to spiritual travel, a virtual how-to of pilgrimage, but was unable to get past the preface.) My uneasiness with the whole genre of spiritual self-help stems from discomfort with the generalized idea of "spirituality." Susan Sontag, in her essay "Piety Without Content," calls such seeking "religious fellow-traveling," and goes on to say of this "religiosity without either faith or observance" that "now one can afford to look on sympathetically and derive nourishment from whatever one can find to admire." It is like accepting the reward without doing any of the work. Yet I was surprised by the pilgrimage narratives. Not only did all three authors grapple with the difficult question of true faith and allegiance to religions whose rules seem antiquated (shall we talk about papal infallibility?), they also looked squarely at their own weaknesses and wondered at the hostility they sometimes felt toward those who are certain about religion. Brown softened my own view toward catchall spirituality by eloquently noting that "[it] has become an all-purpose word, but one that describes what is felt to be missing, rather than specifying what it is hoped will be found." To write a book about pilgrimage, you probably should have already lost your faith. This is less a symptom of the times than a requirement of the narrative. The seed of doubt creates an interesting obstacle for all three writers; an apprehension about religious certainty allows for the most interesting conflict of all, that of mind versus faith. In contrast to the pilgrims of old—indeed to many of the pilgrims they encounter en route, who have journeyed to seek cures or to ask favors—all three writers are in search of faith itself. Brown, a British journalist, takes the most oddball (and endearing) approach. He does not, like lapsed Catholics Shrady and Lash, long for the religion of his upbringing; rather, he journeys around the world to meet modern-day gurus and prophets, observing miracles and struggling mightily against his own sense of doubt. His is an exercise in trying to perceive faith through intellect, which many of the faithful will (and do) tell him is futile. Brown's search begins when Van Morrison tells him that Christ is alive and well, and someone in London knows where he is. This leads him to North London to witness the spontaneous materialization of vibhuti, the holy ash produced by the guru Sai Baba to prove his miraculous powers. Brown's fascination with Sai Baba takes him to the guru's compound in Puttaparthi, India, and then all over the subcontinent. Led from one religion, one theory, to the next, he is carried by a kind of karmic belief that none of it is accidental, that it all is leading somewhere. Of course, it doesn't. Brown is doomed from the start by his intellect, and this makes for excellent reading, a kind of knife-edge balance that we doubt he will be able to maintain. Which way will he fall off? At one point, it seems we are going to lose him when he meets Andrew Harvey, a brilliant English academic who has had the experience of true faith and written elegantly and persuasively about it. Harvey's devotion is to Mother Meera, an avatar, and his seems to be the message Brown is looking for: "I was given experience after experience," Harvey tells Brown. "Vision after vision, that I could not refute or deny. There is no way irony or mockery can survive that." Later, when Harvey denounces Mother Meera, Brown's disappointment is palpable. "Experience is its own proof," he notes early on in The Spiritual Tourist. But he discovers the rub in the proof, and the rub is faith. Perhaps it is the most truthful human search of all, the search for what we know we will not find. OF THE THREE BOOKS, Nicholas Shrady's was the one I was most prepared to reject on Sontag's grounds. Sacred Roads begins on a note rather too woo-woo for the seriousness of real religion. "Each religion possesses its prescribed rites and rituals," Shrady writes, "but pilgrimage, in particular, seems to appeal to an instinctive movement of the human heart." I am not against sincerity; I do not require a frosting of irony on every statement. But it is already too difficult to write cleanly and intelligently about religious experience, and Shrady does himself no favors by resorting to clich頡nd slightly purple prose. He is so earnest, though, and has done his homework so well, I forgave him. My favorite parts of Sacred Roads recounted the author's pilgrimage on foot across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, during which he reckoned with the shadows of his Catholicism. It also is hard not to like a man who can sit and pray for hours under a descendent of the Bodhi tree (the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment), who reads from the most obscure Hindi scriptures, and who tries to perceive each strange faith through eyes other than Western. (I was less surprised, it seemed, than he was that dabbling in different faiths didn't bring on enlightenment.) Shrady is a hardcore pilgrim, in the traveler's sense, relying on the generosity of the people he meets, never knowing where he is going to sleep or what the day will bring. For him, the actual journey, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, is as important as the destination. This brings me to my favorite of the three books: On Pilgrimage, by Jennifer Lash. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Lash took herself on pilgrimage, seeking the vestiges of her Catholic faith as well as less tangible things. "Poor cancer," she starts her narrative. "The word is dark and terrible . . . full of fear. . . . It is a common, everyday disease. A star may be sharp, and full of pain, but it may also be a guide, a useful companion on a dark night." Lash, who died in 1993, is a most intelligent writer, pulling art into religious discourse and vice-versa, reminding us of the roots of so much of Western culture. All three authors remark on the inner journey required of pilgrimage, but Lash seems to understand it much better than the other two. She notes, "I began to feel that, perhaps, simply by being as it were 'in silence' one might edge closer to the whole mysterious business of saints and prayer and faith." Lash's style is oddly disjointed and choppy, and on the whole much more suited to the kind of inner speculation that a pilgrimage seems to require. She doesn't seem to feel the need, as Shrady does, to predigest the whole experience for the reader; she lets her inner turmoil speak for itself. Somehow, on her journey to the classic sacred places—Lourdes, Lisieux, Taize—Lash finds ways to describe her inner journey that transcend typical language. She can invoke inward focus, silence, stillness, darkness, inner reconciliation in ways that bring the most disbelieving reader with her. I found myself right beside this older woman traveling alone, trying to hear the call of religion over self. "You get to recognize the ego's particularly loud, furious kind of self-importance and wingeing bluster," she writes, "the determined, neat sound of its self-sense." This is not to say—about Lash or any of the other writers—that these books are only, grindingly, about a self's search. One of the most delightful aspects of pilgrimage, and reading about it, are the characters the pilgrim meets along the way, as if Chaucer's travelers continued to roam the roadways. These accidental meetings often seem to be what keep the pilgrim going. And through heaps of theology, history, and description—not to mention one's own religious doubts and self-wrangling—they keep the reader going as well.

 
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