Eat, Pray, Love a Pilgrimage?
This is the third of five legs in our Pilgrimage series. Today we’re led by international traveler and High Calling member, Kami Rice. Two years ago I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat, Pray, Love while settling into a cozy and only sometimes chilly (but never, alas, poetically leaky) London garret, my new abode-for-three-months. I wanted to love the book and had been the one to suggest it to my Nashville writing group for our last meeting before I jaunted off again. Fairly freshly returned from four months of covering stories for magazines and mission organizations in five African countries and from a month of doing the same in Haiti, I thought my traveler-writer self would find much in common with Gilbert as I settled into some months of writing from London. But I didn’t. Or at least not as much as I expected. Since travel of any sort, but international travel in particular, is easily thought of as pilgrimage, both Gilbert’s travels and my own might qualify. Yet, the more I’ve traveled and the more I’ve reflected on it, the more clear it seems that travel in and of itself does not a pilgrimage make. One thing that dissatisfied the reader in me as I followed along on Gilbert’s eating, praying and loving journey is that, well, her journey seemed all about her. Of course, that’s sort of what memoir is all about and, somewhat necessarily, is also what post-divorce attempts to “find oneself” are about. All too often, though, I think it’s also what both travel and perhaps travails erroneously entitled pilgrimage are all about.
The Inward and Outward Nature of Pilgrimage
Real pilgrimage is about change in the one traversing it but also about sharing that change beyond oneself. Christian pilgrimage must be both inward and outward. Our salvation, our faith is not only for our own good but for the good of the world. Likewise with the pilgrimage that refines us and our faith. Intentional listening—to God, to people, to contexts – must be part of pilgrimage. Listening for the purpose of learning changes us. I’m grateful that courtesy of my writer identity, both formally since it’s how I earn my living and informally since it’s unavoidably how I process what I take in from the world, I traveled to Africa-Haiti-London and later to India to listen; to be quiet enough to hear things that could be learned in these places. It’s in this listening, I think, that some of the distinction between, say, travel as vacation and travel as pilgrimage lies. Certain kinds of travel are an experience of consuming and self-serving. Vacation can be perfectly appropriate but is unlikely to be pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is work, active rather than passive. I’ve discovered that part of my particular calling as a traveler-writer is to serve as a bridge between people on both sides of my travels, to carry their stories back and forth between each other. If I hoard the stories I receive as I listen and travel, they will die. Along each step of my travels I’ve also encountered various impossible-seeming barriers that I asked my faith community—both the formal one represented by my local church and the informal one represented by friends—to pray over with me. I discovered more power in that invitation than just the provision we asked for. Through inviting fellow believers into this part of the journey, God’s response to our prayers became part of their own story of God’s faithfulness. My willingness to obey in doing what seemed impossible became part of my whole community’s faith story. Pilgrimage, for all its solitary-traveler glory, must hold this community element. Pilgrims who offer their experience of pilgrimage back into the life of their community – whether that’s a small community or a large one, a community found along the way or an old and deeply-knitted community—will find that their pilgrimage comes to full life as they share it beyond themselves.
Some people who take on the traveler mantle—whether as a vocation or in shorter bursts—allow the solitude of travel to excuse them from anything more than cursory connection with the people they encounter along the way and those they leave behind back home. While solitude can teach us, introspection prolonged for too long becomes something antithetical to the gospel. It turns eyes only inward, excusing and training us to see life as all about the individual. And this brings us back (another thing that happens either physically or metaphorically with pilgrimage, but that will have to be saved for another time) to the reason I’m not sure I’ll put myself through Eat, Pray, Love again by queuing up for the Julia Roberts’ helmed movie version. Though Gilbert’s story has been offered out to an audience, I still don’t really sense that it includes an invitation to enter into the story. However, despite her account seeming to me so uncomfortably self-serving, my criteria allow that Gilbert’s travels probably technically qualify as pilgrimage, though not of the Christian variety. In our travel-is-easy-and-affordable and life-is-all-about-me culture, it’s easy to mistake less-than-purposeful travels for something so weighty as pilgrimage. Ground Beneath Her Feet by Hameediii. Used with permission. Post written by Kami Rice.
Follow along with this Friday series on pilgrimage: