I’ve been thinking a fair bit (off and on) about the idea of pilgrimage over the last few months. It was brought to the forefront of my attention once again on Sunday with the story on CBC Radio One’s Tapestry program. Then today this article from The Economist popped up in my RSS feed. It is discussing German pilgrimage sites (one of which I visited on my 2006 trip around Europe.)

The thing about pilgrimage, as expressed by Arthur Paul Boers on Tapestry (and if you haven’t listened to it yet, take a break and do it. It is very interesting), is that it allows us to more fully engage. Think about it: we live in a culture where we are not fully engaged in much of anything around us. We do things with our mind or our body (go through the motions… how often do you have the radio or TV on in the background while doing something else and only half pay attention to anything? I know I do it all the time) or our emotions are engaged but it is rare that you get all three working together at once. There is far too much distraction for that (iPod plugged in while reading/walking…). Pilgrimage engages all: mind/intellect, body, spirit, emotions.

Another way to say it: our culture is disconnected/fragmented and pilgrimage reunites and connects us both with ourselves and with others.
How does it do this? Again, referring back to the interview on Tapestry, by creating situations where the boundaries are different and you are able to get to know yourself and others on a whole new level.
There are lots of classic examples of pilgrimage. In medieval times, people would go to Cologne, Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury (Chaucer anyone?), or Santiago de Compostela to name a few. Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands to millions of people make the annual hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.
So what is the deal? The American philosopher Albert Borgmann in his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (one of the books I’m currently plugging through) speaks of Focal Places, Things, and Practices when discussing the fragmentation of our lives (specifically in relation to technology). These focals have three qualities:
  1. Commanding presence, that is they demand discipline, take exercise, and tire us out.
  2. Meaningfully connect us to others, to our history, to the environment, and, I would add, to ourselves.
  3. Have centering/orienting power by helping to remind us of what is most important.
Unfortunately, these are becoming rapidly pushed out of the centre of our lives into the background, leading to our disoriented lives.
I then got to thinking on pilgrimages in my own life and realized that Offshore was a pilgrimage of sorts. There was not the idea of the body being used to express something of the soul that you would get in a walking pilgrimage like the Camino del Santiago, however other aspects were certainly there. The previously mentioned idea of pilgrimage creating situations where the boundaries are different and you enabling people to know the self and others on a whole new level was and is key to the Offshore experience. There is little room for an alternative when you are on a 138 ft boat with 35 other people for a month to a year without the option of getting off.
To go through the characteristics of focal points/things/places:
  • Demanding discipline, taking exercise and tiring us out? Most certainly. I was tired at the end of each day and chronically exhausted by the 9 month point. This was not just and, I would venture to say, not always a physical exhaustion. There were times when I just felt like I did not have anything more to give; an emotional and mental exhaustion that really had me questioning my ability to provide for the trainees in the manner I felt I needed/wanted to.
  • Meaningfully connecting? Again, definitely. If I had a dollar for every time someone talked about feeling understood by others on the boat better than they’d ever been before or about being able to know themselves and the people around them more meaningfully then I wouldn’t need to worry about finding part-time work this semester. After all, our ongoing theme throughout Offshore was from Jean Vanier’s book Becoming Human (another one you should read if you haven’t). In it, Vanier talks about being known and that in allowing others to know us by opening our lives, we can achieve real freedom.
  • Reminding us of what is most important in life? Once again, a resounding yes. Many of us came away from Offshore feeling that we had far too many possessions and realizing that these are not the things which are most important. Going back to the previous point, it is the meaningful relationships and other non-tangible things which are important.
I would say that the majority of people who joined us for a part of the Offshore left the boat deeply impacted and, in some way or another, changed. If not than I think they missed a large portion of what it was about. I just wish that I had thought more about Offshore in this fashion before I went so that I could glean even more from it than I did.

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