Listen, pilgrim.

That’s John Wayne talking to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

What is the valence of liberty? As your periphery enlarges, as you wander farther from your home base, do you become freer? Fuller? More interactive? The Tao Te Ching tells us that without going outside, we may see the world, without looking out the window we may know the ways of heaven, and the farther we go the less we know. But is that because our valences expand and we have more room for the little sparks of knowledge – the more we know, the more we don’t know, and the more room there is to know?

Or do we just become unstuck?

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

That line is from the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Its protagonist is a Pilgrim, and an involuntary pilgrim of sorts. He wanders far from his origin. He sees things. He learns things. He watches people die. He sees life out of order.

Well, life is out of order, really. One thing we like to try to do is put it in order. Or at least put ourselves in order, our own lives. Give them a purpose. Give them a trip. A narrative. A Destination. A pilgrimage. The geographical journey is a longstanding analogue and metaphor for the spiritual journey. John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress dates to 1678, but real pilgrimages date to well before that. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was about a company of pilgrims to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. They went in company, had a good time along the way, paid their respects, and returned home.

Not every pilgrim returns home. The Britons who arrived at Plymouth, now in Massachusetts, in 1630 styled themselves as pilgrims. So did the ones who arrived at the Canterbury Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island in 1850. Easterners who went west in the USA were sometimes called pilgrims – that’s why John Wayne’s character keeps calling Jimmy Stewart’s character that. They went to make new lives in a new place, most of them never to return to their origins. Did they change themselves? Or did they just change the place they went to? Were the changes for the better? Sometimes change is a grim pill. Sometimes liberty’s valence is violence.

But millions of people are pilgrims every year, making sacred journeys, going farther from home to find things deeper within themselves. The pilgrimage to Mecca is something every Muslim is supposed to make at least once in a lifetime if possible. Many Christians walk hundreds of kilometres to Santiago de Compostela; others go to Medjugorje. Young westerners voyage to India and other places in the East to see light in the darkness and make some sense of it.

It serves what Jung called a transcendent function.

And there are secular pilgrimages, now, too – just look at the baseball devotees arriving in Cooperstown and the Elvis fans converging on Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Somehow even these can be transformative experiences. I live near a “shrine” that I can see from my window: The Hockey Hall of Fame, at Yonge and Front in Toronto. The Stanley Cup is the Great Canadian Fetish. Not too many people come specifically to Toronto just to see it, but quite a lot of them make side trips. (My mother, on the other hand, made sure to make her side trip five blocks farther west, to the CBC headquarters.)

Do pilgrims seek liberty in increasing their valences? Some do. Others seek growth. Others seek confirmation of what they always wanted to believe. Others are just adding to their libraries of experience. But all movement is change. In deed, in thought, in word.

In the beginning was the word. At the end is a word, too. But it’s a different word. No, it’s not – it’s the same word, but different. The word that has ended up where we are is pilgrim. It came to us, by way of old German languages, from Medieval Latin pelegrinus. Which was in turn a changed version of Classical Latin peregrinus. Which has also, on a separate, more direct path, come to us as peregrine.

Which I will get to next.

4 responses to “pilgrim

  1. Pingback: peregrine | Sesquiotica

  2. Have you read the new book written by Pope Francis? It’s called “The Pill’s Grim Progress”!

  3. Pingback: vellum | Sesquiotica

  4. Pingback: perambulation, ramble | Sesquiotica

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