‘Virtual’ Pilgrimage as Embodied Experience

As many of us have been staying at home to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus, opportunities for travel through images, words, and even high-tech visualizations of architectural interiors have cropped up all over the internet.  Our home computers have become portals to other worlds, with opportunities for the imagination to be activated through sight and sound.  While many are understandably mourning cancelled trips, there is much to embrace about these new, multisensory apertures, including the fact that they democratize the pilgrimage experience for those who can’t travel due to physical ability, health, financial means, and so on.  Everyone is tuned in online and in community, and cultural resources abound.

‘The Situs Hierusalem’, c A.D. 1100 in C Raymond Beazley, The Dawn of Modern Geography:  A History of Exploration and Geographical Science from the Close of the Ninth to the Middle of the Thirteenth Century (c. A.D. 900-1260), With Reproductions of the Principal Maps of the Time (London: John Murray. 1901).

Recent scholarship in the field of medieval studies has established the importance of manuscripts, maps, and labyrinths as sites of mental, or stationary pilgrimage for those who could not travel for a variety of reasons.  This is something that we have been thinking about in a course I’m teaching this semester, Art and Pilgrimage.  The class is now taught via Zoom, but were we still gathering in person, the students would have had the opportunity to lead the rest of the group on a guided pilgrimage, focusing on a local site somewhere in the neighborhood of the GTU that has a personal significance or which is considered to be sacred.  I asked the students to think about the history of the site/landscape, what ritual activities they plan to engage and why, and how the site they chose relates to others in terms of use, history, space, distance.  This activity, like so many, has been moved to an online space.  One student, Sarah Postlethwaite, a Verbum Dei religious sister, plans to film a labyrinth walk at her religious community with meditative pauses on images of water sources.  The project draws upon and resonates with her Irish cultural background and interest in Celtic Christianity.  Kathryn Rudy’s work on the 15th-century religious sisters who commissioned a Dominican Friar to record his pilgrimages to the holy land so that they could follow along (by proxy) as a contemplative and devotional exercise has come to mind a lot lately, as it seems to have a renewed relevance in this moment. 

A labyrinth for downloading & printing, for the finger, paintbrush, or pencil from the Labyrinth Society website. Original drawing by Robert Ferre, final graphic by Vicki Keiser. Based on the medieval pavement labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

I am reminded of the interreligious dimension of such journeys, and especially a lively conversation I had with my colleague, Prof. Purushottama Bilimoria, a scholar of Indian philosophy and ethics at the Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies.  In response to a paper I had given on the stone and turf labyrinths cropping up at Christian churches and retreat centers, Prof. Bilimoria pointed to the Jain practice of creating mandalas of the universe (that he described is perhaps the most similar in terms of both method and goals).  The mandala is in the form of a person from torso to legs standing on a geometric representation of Mt. Meru ‘where the material universe is said to have begun’:

One makes the journey in imaginative phases of meditation and espousing and imaginatively the dispersal of vows as one moves through the many worlds inhabited by all kinds of creatures with whom peace (pact of noninjury and show of empathy) has to be [affected]; many conversations take place and the soul is cleansed as well as expanded to encompass the bigger, higher world it experiences, leaving behind the old habits and desires and material clingings. The final stop is in the siddhalokas, the dwelling space of the enlightenment ones, where one longs to be and must one day through the longer pilgrimage of life end up at.

Sara Postlethwaite, VDMF
Screen shot from a short film of the process of building & walking a labyrinth made for the Art & Pilgrimage graduate seminar. Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.
Used with permission

As in the Labyrinth Movement today, these scaled-down pilgrimages engaged the metaphors of the pilgrimage of life, geographic locus (Mt. Meru), and cosmological significance that leads to an ascent of the spirit and attention to the vibrant matter of the created universe.  It is not a superficial comparison; as Bilimoria concluded, ‘the parallels are stunning and remarkable and I am left wondering if there is a universality in the mature spiritual practices and liminal communitas human beings strive to articulate and find their ways through more than the secular materialist world would acknowledge’.  As we have been staying at home and traveling through our computer ‘portals’, I have been wondering if such experiences are really ‘virtual’ (as they have often been called, e.g. ‘virtual reality’) and instead can actually generate an embodied encounter.

India, Gujarat. Jain Cosmological Diagram of the World of Mortals, 18th century. Opaque watercolors on paper and cloth. 29 1/2 x 27 1/2 in. (74.9 x 69.9 cm) Cornell University, Johnson Museum of Art

I am also reminded of the project of my friend Phil Volker, who mapped the 500-mile pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago onto his backyard in Vashon Island after a cancer diagnosis stalled his plans of traveling to France and Spain.  I wrote an article on Phil’s project and called the backyard Camino a ‘surrogate pilgrimage’.  He rightly challenged me on this, telling me that the backyard circuit has ‘taken on a life of its own’ (his words) as people have traveled from all corners of the world to walk it.  Some have completed the Camino de Santiago, and others are introduced to it by walking with Phil.  It has become not a nostalgic reiteration of a Camino in Spain, but something that is experienced on its own terms. 

Pilgrim passport & map of Phil Volker’s backyard Camino. Collection of author
Phil Volker, Detail of pilgrim passport, map of Phil’s backyard Camino. Map of Backyard Camino. Ink and colored pencils on paper. Ca. 2013
Annie O’Neil, Phil Volker, and the author’s son, Jack (age 2), walking the backyard Camino August, 2019. Photo: Author

So in that spirit, two of my favorite opportunities for ‘virtual’ pilgrimage-in-place are the Instagram stories issued weekly by the British Pilgrimage Trust (a pilgrimage (through text, image, and imagination), this week from Escomb Saxon Church via Durham Cathedral to Finchale Priory (the Finchale Camino Inglés done backwards).  Look for @pilgrimtrust on Instagram.

Another is the Virtual Camino de Santiago via Facebook, sponsored by Duperier’s Authentic Journeys.  The ‘guides’, including filmmaker Annie O’Neil and pilgrim Carol King (both Camino veterans) have amassed food writers, art and cultural historians, past pilgrims, musicologists, musicians, artists and others to introduce the sights and sounds along the way.  Folks can even pick up a .jpeg  ‘badge’ to take the place of the traditional scallop shell that pilgrims have fastened onto their hats or packs since the middle ages.

Pilgrimage badge from the Facebook project ‘Virtual Camino’

Finally, do check out this short essay in the Brooklyn Rail on the subscription zine (art magazine) series As Far as the Eye Can Travel by Chiara Ambrosio.  No computer or internet connection needed…just a little bit of imagination. 

Kathryn Barush is Thomas E. Bertelsen, Jr. Associate Professor of art history and religion at the Graduate Theological Union & Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. She is working on a book-length project on this topic (Imaging Pilgrimage: Art as Embodied Experience), forthcoming with Bloomsbury Visual Culture this year and is simultaneously excited and concerned about the influx of new material that probably needs to be added!