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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!