The definition of pilgrimage is something that can be discussed and argued ad nauseam, and no doubt has since the first pilgrim roamed the earth and encountered another pilgrim. Without inciting offense, let’s put forth a statement that a pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a specific destination, with the implication that the destination is of sacred importance to the pilgrim. To wander without a destination is a journey left to the vagabond.
The concept and tradition of pilgrimage exists prominently in the major religions of the world – Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim – and other societal histories and cultures. The act of pilgrimage provides an intangible access through time and space of an experience unique to each pilgrim. Because of this and with such an inclusive definition, there are a myriad of types of pilgrims out there – touristic pilgrims, seeking pilgrims, bus pilgrims, armchair pilgrims, adventure pilgrims, group pilgrims, lone pilgrims, pampered pilgrims and evermore comfort-loving posh pilgrims. There is room for all and sundry pilgrims.
So what is a servant pilgrim? The major religions of the world and other societal histories and cultures express a common message: love your neighbor as yourself (to use the Christian words). The pilgrim, by the very act of making a pilgrimage to a chosen sacred destination, has the opportunity to meet the neighbors of the world. This simple, fundamental act performed despite the inherent personal vulnerabilities and sacrifices, is an act of building trust between individuals; trust is the foundation of peace. Far from being about sheer adventure for the pilgrim, pilgrimage can be about providing this valuable yet overlooked service.
The service of building trust is no easy task. The vulnerabilities are real.
Mendicancy is an effective tool – traveling with money is a touristic approach; traveling with nothing of value builds trust. Asking the neighbors of the world for a safe place to sleep at night, which generally also produces an offering of food, will not be successful if there is no trust. Having nothing of value precludes tempting someone to steal while relieving the pilgrim of the burden of having to devote time and effort to protect what the pilgrim does not really need anyway. It requires a true act of faith, a true act of humility, a purity of inter-human exchange.
Committing to the category of a mendicant pilgrim brings methods – it is a pilgrimage therefore on foot that allows the pilgrim to experience nature and time for contemplation without the burden of train or bus tickets or the risks inherent in hitchhiking. On foot, a pilgrim will walk village to village, up to a day’s walk apart to reach shelter before nightfall. It mandates encountering people, individuals or a community, every night to request this basic human need of food and shelter. It invokes the Biblical promise – to ask, and to receive; to seek and to find; to knock and to have a door opened – every day.
There are many different types of pilgrims; this is a servant pilgrim.