The idea of a pilgrimage Print
By Hilaire Belloc   
Wednesday, 06 June 2012

A pilgrimage is, of course, an expedition to some venerated place to which a vivid memory of sacred things experienced, or a long and wonderful history of human experience in divine matters, or a personal attraction affecting the soul impels one. This is, I say, its essence. So a pilgrimage may be made to the tomb of Descartes, in Paris, or it may be a little walk uphill to a neighbouring and beloved grave, or a modern travel, even in luxury, on the impulse to see something that greatly calls one.
But there has always hung round the idea of a pilgrimage, with all people and at all times—I except those very rare and highly decadent generations of history in which no pilgrimages are made, nor any journeys, save for curiosity or greed—there has always hung round it, I say, something more than the mere objective. Just as in general worship you will have noble gowns, vivid colour, and majestic music (symbols, but necessary symbols of the great business you are at); so, in this particular case of worship, clothes, as it were, and accoutrements, gather round one's principal action. I will visit the grave of a saint or of a man whom I venerate privately for his virtues and deeds, but on my way I wish to do something a little difficult to show at what a price I hold communion with his resting-place, and also on toy way I will see all I can of men and things; for anything great and worthy is but an ordinary thing transfigured, and if I am about to venerate a humanity absorbed into the divine, so it behoves me on my journey to it to enter into and delight in the divine that is hidden in everything. Thus I may go upon a pilgrimage with no pack and nothing but a stick and my clothes, but I must get myself into the frame of mind that carries an invisible burden, an eye for happiness and suffering, humour, gladness at the beauty of the world, a readiness for raising the heart at the vastness of a wide view, and especially a readiness to give multitudinous praise to God; for a man that goes on a pilgrimage does best of all if he starts out (I say it of his temporal object only) with the heart of a wanderer, eager for the world as it is, forgetful of maps or descriptions, but hungry for real colours and men and the seeming of things. This desire for reality and contact is a kind of humility, this pleasure in it a kind of charity.
It is surely in the essence of a pilgrimage that all vain imaginations are controlled by the greatness of our object. Thus, if a man should go to see the place where (as they say) St. Peter met our Lord on the Appian Way at dawn, he will not care very much for the niggling of pedants about this or that building, or for the rhetoric of posers about this or that beautiful picture. If a thing in his way seem to him frankly ugly he will easily treat it as a neutral, forget it and pass it by. If, on the contrary, he find a beautiful thing, whether done by God or by man, he will remember and love it. This is what children do, and to get the heart of a child is the end surely of any act of religion. In such a temper he will observe rather than read, and though on his way he cannot do other than remember the names of places, saying, “Why, these are the Alps of which I have read! Here is Florence, of which I have heard so many rich women talk!” yet he will never let himself argue and decide or put himself, so to speak, before an audience in his own mind—for that is pride which all of us moderns always fall into. He will, on the contrary, go into everything with curiosity and pleasure, and be a brother to the streets and trees and to all the new world he finds. The Alps that he sees with his eyes will be as much more than the names he reads about, the Florence of his desires as much more than the Florence of sickly-drawing-rooms; as beauty loved is more than beauty heard of, or as our own taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight are more than the vague relations of others. Nor does religion exercise in our common life any function more temporarily valuable than this, that it makes us be sure at least of realities, and look very much askance at philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies.


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