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An essay by Hilaire Belloc

The Idea Of A Pilgrimage

Title:     The Idea Of A Pilgrimage
Author: Hilaire Belloc [More Titles by Belloc]

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.

Look, then, how a pilgrimage ought to be nothing but a nobler kind of travel, in which, according to our age and inclination, we tell our tales, or draw our pictures, or compose our songs. It is a very great error, and one unknown before our most recent corruptions, that the religious spirit should be so superficial and so self-conscious as to dominate our method of action at special times and to be absent at others. It is better occasionally to travel in one way or another to some beloved place (or to some place wonderful and desired for its associations), haunted by our mission, yet falling into every ordinary levity, than to go about a common voyage in a chastened and devout spirit. I fear this is bad theology, and I propound it subject to authority. But, surely, if a man should say, "I will go to Redditch to buy needles cheap," and all the way take care to speak no evil of his neighbour, to keep very sober, to be punctual in his accounts, and to say his regular prayers with exactitude, though that would be a good work, yet if he is to be a _pilgrim_ (and the Church has a hundred gates), I would rather for the moment that he went off in a gay, tramping spirit, not oversure of his expenses, not very careful of all he said or did, but illuminated and increasingly informed by the great object of his voyage, which is here not to buy or sell needles, or what not, but to loose the mind and purge it in the ultimate contemplation of something divine.

There is, indeed, that kind of pilgrimage which some few sad men undertake because their minds are overburdened by a sin or tortured with some great care that is not of their own fault. These are excepted from the general rule, though even to these a very human spirit comes by the way, and the adventures of inns and foreign conversations broaden the world for them and lighten their burden. But this kind of pilgrimage is rare and special, having its peculiar virtues. The common sort (which how many men undertake under another name!) is a separate and human satisfaction of a need, the fulfilling of an instinct in us, the realisation of imagined horizons, the reaching of a goal. For whoever yet that was alive reached an end and could say he was satisfied? Yet who has not desired so to reach an end and to be satisfied? Well, pilgrimage is for the most a sort of prefiguring or rehearsal. A man says: "I will play in show (but a show stiffened with a real and just object) at that great part which is all we can ever play. Here I start from home, and there I reach a goal, and on the way I laugh and watch, sing and work. Now I am at ease and again hampered; now poor, now rich, weary towards the end and at last arrived at that end. So my great life is, and so this little chapter shall be." Thus he packs up the meaning of life into a little space to be able to look at it closely, as men carry with them small locket portraits of their birthplace or of those they love.

If a pilgrimage is all this, it is evident that however careless, it must not be untroublesome. It would be a contradiction of pilgrimage to seek to make the journey short and rapid, merely consuming the mind for nothing, as is our modern habit; for they seem to think nowadays that to remain as near as possible to what one was at starting, and to one's usual rut, is the great good of travel (as though a man should run through the _Iliad_ only to note the barbarous absurdity of the Greek characters, or through Catullus for the sake of discovering such words as were like enough to English). That is not the spirit of a pilgrimage at all. The pilgrim is humble and devout, and human and charitable, and ready to smile and admire; therefore he should comprehend the whole of his way, the people in it, and the hills and the clouds, and the habits of the various cities. And as to the method of doing this, we may go bicycling (though that is a little flurried) or driving (though that is luxurious and dangerous, because it brings us constantly against servants and flattery); but the best way of all is on foot, where one is a man like any other man, with the sky above one, and the road beneath, and the world on every side, and time to see all.

So also I designed to walk, and did, when I visited the tombs of the Apostles.

[The end]
Hilaire Belloc's essay: The Idea Of A Pilgrimage