On pilgrimage

Inishmore, Aran Islands


“On Pilgrimage” is the title of the column that Dorothy Day wrote for The Catholic Worker for many decades. I have always loved the fluidity of this idea of being in the midst of a journey. Nelle Morton described it in the eloquent phrase: “the journey is home.” Our current world often seems bifurcated between those with the certitude of safety, security, home and the millions of children, women, and men displaced, searching for peace, stability, home. I think there is a liminal space, a space in-between these polar experiences that offers profound and needed insights.

A Nomadic Spirituality of Home is a constructive response to my original work on the problem of Spiritual Homelessness, grounded in the consideration of the relationships among theology, violence, and healing. My work is informed by recent empirical studies that explore the contributions of spirituality to resilience for survivors, as well as the impediments spirituality sometimes represents, particularly in the form of mainstream theological notions of suffering as well as the idealized mythos of home and belonging. Feminist and liberation theologies recognize that insights and understandings arise from the concrete experiences of those who suffer and survive – whether material poverty, migration, or exclusion and oppression based on racism, sexism, etc. I am interested in the understandings that surface from the experience of diaspora, migration, displacement, refugees, and exile. A deeper awareness of the experiences of millions of persons displaced by political, economic, and domestic violence may offer helpful and revised understandings of home/lessness and place/lessness. These new understandings, about ancient realities of exile and migration, as well as resilience and survival, suggest helpful paths for understanding the “internal displacement” that survivors of domestic and sexual violence endure. My work moves in a dual direction – learning from and offering to.

A way into this work is exploring the nomadic experiences of survivors of violence. While some survivors adapt to a certain religiosity, others come to recognize that dominant metaphors, images of God, languages of sin, and explanations of suffering do not fit their experiences. So they look elsewhere. They search. While there is a healing, and I would argue holy, quest at work, often this seeking and searching is misunderstood and judged. A false stability is prized over what is misnamed as instability.

A Nomadic Spirituality of Home travels beyond conventional metaphors and notions of home and belonging. Pilgrimage can become a form of homemaking. Here is what I mean: the practice and metaphor of pilgrimage offers an additional way of understanding home as something other than a destination; a place that one returns to when the pilgrimage is completed. Instead pilgrimage as homemaking opens up imaginative ways to explore one’s self “on pilgrimage” as Dorothy Day expressed it. Pilgrimage as homemaking offers ways to explore that God travels with us and makes her home within us.

The impetus for leaving home in “traditional, sedentary societies was a call to go to war, to journey for business, or to go on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage signified leaving the familiar environment of home to seek a transcendent experience at some distant shrine.” The idea and practice of pilgrimage offers a rich vein for exploration. Pilgrimage is often romanticized, obscuring the real dangers that marked the practice of pilgrimage in medieval Europe, when there was no assurance the pilgrim would return. Traditional understandings of pilgrimage suggest that salvation can be earned by chosen suffering. Feminist theology has troubled the idea of an imitatio Christi founded on a violent atonement required by a punitive God.

Sharon Dolaz Parks highlights the gendered way that the metaphor of pilgrimage and journey has been sheared away from and now dominates its companion, the metaphor of home/homesteading. Such a shearing, she argues, emphasizes gendered associations of men with separation and differentiation and women with attachment and relation, negating the fact that all humans may share a yearning and capacity for autonomy and agency, belonging and community. These contradictions align well with the needed reconstruction of understandings of home.

Pilgrimage, understood as both metaphor and practice, works for three key reasons. First, it offers a paradigm laden with rich language and meaning and a treasure trove of alternative wisdoms within and among religious traditions. Second, pilgrimage offers an intentionality that may be useful to survivors for suggesting the possibility of agency in the face of suffering. Pilgrimage challenges the stasis – or what I call the stucktitude – of suffering that strikes survivors of trauma by engaging their capacity to live in a present not solely constructed by the past. Third, the practice of pilgrimage is embodied. This is critical given the fact that the body remembers trauma and suffering. Recent research on neuroplasticity and cortical remapping suggests that remapping can follow new learning, new experiences.

So, as my own walking and thinking continues, I hope this blog will present a kind of virtual cafe where other pilgrims can share their understandings, insights, and wisdom about pilgrimage and home. I will be stepping onto the Camino de Santiago the first week of September this year. Intentional pilgrimage requires preparation; a process that I really began in earnest at the beginning of the new year and continue with these shared reflections and learnings. I hope it will result in a mosaic of understandings.

Buen Camino.



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