Pilgrims on the road to somewhere

When I think of pilgrims I have images of men and women wearing funny clothes and having a thanksgiving dinner with friendly natives. The images come from my childhood, and they represent the religious dissenters who left England for a land where they could worship God freely.

Time distorts things. We have heard these people so long referred to as “The Pilgrims” that we have forgotten why we call them that name. They came to be called pilgrims because they were on a pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage means to go somewhere with a purpose, often of a spiritual nature, in order to gain some internal or external benefit. (Ferrell’s Unwritten Dictionary)

It generally is an actual journey to somewhere, but it also can be viewed as a metaphor for life.  

Lewis Joseph Sherrill says there are many metaphors for giving meaning to life, and pilgrimage is one of three that he cites in his 1951 book, The Struggle of the Soul. The three are treadmill, saga, and pilgrimage.

“Treadmill” is one of a number of metaphors used to “express the same general but dismal feeling toward life–that it has no meaning.” (4) People work, eat, sleep, and die. Sherrill associates it with many people who work in monotonous jobs. The metaphor, however, is not about their circumstances; it is about how they understand life.

“Saga,” as a form of story, chronicles the “vicissitudes and exploits” of a hero or heroine. When saga becomes a metaphor for understanding life, “it lifts the heroism and glamour of life to a poetic level.” Sound like any movies you’ve seen lately? “Thus the saga rises above the treadmill by exalting the distinctively human qualities which exist, if we can see them, within the treadmill. The saga teaches men to see and honor the humanness of the natural virtues, such as courage, patience, endurance, self-sacrifice, and the like.” (4-5) Saga has a two-fold value: “it shows wherein the nobility of great character lies and it shows the heroism of the common life. Even when trivial and preposterous, it still serves to lift the hearer a little way above the treadmill.” (5)

But don’t get too excited about saga; it has its problems. “… [T]he saga is secular in the root meaning of that term; that is, it concerns the people and the events of a saeculum, a particular age or generation; and again we must say that if there is more to sing than the saeculum in which the saga is laid, the saga cannot sing it. (5)

Yikes! Not able to sing a song that needs to be sung? So what’s missing? The answer rests in pilgrimage as a life metaphor.

 “… [P]ilgrimage is a state of mind before it is a journey, and many who deserve to be known as pilgrims can never take a journey of body. Yet they refuse to live in a treadmill. For some, who are pilgrims at heart, have to spend their days in the same round of constantly repeated activities as their fellows; but to them it is no longer a treadmill.” (6)

Note that pilgrimage does not have to do with a person’s outward circumstances; it has to do with how they approach life. Now, back to the limitations of saga and the benefit of pilgrimage.

“Life as saga, we saw, is life bounded in two planes. It can celebrate humanity, but it is essentially limited to humanity. And it can celebrate the saeculum, the current time, but it is limited to time.

“Life as pilgrimage, on the contrary, is open in both of the planes where life as saga is closed. In the vertical plane, so to speak, where life as saga is closed, life as pilgrimage is open to more than the merely natural and human, so that human existence is consciously related not only to nature and to humanity, but also to God who transcends nature and humanity. And in the horizontal plane, if we may again use a spatial symbol, where life as saga is secular in the sense of being limited by time, life as pilgrimage is open to eternity. It tastes what has been strikingly called ‘the power of an endless life.’” (6-7, quote in final sentence is from Hebrews 7:16)

All of us have a way of looking at life. We often don’t think about it or consciously form it, but it is there–a way of making sense of life. But it’s more than that because how we make sense of life affects how we live it.

I desire to live as a pilgrim, and I plan to eat turkey on Thanksgiving just like the Pilgrims did back in the seventeenth century. Well, maybe they didn’t, but I’m going to remember them when I eat mine.

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