Thomas Merton on Pilgrimage

[The following excerpts from copyrighted material are for purposes of retreat and instruction. Merton’s non-inclusive language, as grating as it is on the contemporary ear, has been transcribed as he used it. Only some of Merton’s copious footnotes have been included in this transcription.]

The ‘sacred journey’ has origins in prehistoric religious cultures and myths. Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of ‘origin,’ the ‘home’ where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life. [cf. Mircea Eliade. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1960.]

In the traditions of all the great religions, pilgrimage takes the faithful back to the source and center of the religion itself, the place of theophany, of cleansing, renewal, and salvation. For the Christian there is, of course, Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, where the definitive victory of life over death, good over evil, was won. And there is Rome, the center of the Catholic Church, the See of Peter, the place of indulgence and forgiveness. There are also grottoes and springs blessed by visitations of the merciful Mother, sites of repentance and healing. There are countless tombs of saints, places of hierophany and of joy. Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which simply followed the example and pattern of much older Jewish pilgrimages, began in the fourth century A.D. St. Helena’s [Augustine of Hippo’s mother] pilgrimage and the finding of the True Cross took place in 326. Less than ten years later, the splendid Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated. It would attract thousands of pilgrims from the West. Already, in 333, a pilgrim from Bordeaux, in France, was writing about his visit to the Holy Places. One of the liveliest and most interesting of all written pilgrimages is that of the nun Aetheria, who probably came from Spain and visited not only the holy places in Jerusalem but the monks of the Egyptian desert and of Palestine, even going through the Arabian desert to Mount Sinai, where there was as yet no monastery [Saint Catherine’s], but where there were colonies of hermits living in huts and caves. Large numbers of anchorites escorted her enthusiastically to the summit of the mountain, where appropriate texts from the Bible were read. Mass was sung, eulogiae, or spiritual gifts (consisting of fruits from the monks’ orchard) were passed around, and the joys of the Christian life were generally celebrated in the very place where God had given the Law to Moses [Le Pèlerinage d’Ethérie. Latin text and French translation, 1948]. Note that at this same time St. Gregory of Nyssa was writing his life of Moses, which is in fact a description of the mystical itinerary and ascent of the monk to God in “dark contemplation.”

The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.

History would show the fatality and doom that would attend on the external pilgrimage with no interior spiritual integration, a divisive and disintegrated wandering, without understanding and without the fulfillment of any humble inner quest. In such a pilgrimage no blessing is found within, and so the outward journey is cursed with alienation. Historically, we find a progressive ‘interiorization’ of the pilgrimage theme, until in monastic literature the ‘perigrinatio’ of the monk is entirely spiritual and is in fact synonymous with monastic stability. Thomas Merton. “From Pilgrimage to Crusade.” Mystics & Zen Masters. NY: Dell Paperback, 1961. 90-112.

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