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Pilgrimages

Last post 02-01-2008, 1:31 AM by zneval. 0 replies.
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  •  02-01-2008, 1:31 AM 38034

    Pilgrimages

    I am in a class called "Turning East," where we are learning about pilgrimages, starting first with theories, then personal accounts, and finally with literary works that deal with the issue. I thought I'd start this thread, throwing out some of the big ideas, also talking about what I think AQAL brings to the table for me personally. Hopefully you all find it somewhat interesting and please add to the discussion.

    As I said, we've started by studying the theoretical perspectives generally taken by anthropologists. Victor Turner, writing in 1970, presented the first real theory (pretty recent, when you think about it) regarding what pilgrimage is, how it works, what it does. We will see in a minute why his ideas were radically different, and why it's thrust pilgrimage into the consciousnesses of the modern researcher. His basic thesis was that the pilgrimage ritual, held by all religions in all places of the globe, was anti-structural, because instead of acting like a religious or political institution, which reinforce themselves, the pilgrimage experience involved crossing the sacred/secular lines. The experience of pilgrimage was a self-induced loss of identity. People from one village met people from another village along the way, people who might often be of different political or state designations, or even religious sect designations, but that they were united in their journey. Thus, the pilgrimage process dissolves the commonly held religious and political distinctions an individual would normally hold. Upon returning home, this experience, which cultivates universality and meeting, led to broader borders for both the secular and religious groups involves (not to mention, giving a lot of reason to mix and share cultures).

    (1) The liminal experience. Liminal literally means threshold, but a good way to think about it is as like a time in your life when things are radically "up in the air." A example might be the days between a death and the funeral, those days where there is no set way to act, no expectation of you, there is no certain way to live, you are just suspended in a timeless place. Another way to think of it is as the culmination of a ritual rite of passage, where the subject has undergone an often incredible ordeal (in this case, the travel experience to the site) before reaching the final rite, where they are then "christened" or "deemed man" by a tribe, another experience where the subject would have no idea what to expect, further would really not even know what exactly to expect. (You'll notice this is UL material.) (2) Communitas, which takes three forms. The pure form, the form ideally experienced at the pilgrimage site, is existential communitas. This simply means the experience of being Oneness with God, as a group, boundaries between people dissolved, where all have entered into communal oneness with God and with each other, recognizing each in each, God in each. (You'll notice, this is LL material) Normative communitas is the degree to which the existential experience is translated into those socio-secular-religious systems into which the pilgrims must inevitably re-enter. (How is the LL experience translated into LR social systems?) Ideological communitas is the recording of how a utopia community might live in the communitas.

    These are very general, of course, but they point to a very interesting dynamic that pilgrimage plays throughout history. If we accept Turner's thesis, pilgrimage comes to be seen as a pretty important way the world learned to ascend the vertical axis of structure stage evolution. The pilgrimage dissolves the self-boundaries set up by the secular and even religious systems, gives an individual and newly gathered community a profound spiritual/Oneness experience, giving them incentive to retain those connections when they return to redefine the social boundaries they must live in for society to exist. It is a way to break through the Durkheimian notion that all social structures are built to oppress freedom and reinforce itself as a social structure; this theory gives us a sociological phenomenon that promises to offer liberation from those binds. The pilgrimage creates a socio-economic-political field in its wake, opposing the solidarity set up by the state/religion, where those who now obviously shared similar beliefs could go and share their secular space, too.

    The follow up to Turner's thesis, very influential, was to deconstruct the study of pilgrimages, the work of post-modernists. I'd never seen all of Ken's discussion about the post-modern effect of academia, but here it was right in front of me. The call, some twenty years later in the nineties, was for a return to the particulars, the post-modern cry that all localities and religions that practice religion have vastly different practices, varying both between religions, in the same religion, and between different eras of human history. It was a call towards interpretation as the key factor in experience, which is another insight often gladly attributed to the post-modernists by Ken. And they were right. Not everyone who arrives at the pilgrimage site necessarily experiences communitas, let alone liminality, let alone does every community group experience communitas as such-- the interpretations must vary by every person who was there. The role for the pilgrimage was contesting; people from different places and different meanings would meet at a place of conflict, between sects, orthodoxies, with a drive towards communitas, but also towards counter-movements, or perhaps most often, simply reinforcing the already-set state/religious distinctions. To quote, "The notion of pilgrimage as a religious void and an arena for competing interpretations enables us to place communitas into its proper perspective---as an ideological program that is only partially and fleetingly realized in practice" (Eade, Sallnow). They further tried to set up a method of Person, Place, Text as the three voids into which meaning could be poured. Pilgrim sites weren't just place-centered, they could be person-centered or text-centered, too, and this would have implications, they argued, on the implications and meanings.

    Both of these distinctions seem to make good sense, and I personally feel like they coexist together. Turner provides the idea, Eade/Sallnow show us that it isn't that easy, not so clean. But as the post-modern view tends to do, there was so much emphasis on the contesting, on the myriad of meanings being brought to the experience, on breaking the phenomenon down so much that we are simply left with a "religious void" into which we pour meaning and hope to get something out, all this ignores the structural similarities that we do find, the similar experiences and miracles we do see cross-culturally. The next advances re-legitimized these things cross-cultural significances and more. In practicality, person, place, and text intertwine intimately to create one experience; a pilgrim always finds his or herself in a place, worshiping a "person" (divine character, saintly human, or god Himself) usually according to a text or script or learned prayer. A pilgrimage site is not only contested by the pilgrims arriving, but it is also constituted in a very important way. After all, if anyone has possession over a sacred site, it is the religion associated with it. A site might have any number of regulations, rules of conduct, prayers to say, all determined by the priests of the religion. So to say it is a religious void is certainly not the whole truth, or even half.

    The view then is of pilgrimage as a movement and response. It runs a pilgrim's individual faith into the inevitable fact that other people (even of the same religion) understand and practice their faith in different ways. What distinguishes it from other forms of ritual in religion, it is precisely the individuals being presented with the new view/perspective on what they "already know." As Elsner puts it, "Universalizing cultures of 'belief' are placed in tension with parochial cultures rooted in 'place'." The degree to which a person experiences communitas, or more simply, a transformative experience along the journey or at the goal, has mostly to do with an individual's circumstance and particulars of a situation. A pilgrimage site, in this view, is "set-up" by a person of great Spiritual influence wherever a great spiritual event of theirs did occur; the site is "carried-forth" by those who pay reverence and who make their mark on the site over time. The pilgrimage site is thus an embodiment of myth-history, not a static entity, but an amazing mixture of ritual , organized travel, objects of veneration, sacrifices of real human's time and effort and devotion-- all of these, they note, also occur in other spheres of life. The pilgrim is encouraged to move through the sacred site in the ritualistic and conventional ways, but it is ultimately their interpretation and response. Pilgrimage puts the faith to test, asking it to stand up on its own right, asking if it still can deliver in the way its set up, asking the conventional ways to prove they aren't outdated.

    Continuity and change are embraced. LR is tested against the truth LL demands, the spiritual realities the UL needs to translate their world or transform through it. If it stands up, it sticks and lives on. If it doesn't stand up, the UR behavioral response and re-shaping by humans over time ensures the LR keeps up with the LL. Pretty cool vision, eh? A constant process of self-re-discovery, individually and collectively.

    More later, please chime in with any comments, questions, critiques, whatever. I'll tell you, its an interesting topic once you start thinking about what pilgrimage might mean for the modern or post-modern world. For instance, how does a trip to a museum differ from that to a pilgrimage site? Surely, myths are still involved, and a presented in a certain way to the audience, yet each museum-goer must rebuild the myth of history in their mind as they view the displays. What of the modern boom of tourism? How do these things relate? How does the modern person enrich travel with spirituality? Or is tourism simply watered down and commercialized? What does it mean that we can take a jet or a bus from site to site?

    Tim.
    "identity which is not convulsive ceases to exist" ---breton

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