A few months back, one of the rock stars of the photographic world became even more of one. Annie Leibovitz’s cover for Vanity Fair magazine of the world’s highest profile transgendered person — Caitlyn Jenner — has gone viral. If people didn’t know her name before, they know it now.
I was already very familiar with her work, most so because of a hefty coffee table book she had published several years ago, a gorgeous volume of pictures titled Pilgrimage. Many of the photos in it have also been put together in a traveling exhibit, including one at the New York History Museum.
Where it got at least one astonishingly critical review, mainly because, the critic noted, there were no photos of humans. No people, no celebrities, no models, no VIPs. The familiar subjects of her award-winning work.
I needed to save myself, she has explained. She had been told that this book would not bring in money — even though she was in a state of high financial anxiety — nor further her already high profile career as an artistic icon who has captured better, if not best of all, the celebrated Boomers of her generation. Still, she wanted to, she had to do it, this project she had first planned with her late partner Susan Sontag, to create and publish a book of the places they had both cared about. It was, at least at first for her, a spiritual calling. A way to put herself back together again, to make herself whole.
She admitted to a reporter from the New York Times that she had “a bit of a feeling” that she had had it with people, but that you could not get away from them. It was the stuff of their life, with the dead stuff they had left behind that she wanted to see and capture through her amazing lens.
So she went on a pilgrimage to places inhabited by or visited by 27 famous men and women, an eclectic group, including what Leibovitz describes as novelist Virginia Woolf’s squalid writing studio in a little village 60 miles outside London. She visited Charles Darwin’s home, also in England, where she photographed an unidentified bird specimen and a glorious leaf strewn path he walked every day. She captured Eleanor Roosevelt’s tellingly Spartan, unheated sleeping porch in her mother-in-law’s grand mansion, Opera diva Marian Anderson’s regal concert gown, Elvis Presley’s personal turntable in his off-limits-to-tourists Graceland bedroom.
Annie Leibovitz spent some pilgrimage time in Concord Massachusetts, a kind of Mecca for Unitarian Universalists: home to Thoreau and his Walden Pond, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and most dear to me, Louisa May Alcott.
I may have been taken there as a child during one of our annual trips to New England to visit a parade of relatives, but it was my too brief visit one especially rainy, cold April day a few years ago, while I was in Boston doing work as a UU minister, that will remain with me indelibly. The train ride up from North Station, the drenching and muddy walk through town out to Orchard House, where the author of Little Women grew up, past the impressive Unitarian congregation on the town square — where my friend and I stopped in and I “borrowed” an umbrella that had been conveniently forgotten in the coat closet outside the sanctuary.
As it turned out, that afternoon the house was supposed to be temporarily closed to the general public so that a group of Japanese tourists might have a private visit. I was irate, dismayed. After all, I told the ticket attendant, we had come ourselves from Atlanta and Seattle just to see a genuine UU heroine’s birthplace (which, of course, was not strictly or even at all true). She let us in, making it quite clear this was a special and a singular exception, to see for ourselves Louisa May’s writing desk, her sister Beth’s rag doll, her artistic sibling May’s drawings of angels on her bedroom wall. What a homecoming for me, to be so intimately connected with the source of immense joy as I read and re-read that classic story.
Such a pilgrimage, but not the kind we are used to thinking of.
The traditional definition and perhaps most common understanding of pilgrimage is that it is a journey to a holy place, taken for religious reasons. The encyclopedia tells us that many, in fact, most religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: where founders or saints were born or died, or where they were awakened or enlightened, or where miracles were performed or witnessed.
In Buddhism, for example, there are four places where followers typically make pilgrimage: to Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal. To Bodh Gaya, his place of enlightenment where he sat under a tree. Sarnath where he delivered his first teaching. And Kusinagar India where he died. And others like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and The Four Sacred Mountains in China.
In Hinduism, there are multiple divinities and multiple sacred sites.
Among the three so called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (monotheistic faith traditions all spun from the story of Abraham the Patriarch), the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine) is a focal point for pilgrimages, especially the perennially troubled Jerusalem. In Judaism, the Temple was the center of Jewish religion until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, with the requirement (explicitly listed in the book of Exodus) that all adult men visit and offer sacrifices three times a year — three pilgrimages, including the familiar Passover and less familiar Shavout and Sukkot visits, all three of these originally agricultural harvest festivals. It is thought that what we call psalms, sometimes attributed to one man — King David — were actually made up and sung by these ancient faithful pilgrims to pass the time and lift their spirits as they walked along.
There is no Temple in Jerusalem — both the First and Second Temples were destroyed by conquerors of that tiny kingdom. Since then — and it has been thousands of years now — the actual pilgrimage is no longer obligatory. But during these Jewish holidays in modern-day Israel, many Jews living nearby attend prayer services at the remaining fragment — the Western Wall — mimicking the original pilgrimage as best they can now.
In Christianity, as early as the fourth or fifth century, people were leaving their villages to walk what was called the “glory road,” retracing the footsteps of Jesus, especially during Easter Week as they processed past the stations of the cross. During the Middle Ages, pilgrimages became immensely popular, drawing thousands to Jerusalem on often dangerous roads, armed with bibles and walking sticks. It is said that modern tourism began with this, complete with peddling souvenir coins, crude guidebooks and maps, and robbing naive unarmed visitors.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, done at least once in the lifetime of all able-bodied Muslims. Medina is the second holiest place, where Muhammad rests. In this tradition, pilgrims wear all white, do not shave, clip their nails, wear perfume, uproot or damage plants or carry weapons lest their pilgrimage be invalidated. For Muslims, Jerusalem is where the Dome of the Rock is — built in the 7th century — enshrining the rock from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Not the principle point of pilgrimage, but indeed a holy spot.
Other popular religious pilgrimages have been created and taken hold over the centuries. Pilgrims were first invited in 1300 to an alternative to the Holy Land pilgrimage to Rome, following the failure of the Crusades (when it became at least temporarily too dangerous to visit Jerusalem), an event that happens every 25 years.
Another addition to religious adventuring was the month-long, 500-mile walking path through France and Spain to the tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales were headed, drawing many thousands of religious tourists from the 11th to 18th century. As they walked, they often carried a Pilgrim’s Guide with descriptions of the sites, shrines, and people they were likely to come across, and lists of inns for both lodging and meals.
Like many Jewish people (a Jewnitarian by birth), few of us desire to return to Israel (which is calling making Aliyah) but we are often called to make at least one pilgrimage there. I did not go until three years ago, a time when it felt somewhat safe, a time when my children were grown and independent. I traveled there with a group of humanistic Jews, many of them in interfaith marriages, so our experience was markedly different than the free pilgrimage offered to Jewish young adults under 25, whose trip is paid for by a decidedly conservative organization called Birthright.
Tellingly, they fly by the hundreds each year, into Ben Gurion airport outside the cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and go straight to the usual sacred spots for the most religious Jewish people: the so-called Wailing or Western wall in Old Jerusalem, the remnant of the second Temple, now essentially an Orthodox synagogue where men and women are separated, the women in a small and poorly maintained corner. And Masada, the place where the Zealots tried to hold off the troops of the Roman Empire in a suicidal last stand.
My little band went to these places, but also Christian and Muslim quarters of the Holy City, buying wooden crosses for relatives, browsing the Arab markets. We ate grilled Saint Peter’s white fish at a restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I might have been the only person who knew the significance to the Christian story, who thought of loaves and fishes.
We spent a great deal of time in Tel Aviv, and for me it wasn’t so much the required visit to the building in which the charter for the State of Israel was signed which moved me most of all my time in Israel, but the feeling of openness and possibility: playful beachgoers on the Sabbath, youth-oriented coffee houses and art galleries. The salty air. The blue sea.
I didn’t so much have a feeling of déjà vu — that my blood ancestors had indeed been there — in most of Israel, except in the Golan Heights — abutting Syria — where it turns out that I have some Druze genetic lineage. I have felt much more of a familial connection when taking trips, making pilgrimage in Eastern Europe — being led through the sad empty ghettos in Prague and Krakow.
We Unitarians indeed have our own forms of individual and collective pilgrimage: from trips to Transylvania, where a branch — not necessarily a root of our beginnings got its start; to Boston and Philadelphia where our original American churches were founded and still exist; again to Concord and the countryside around it, with so much Transcendentalist history. And here in the South to the old and mostly evaporated Universalist congregations, planted in unlikely rural towns.
And then there are the secular pilgrimages that we all go on, whether or not we name them this way. The pilgrimages that fall under a second definition, a journey or search of moral significance. Journeys where we follow in the footsteps of somebody or something we honor, to whom or what we wish to pay homage.
These trips, which are not simply Grand Tours or world travels for the sake of accumulating and then bragging on passport stamps, come out of a deep need, we are told, to simply lose ourselves or find ourselves anew. More than ever travelers take respectful, even reverential journeys to places that are not strictly spiritual or religious at all. The list is seemingly endless: to James Joyce’s Dublin, to the bookstores and bars haunted by the Beats in Greenwich Village and San Francisco; to the Field of Dreams in Iowa or indeed every major league ballpark. For some, pilgrimage has taken form in trips to Memphis: to pay homage to the fallen Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in the Lorraine Hotel, now a civil rights museum; or not irreverently to Graceland, the mecca for Elvis fans; or in my husband’s case, the headquarters for Sun Records, artistic home for many blues and rock and roll greats.
There’s the Hungarian tourist who on her trip to visit California, bypassed Disneyland and Universal Studios to spend time on Sproul Plaza at the University of California in Berkeley, to see the place, she recalls, where people stopped a war.
I have a friend who made two pilgrimages to Liverpool, England, to discover the presence of the early Beatles, and who guides other pilgrims on tours of the Beatles New York City, from the place they bought guitars to the studio where the Ed Sullivan show was aired, to the poignant tragic site of John’s murder just outside the Dakota Apartments and Strawberry Field in Central Park, which has become a kind of shrine.
These are pilgrimages that require some travel, some investment of time and money.
But there are so many that don’t. Pilgrimages where we go nowhere, or almost nowhere. That are internal journeys, or mostly.
That require our deep attention. That both challenge and rejuvenate us. That provide catharsis, a release. That take us, changed, back home.
My father was a lifelong devoted, one might say obsessive, birdwatcher, a passion I did not share. But when he died, I longed to connect with that part of him. In the years since his death, I did take a trip across country to Southern Arizona, a generous gift of a cousin by marriage to a wildlife refuge he visited on more than one occasion. I have also taken much shorter pilgrimages — to a water reservoir in a nearby county where he birded often.
Even closer in, even briefer, even more moving and transforming have been the walks I have taken through a small woods a block from our home, wherein just after he died, my humanist dad came to me — I swear — in the form of a bared owl — in the middle of the day. I keep looking for him, and I keep the memory alive.
The goal of my wandering.
As our own Henry David Thoreau, a great explorer of what lay closest to him, reminded himself in his journal: “It matters not where or how you travel — the farther commonly the worse — but how much alive you are.”
May it be so.