Pilgrimage in the City

A few days ago, I went with my friend B. on a walking tour of NYC rock sites in lower Manhattan. The tour was sponsored by Rocks Off, and was led by concert promoter and musician Jake Szufnarowski, a deeply knowledgeable and friendly guide to all things rock and roll.

We met at Union Square Park, near two locations of Andy Warhol's factory (and a new statue of Warhol at the northwest corner of the park). From there, Szufnarowski took us many places in and near the East Village and Lower East Side, including the sites of the former Max's Kansas City and the Palladium, the Gem Spa, Irving Plaza, and Webster Hall. Unfortunately, B. and I had to leave after a couple of hours to make another appointment, but the tour (at only three of us plus Szufnarowski, it was an intimate one) went on to the former CBGB and more. At each site, we were given not only basic historical information about what transpired there in the history of rock and roll, but also many personal tales of mischief, decadence, and innovation that could only be told by someone with Szufnarowski's deep embeddedness in and love for the city as a musical place. For a young guy (late 30s), he has experienced an extraordinary amount of (and taken copious mental notes from books about) New York City's musical culture.

Advertisement

As I walked along the tour, and on later reflection, I could not help but think of the theological notion of pilgrimage, a concept that contains a span of meanings related to the practice of visiting sites of spiritual significance.

Pilgrimage is a way of being rendered a "pilgrim" (a wanderer, a traveler) in search of a place-based touchstone and anchor in the larger scheme (cosmos, universe), whether that place be officially recognized or not. Pilgrimage is a way of training the body to be the seismograph of the sacred, as one undergoes the departure, the traveling, and the arrival, conforming oneself a little more, in the doing, to that which the pilgrimage represents spiritually (and in which -- like commercial interests -- it is always entangled).

Among many pilgrimages in my life, there have been those to Jerusalem and to Kent State, and I am thinking now that even such a simple act as a walking rock tour is a kind of pilgrimage, because it more deeply instantiates a particular relationship to places where an "event" or "events" happen or have happened, and it relates the pilgrim, in imagination, to others who want to walk that itinerary of significance, fashioning further the concrete and irreducibly particular (though always social) spiritual geographies otherwise known as our lives.

Although I have never lived in the East Village, I have thought of it as my spiritual home of sorts ever since I first visited around 1993. With the intertwining legacies of the beats, hippies, punks, musicians, and all manner of artists, I intuitively felt -- and knew from its history -- that it was fertile soil for creative people who don't need to try too hard, who want more of the real instead of more of the normal, who experiment with and invent new forms of living and letting live. Some kind of easy tolerance in the best sense, even as the bitter realities of drugs, poverty, and homelessness are also part of the past and present there. Despite the terrible commercialism that gentrification has brought to the neighborhood, I still meet people there who give witness that this way of life can occur. (Although my friends keep telling me that the East Village is over and the scene has moved to Brooklyn, I can't break my felt connection to those streets.) I have long thought that the neighborhood would be an interesting place for theology to prove its social significance and its commitment to caring for souls, to open a small center for theological work that would serve the neighborhood and the city through research, social events and programs, and intellectual/artistic productions. (Perhaps such a place already exists.)

So the rock tour placed me in a domain of delight, experience, and imagination that I had already wanted to run more deeply in my day-to-day habitus. I know I will now make my way somewhat differently through the East Village and Lower East Side , so it may not be too much to liken the walking rock tour to a pilgrimage. Thinking of pilgrimage in this way can show us not only what stands out from everyday experience as exceptional (as in leaving the ordinary to go on pilgrimage), but also how everyday life can be encouraged, inspired, and deepened by the traces of the pilgrimages we have made. And perhaps that all true pilgrimages are attempts to find the internal map that fits our individual history and strangeness.

Tom Beaudoin

San Jose, California, USA

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Abe,

The poor benefited in that the shrines were like a relief from the class oriented society. They did have other outlets to get help but the shrine was attractive. Same was true for women who were imprisoned by the strict laws governing women. This gave them a chance to be somewhere where there was not that oppression. Ambrose was as into power as any of the other bishops. In fact Augustine was one of the few who so the problem with the cult of saints though he weakened somewhat. The cult of the saints is a development which was embraced by the rich and the poor. The rich and the bishops for power, the poor for relief from the humdrum life. Naturally, the rich had greater access to the relics.  The problem is that this went against the gospels and the three centuries before it.  One of the telling realities was that the relics were accesible to those who either possessed them or had the means to travel to the "sacred" places. This is all foreign to Jesus who said God was within you and that the local community was enough. 

The irony is that the martyrs were used for power and magic power than the humility and gospel living that was the Christian Way. The fourth century is known for Christians using the saints for power rather than imitation. The Reformation was right about this. Robert Marcus calls this the Age of Hypocrisy:

    "As saints became ubiquitous, they also changed their functions. In theearly Christian community the living faithful prayed to God for their dead;now the dead saint is asked to pray for the living: a whole new liturgy cameinto being. As the martyr is , literally, detached from the place of hismartyrdom and made present wherever his relics have become the center of acult, so relics began to be seen in a new way.....relics soon  becamethemselves, the seats of holy power, God's preferred channels for miraculousaction. A new nexus of social relationships centered around their shrines;their cult provided ways of securing social cohesion in the locality, and one of the means on which bishops depended to consolidate their authority."The Oxford History of Christianity.pg90.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Tom,

I must admit I find the "theology of pilgrimage" dubious. A pilgrimage always favor those who charge for visiting history. With the rise of the cult of saints in the fourth century, saints and relics became ubiquitous with those with the means to obtain relics rising to a more priviliged status. If you had money you were also able to be buried next to a saint. A dubious departure from Jesus who preferred the poor and the downtrodden. While I understand how one can connect with those who developed some art or founded a church, it is in the final analysis absurd to conclude that one can find Jesus in Compostela, Lourdes, Jerusalem, and the like. The reason is that such pilgrimages are generally affordable to the middle class while the poor may be lucky to travel within one's own country.

Pilgrimages are popular in the same way vacations are; a pleasant escape from the mundane and the humdrum. The history is fine and enriching. But must we sacralize it? Sincere Christians consider such trips holy because they have been taught such. How much do the directors of these shrines thank the professors who make it part of the grade to visit a shrine either inside or outside of Italy.

Sadly, the almighty dollar drives such theology and practice more than anything else. 
ANTHONY ANDREASSI
6 years 6 months ago
Bill-

  "it is in the final analysis absurd to conclude that one can find Jesus in Compostela, Lourdes, Jerusalem, and the like."  All those poor fools who for centuries have sought the holy far and wide.   Let us pity them, stupid wretches.  Yes, all those people who make pilgrimages on Lough Derg or climbed Croagh Patrick are and were clearly deluded.  I am glad that you cleared it all for them and us.  It is too bad they wasted all their time and energy.  They should have just gone to Aruba because according to you, they basically just went on vacation.

Thanks for clearing up all this misunderstanding since the 4th century! 
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Anthony, 

You should be open to unlearn some of the things you erroneusly learned. But if you think pilgrimages are the key to holiness, which the multifarious shrines teach, then happy crusading. I know it is disheartening to realize that pilgrimages can be compared to mountain climbing and the desire to wander. No, they should not have gone to Aruba, they should bring food, water and medicine to the Haitians et alii. 

We can keep apologizing for empire or we can demand that the gospel be lived. I gave facts  you cried the blues. You could try accurate history.
Kang Dole
6 years 6 months ago
Bill, where do you learn your accurate history for Christianity in Late Antiquity? That's a genuine question.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Abe, 

Peter Brown has written several great books on Late Antiquity. So has Robert Marcus. Brown's classic "The Cult of the Saints" is apt for the discussion in this thread.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 6 months ago
What a delightful post, Tom, chock full of thoughtful and soulful reflection.

"With the intertwining legacies of the beats, hippies, punks, musicians, and all manner of artists, I intuitively felt - and knew from its history - that it was fertile soil for creative people who don't need to try too hard, who want more of the real instead of more of the normal, who experiment with and invent new forms of living and letting live. "

I like the way that you intertwine theology with art and landscape (soul-scape?).

We have a parish here that has become a sort of mecca for local musicians, and what they create is a unique kind of prayer.  I, personally, am drawn to the kind of public worship that gets me out of my way too rational (and controlling) thoughts.  Have you ever been to a Haitian Mass where they pull our full stops with the drums?  wow.
Kang Dole
6 years 6 months ago
Bill, I think that Brown's Saints is excellent, and I agree with you concerning the need to pay attention to the dynamics of power at play in the development of the cult of the saints (as well as in pilgrimage, in general).

Actually, though, your first comment caught my attention precisely because I think it conflicts with Brown's argument in many ways. I definitely think that you're correct to point out that the proliferation of saints memorials was utilized in controlling the possession of power. It is important to recognize, however, that Brown isn't so reductionist as to argue that the development of the cult of the saints only served to increase the power of elites. Rather, he also argues that the efforts of bishops like Ambrose to radically change the course of that development placed limitations on the ability of the wealthiest to privatize saints' tombs; moreover, Brown also suggests that the new program of handling saints' remains provided the urban poor with a greater opportunity to benefit spiritually from the cult. In other words, while the cult fell under the hand of Church hierarchy, that doesn't mean that its social role was one dimensional (with that dimension being regretful).
Bill Collier
6 years 6 months ago
A walking tour of NYC rock sites as a pilgrimage.

Sounds like a modern-day Canterbury Tales. ;)
SHAWN O'NEAL
6 years 6 months ago
My only questions are these:  Should I take the tour when I get to the City in January?  Is it a waste of $25?  
ANTHONY ANDREASSI
6 years 6 months ago
Bill-  

What makes you think that people who go on pilgrimages are not engaged in acts of charity and mercy along the way?  If they meet new people and enter into communion in peace with them, this surely is  a work of God.  No?  Father Jim Martin has written movingly about his experiences at Lourdes (a pilgrimage site) and the many ways sick people come to healing of mind, spirit and body.  

I just wish you would speak a bit more tentatively and with some humility about topics that are complex and wide-ranging.  You seem to affect an all-knowing, shall I say infallible tone that can be quite grating.  A dollop of humility can go a long way.

Humbly,
Anthony
Margaret Riordan
6 years 6 months ago
Tom, Thanks for your reflections on pilgrimage in a ‘different’ context. In 2008 I walked 1500km+ to Santiago de Compostela, from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France. As a lapsed Catholic, I mostly thought I was a ‘long distance walker’, but even then, I knew I had somehow imaginatively ‘stepped apart’ from the everyday world. In Paris, when I climbed the hill past the Sorbonne it was as if I waved goodbye to the city with the throngs of past pilgrims who had left the city that way. And when after nearly two weeks walking I descended into the medieval village of Conques with its abbey, I saw the tourists and knew that in my wanderings I had been to a place apart.
I love your phrase about training the body to be the ‘seismograph of the sacred’: walking every day brings the body into a rhythm of the feet that somehow permeates the soul.  Noticing the details outdoors, carrying only the simplest of belongings- it all leads to changes within that have continued long after my return home.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Anthony, 

I certainly can use some of Jim Martin's communication skills. I have spoken favorably of him in these pages many times. I don't deny that one can derive good from pilgrimages as one can from so many activities. I just think it is incorrect to attach such importance to these places which are without exception, money makers, as anyone will tell you who has been to them. The reason Rome does not support medjugorje is monetary and political. Some churches in Compostela even charge you to get in. This is a fourth century creation which had its terrible culmination in the Crusades.

So I do not mean to insult anyone who chooses such pilgrimages. What I stress is that we do a disservice to others if we do not fervently point out that Jesus is very much with us every second of every day. We do not have to save up to go see him.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Walter,

Sorry to be so late in response. You wrote: "  and some of us need the sacred walk of the pilgrimmage to give us renewed energy and focus in faith." This is fine with me. My point is that pilgrimages were sold in the fourth century onward as the only place to get those special blessings. The implication is still there today as is evident in the shrines as they keep popping up. The clear message is that one cannot get the same anywhere else. Jesus never intended that nor did he say anything about it. 

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

(Images: Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Commons, Antonio De Loera-Brust, Sikelia Productions; Illustration by Antonio De Loera-Brust) 
“Gangs of New York” reminds us that for as long as the United States has been a nation of immigrants, it has been infected by xenophobia.
Antonio De Loera-BrustDecember 18, 2017
The pope spoke Dec. 16 with members of the Italian Periodical Press Union and members of the Italian Federation of Catholic Weeklies, which represents nearly 200 Catholic newspapers.
25,000 children and pilgrim sang the pope “Happy Birthday" today in St. Peter’s Square.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2017
Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017