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.
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.
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