For 15 months, most of us couldn’t travel much further than our own backyards. Now publishers are poised to take advantage of our pent-up desire to move with new titles that go beyond armchair travel memoirs, coffee table souvenir books, and tourist guides. Instead, they encourage and assist the reader to make a pilgrimage — a journey with a spiritual or inspirational goal. A tourist, author Satish Kumar told PW, goes with expectations about a place. But “a pilgrim does not have a judging mind,” he said. “Whether it is a mountain or Jerusalem or the Ganges, that is incidental. It is the pilgrim’s state of mind that really matters.”
If they handed out pilgrimage medals for distance, Kumar would have a chestful. A Jain monk and an internationally-known peace activist, the 84-year-old Indian is the author of Pilgrimage for Peace: The Long Walk From India to Washington (Green Books, Aug.), a newly-revised English version of a memoir he first wrote in Hindi in 1966. The book chronicles a pilgrimage Kumar and a friend, E. P. Memon, made to four nuclear capitals that began in New Delhi and ended 8,000 miles later in Washington D.C. Every pilgrim has two destinations, Kumar said, a geographic one and a spiritual one. “The mindset of a pilgrim is to abandon all expectations and live in a state of acceptance. That is the difference between being a tourist and being a pilgrim.” The British Film Institute, Kumar said, may turn his pilgrimage into a film. He would like to be played, he said, by Dev Patel.
Not everyone can make a journey of a thousand miles just to reach the start of a pilgrimage route. That’s part of the premise of Pilgrimage Pathways for the United States: Creating Pilgrimage Routes to Enrich Lives, Enhance Communities and Restore Ecosystems by James E. Mills (North Atlantic Books, out now). Mills, an assistant professor of geography at the State University of New York-Oneonta, argues that existing and new trails and walkable spaces in and around communities can also serve for interfaith and secular pilgrimages with art and sculpture gardens, lakes, glades and markers designed to promote meditation, contemplation, and prayer. Pilgrimage routes might actually go to a Superfund site or the site of an atrocity as an act of awareness or atonement.
“So many Americans are less interested in doctrine and dogma and more interested in experience,” Mills said “People want something they can do or engage in and pilgrimage is the epitome of embodied experience. The intent of a pilgrimage pathway is a spiritual experience. You come away changed.”
In a similar vein, Routledge will publish The Limits of Pilgrimage Place (Oct.) by T.K. Rousseau, assistant director for the International Affairs Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. He studies three European sites associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary and concludes that their actual boundaries are fluid and that the sites become different things to different pilgrims, ultimately transferring their essence beyond their geographic sites when those visitors return home.
Author Natalie Toon Patton set out from her native Arkansas and strict evangelical community with a one-way ticket to find her own place in the world. In Wanderlost: Falling from Grace and Finding Mercy in All the Wrong Places (Paraclete Press, Oct.) she makes what she calls “peregrinations” between Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Brunei, Dubai, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, and the British Isles. The difference between pilgrimage and peregrination, she told PW, is a matter of heart, mind, and soul. “When you are on pilgrimage, you are hoping to find a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin enough that you can connect with God,” she said from her current home in rural Virginia. “But a peregrination is letting the thin places find you. And if you travel with your arms and your heart wide open, those thin places are not where we expect them to be.”
Patton largely eschews major pilgrimages sites for places where she can experience life with the locals. “I am disappointed with pilgrimage sites,” she said. “We have these high expectations of what is supposed to happen at them and I just found I don’t feel anything. I felt more in my scrubby little hostel or in the airport than I did in the place that was supposed to be THE place.”
Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way on foot or on a bicycle along the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. And each year, dozens of guidebooks vie for the chance to lead them along the hundreds of the Camino’s paths that wind across Europe towards the saint’s reputed burial site in western Spain. Kaminn Media has earned a lion’s share of this market with five different Camino guidebooks it updates annually and that includes spiritual prompts pegged to each route. Two new titles about less frequented parts of the route are slated for January 2022 — A Pilgrim’s Guide to Sarria – Santiago and A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Inglés. Both are subtitled A Practical and Mystical Manual for the Modern-day Pilgrim. Both are by John Brierley, who has written all of Kaminn’s Camino titles since 2001 and still walks some portion of the route annually.
“There are as many reasons for walking the Camino as there are people who do it,” Kaminn publisher Thierry Bogliolo said from his base in southern France. “There is not one single reason to do it.” But the inclination towards purposeful travel is strong now, Boglolio continued. “I think people will do more pilgrimage after the pandemic as they start asking questions about the meaning of their lives. There will be a thirst for finding yourself for religious reasons or for personal reasons.”
And armchair readers who don’t embark on spiritual trails in person are still interested in following journeys of enlightenment. Shambhala Publications offers Xuanzang: China's Legendary Pilgrim and Translator by Benjamin Brose (Oct.). Part of Shambhala’s “Lives of the Masters” series, it tells of a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk who spent 17 years traveling across China and into India in search of wisdom.
Matt Zepelin, Shambhala’s acquisitions editor, said Xuanzang’s pilgrimage still influences the diplomacy and culture of both East and South Asia. “Pilgrimage has such an archetypal importance in the human imagination, pulling in themes like vision, adventure, struggle, resilience, and renewal of the meaning of ‘home,’” Zepelin said. “Who wouldn’t want contact with experiences like that?”