Traditionally, pilgrimage has been defined as a journey to a sacred site.
It’s true—destinations such as the Holy Land, Rome, and Iona have attracted pilgrims for generations. However, when we focus solely on the destination, we can often miss the true invitation of pilgrimage, which is ultimately a journey of transformation. The old cliché “the journey is the destination” is, in fact, accurate. While tourists travel to destinations, pilgrims know that the process of journeying is just as valuable as the destination itself and is essential to transformation.
The reason the practice of pilgrimage and the role of the pilgrim resonates so deeply with our seeker souls is that it follows an archetypal pattern and represents an archetypal trajectory embedded within us—the process and path of becoming. Process Thought, which includes the disciplines of Process Philosophy and Process Theology, tells us that we, along with everything in existence, are in an ever-evolving process of becoming. Jay McDaniel, a Process theologian, insists that in fact, simply “being is…becoming.” Process Thought also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things, which is to say that just as we are always on a journey of becoming, we are continuously impacting and being impacted by all that crosses our path. Because of this interconnectedness and the unfolding nature of all things, Process Thought recognizes the inherent value of all in existence. For the pilgrim, this means that everything has the capacity to shimmer with sacred significance.
While patterns of becoming and journeys of transformation might seem so distant from mundane routines of our everyday lives, we actually find inspiration in them each day in the stories that captivate us in books and on screen. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Wizard of Oz all tell tales of heroes and heroines who, as emphasized in Process Thought, are also in a process of becoming—protagonists who undergo journeys of transformation facilitated by their encounters and change others in the process (in Process Thought, an effect of interconnectedness), ultimately resulting in a gift that is to be shared with the world (in Process Thought, a recognition of inherent value).
Mythologist Joseph Campbell called this process the monomyth, or “one myth,” because he found this pattern recurring in the tales of various cultures across the world and throughout time. Just as psychoanalyst Carl Jung would define archetypes as universal symbols that speak to innate truths within the human condition and collective unconscious, here “myth” refers not necessarily to a story that is entirely false, but rather a fictitious tale that is true on a deeper level. While these stories might not have actually occurred, they resonate so acutely because they speak to profound truths innately known by our souls.
Phil Cousineau, a protégé of Joseph Campbell and the author of The Art of Pilgrimage, takes Campbell’s monomyth further with its application to the practice of pilgrimage. Like the heroes and heroines in our favorite stories we, too, are invited to be active participants in the process of becoming. Cousineau insists that the practice of pilgrimage can serve as an archetype and framework for our participation and engagement in this process. Aligning our own processes of becoming to those found in nature—again emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things, as with Process Thought—Cousineau describes the pattern of pilgrimage as “[replaying] nature’s pattern of regeneration, a journey consisting of departure, arrival, and return.”
These stages of departure, arrival, and return are connected to the themes of longing, quest, and integration and consist of checkpoints along the path that can serve as guideposts as the process of pilgrimage unfolds both on our journeys abroad and in everyday life.
The journey begins with longing—the yearnings sourced deep within that speak to our propensity for change, our need for inspiration, and the questions of the soul. These questions become the source of our eventual quest, and it is in this transition from questions to quest that we experience the call—an invitation from a source beyond ourselves to undertake a meaningful journey. In Process Thought this is referred to as divine lure—the inner encouragement and transcendent persuasion where our longings intersect with the movement of the Sacred Guide. Here we join with the Divine not as followers on a predetermined path but rather as co-creators of the journey. In Process Thought, the future—just like the path—is open. Instead, it is our participation in the journey—our “yes” to the Divine’s invitation and the steps we take along the way—that determines which direction our journeys will take.
Next comes the quest itself with its tests and trials, detours, and labyrinthine roads. Though the path itself can be unclear, Process Thought tells us that one thing is certain: When we attune ourselves to the invitations and movement of the Sacred Guide, we can be confident that whatever path we take will ultimately lead to flourishing. Process Thought offers another consolation on the journey: God is not above or beyond us, but rather within us as a companion each step of the way, experiencing what we experience and feeling what we feel. Because the Sacred Guide joins us in the process of becoming, we never journey alone. Our suffering, just as our joy, is always shared. Equally, since all holds the capacity to reflect Divine presence and has inherent value according to Process Thought, anything that crosses our path along the way can be considered a messenger, a sign, or a teacher, guiding us further on our journeys. This is also a reflection of the interconnectedness emphasized in Process Thought, often represented in the pilgrim’s journey as synchronicity—evidence that even occurrences that seem coincidental can hold deeper meaning.
It is this interconnectedness and the reassurance that deeper meaning can be found that become the souvenirs the pilgrim brings home. Whether our journeys are to sacred destinations abroad or through the invitations and illuminations of everyday life, their integration is not complete unless the wisdom gleaned from the experience can be passed on. If we are truly interconnected with all that is in existence, as Process Though claims, then the gifts we receive on the journey are for the benefit of all and must be shared. Both Campbell and Cousineau call this treasure the “boon,” which Campbell describes as “the wisdom and power to serve others.”
the journey continues…
With this offering, the process of pilgrimage repeats its cycle just as the process of becoming continues its evolution, reverberating out into the world through generosity and mutuality and within our own lives through the naming of new longings and the initiation of new quests, leading to ever-expanding possibilities as our greater journeys continue to unfold.