A Progressing Pilgrim

Just by existing we have to take from the world. There is no way around that. And, sometimes, we recognize that those small or big holes that we make in the world need tending. While we may do our best to tend them, or to try to fill them, the debt could never be fully paid or resolved.

If that is true, what unintended impact do we bring to new places where we don’t happen to live?

How can we wonder more, and not deny or aggrandize the impact of our footsteps?

How did it come to be that there is such a strong tendency in this dominant Western culture towards making something foreign or far away “sacred” or “special” instead of seeing the beauty in our own backyards?

These are some of the questions we explore in this article.

For those of you who are new here, or haven’t opened a newsletter in a bit: I’m HeatherAsh, and I’ve been helping Matthew with some of the writing of these weekly Primal Derma musings as he continues to recover from brain surgery. Broadly this newsletter is dedicated to tracking meaning and beauty making, and looking at some approaches to maybe moving more slowly and mindfully in our relationship with the living world, past and present with a mind toward what might look like a future.

Last month we created our first joint writing: Cherry Blossoms and the Sweep of Time. This month we ponder pilgrimage.

Some context:

Matthew has lived in five places in his lifetime, all in New York minus one year of college in Maryland. He is rooted like an oak tree into the bedrock, and his home is a sanctuary for many friends near and far.

HeatherAsh has lived in over 50 places in her lifetime, grew up in Southeast Asia moving every two years, and while she has land she stewards in New Mexico, she is on the road each year for months at a time.

We started our conversation around a recent walk Ash did to the El Sanctuario de Chimayo in New Mexico.

Each year over 30,000 people walk to Chimayo over the Easter weekend, some as far as 100 miles away, in what is the largest pilgrimage in the United States.
Each year more and more people are flying into New Mexico to take part in the pilgrimage to Chimayo.

Why the pilgrimage to Chimayo?

This land by the Rio Santa Cruz was always considered sacred to the Tewa people of this place.

From the Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2023:

The Santuario was built by Don Bernardo Abeyta, a member of the Penitente Brothers, a Catholic lay order once known for extreme acts of penance including self-flagellation.
According to legend, in 1810 Abeyta saw a light shining on a hill. He investigated and found a crucifix sticking out of the ground where the holy dirt sits today.
He took the crucifix to a nearby church. By dawn it was gone and back on the hill. This happened three times. Convinced he was witnessing something miraculous, Abeyta built a small chapel on the spot. In 1813, a shrine was constructed and dedicated to Christ of Esquipulas, a pilgrimage site in Guatemala said to have healing clay.
Over the centuries many miracles have been attributed to the dirt from Chimayo; there is an entire room now filled with crutches, petitions, and letters of thanks.
During the Vietnam War soldiers from New Mexico started pledging that if they survived they would pilgrimage to Chimayo to give their thanks. And so today many vets take part in the pilgrimage. Others walk in memory of those who have passed. Some walk to give thanks. Some walk to take the healing dirt back to their family. Some walk as a form of prayer. Some walk because it seems a novel thing to do.

As more and more people visit the tiny village of Chimayo, additional buildings, stores, chapels, and even a statue of a goddess from Vietnam expanded outward. This expanding building is part of the wake of pilgrimage that arrives before any devotee gets their feet on the road.

Pilgrimage seems like a benign form of travel. And we are not here to malign pilgrims or pilgrimages. If you had a choice of traveling like a tourist rather than a pilgrim, one seems a little bit lighter on the land than the other.

But there is also a belief that the purity of your intentions makes the whole thing okay and negates any downsides or harm your footsteps might bring. Sometimes. And sometimes one can’t be so sure. Let’s proceed cautiously here. This doesn’t apply only to pilgrimage.

The word ‘pilgrimage’ comes into English from Old French in the late 1200’s and means a distant journey or crusade. ‘Pilgrimage’ comes from the word ‘pilgrim’, which comes into English about a century earlier, also from Old French, and is a crusader or foreigner or stranger; those who travel from beyond. So it is interesting that these two words which are so close in sound and root have almost one hundred years between them in English. What might have happened that there was a need to have a word ‘pilgrimage?” That might be outside the scope of our wondering but it’s worth not letting that go entirely.

The intention of pilgrims or who we call pilgrims historically certainly have varied. Some were just on the road and others were seeking grace under the mantle of some healing waters or protection from a greater or lesser god or saint or sage. Travels for religious or spiritual or seasonal obligations have ancient histories but we use the word pilgrim retroactively where we can’t be sure of their intentions. Certainly there must have been other intentions; these two forms (general travel or religious destination) are hardly comprehensive. But the usage of the word itself tracks that pilgrims just are not from here, and that they are going somewhere. Is something happening in Europe at this time that makes being home not easy or preferable for some? Maybe. But maybe that hard history needed to be brushed up and unintentionally obscured somehow by putting a spiritual shine on it.

By the 1600’s in English, a pilgrimage had a sense of a long journey, and that could include towards a shrine or sacred place. But at the same time, four centuries after the word had come into English, the word pilgrim itself also meant a traveler, wanderer, or stranger to a place, someone from far away who often comes to visit a shrine or holy place. The mandatory quality of a destination to a sacred place comes later; the core of the word is someone from simply… away.
It seems that modern users of the word have sought the act of pilgrimage to be redemptive, so deference is given to its secondary and more sacred meaning and has become primary.

With the veneration of the pilgrim also comes the idea that home is less important, and that anywhere you go is more important. We become destination minded as opposed to where we are minded. And so it is always the next thing that becomes great: the next workshop, the next course, that embodies where we might go. And so being a pilgrim, which is a perfectly good and valid thing, underwrites something that has shifted in the culture: that where I am from is probably not worth it, that someplace else is.

This is much the same way as we give something foreign more spiritual heft. The amethyst taken from the belly of Brazil supposedly has more shiny healing properties than the granite rock in your backyard. The far away destination is somehow more potent than walking to your nearby park.

Matthew lives a half a mile from the famed Central Park and easily wanders behind a bench into something that is not particularly manicured. Who is not to say the holy is not there, in that plain granite stone that is amazingly and unmistakably, by all manner of testing, 200 million years old? What healing and grounding properties might we overlook in our own backyards because it is not iridescent purple or from far away? Or cloistered under the care of some rarified people?

What if we learned to attune our ears and eyes to the sacred nearby and locally to discover what is vital and life affirming and worthy? Which is not to say that there isn’t holiness in the world that isn’t worth visiting and getting involved in. But one’s manner of approach precedes your arrival there in the same way the front leading wake of a boat gets to shore long before you do.

Where might the holy reside?

It can be a miracle to walk down the street and hear sparrows riotously chirping in the neighbor’s bush.

It can also be a miracle to arrive exhausted and empty after hours of walking in prayer to a little shrine far from home where thousands of feet have traveled.

We are not trying to say that we must be purist and only stay home and find the sacred on our doorstep. This newsletter has shared often and deeply the work of folks on the sweet side of cultural transmissions that are worth seeing and knowing and maybe even procuring – ranging from oil to dye to pottery to weaving to cultural practices. Matthew often shares with great love gifts and creations from far away places, and Ash will continue to travel to far off lands and walk for miles before she sleeps. But our ears are also trying to be tuned to the tender ground we stand on. Maybe your corner of the world is worth turning to with a kind of reverence every once in a while. We are betting that such a thing might well be so. Maybe there are keepers of old ways on the edge of town where sidewalks turn toward sedge.

May these wonderings make us, the writers of this piece, humble enough to ask quiet questions and keep horizons open that move with our vision rather than closing it off and thinking it is all done and dusted. May the dirt beneath our feet be worthy for new eyes and new manner of looking. If this request lands with you – then all the better. Feel free to steal the intention. Or modify it or grow it.
This is not redemption talk; these are complicated and contradictory musings, and there is no one right, final answer. There are only more questions, inviting us to soften and be surprised by the unsurprising.

Here at Primal Derma we keep wondering how to be sustainable; yet we understand that using cardboard labels, glass jars, and tallow from grass-fed cows and everything else we do doesn’t make everything better. But it is one step towards being more attentive to our wake. May wonder not cease at how a walk, and a series of choices, can feed, or extract, from the living world – human and not only human.

Until soon,

Ash and Matthew

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