I began my pilgrimage at 6:45 am Sunday morning when I boarded the Northeast Regional Amtrak to Philadelphia and cracked open The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. This week was full of pilgrimage for many communities- Muslims celebrated the return of pilgrims on the Hajj with Eid Al-Adha. The Hajj brings thousands of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia every year, as pilgrimage is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. Jews observed Yom Kippur and before that Rosh Hashanah, the day of atonement and the new year. While not necessarily about physical pilgrimage (though many do return home or travel to be with family), one could say these two days both require journeys through the soul- challenges and transformations, just as pilgrimages require of us.
“Openness, attentiveness, and responsiveness are the essence of pilgrimage”, Cousineau writes. Over 2 million people joined me yesterday as we gathered to celebrate mass with Pope Francis. As I craddled my book on my backpack waiting to pass security, I heard dozens of languages spoken around me, some casually, some chanting, some in common prayer. Church groups donned in matching t-shirts attempted to stick together by holding hands. Babies cried and slept on shoulders, and in a vacant parking lot to the left of the security checkpoint, children ranging from 3 to 16 organized a soccer game. Souvenir sellers shouted their prices, and the crowd waxed and waned in anticipation and anxiety, in direct correlation to the amount of their personal space.
As I waited, I read more about pilgrimage. I began to wonder if waiting was actually my arrival, if catching a glimpse of Pope Francis was perhaps secondary to what would eventually overwhelm me with gratitude: as the mass took place everyone began saying the prayers and songs together. If you listened, the Lord’s Prayer happened almost completely in unison, in multiple languages. No one pushed or shoved. A young woman next to me began to cry, and I patted her hand, gesturing to my watery eyes. At that moment, I felt so inspired by every pilgrim around me, each journeying, anticipating, experiencing.
My faith comforted me so deeply yesterday. The three pieces Cousineau named as essential to pilgrimage, openness, attentiveness, and receptiveness, are also crucial to my practice of Zen Buddhism. I left for Philadelphia today feeling open to any new experience I was fortunate to receive. This made me feel calm and grateful- especially when I could have felt impatient and disappointed at the amount of space between me and the altar. As I waited, I turned my attention to my intention for this pilgrimage: to honor my family’s heritage as Italian Catholics, my passion for finding wisdom in all religions and the teachings of religious leaders. Perhaps most selfishly, I came to experience Pope Francis saying mass on my country’s soil, among 2 million citizens of the world. Receptiveness is an interesting piece in pilgrimage, and in Buddhism- it is perhaps the most important in both. Receptiveness does not mean we must react to each and every experience. It means that we should take our experiences on our pilgrimage and make meaning of them. Yesterday, the meaning of my pilgrimage was interconnectedness- to my family, my global community, and myself as a person of faith. Sometimes, physical proximity is essential to experiencing the sacred- perhaps the real wisdom is recognizing what physical attribute that is. As I wrote sleepily on the train home, I vowed to “share the boon”, as Cousineau names our debt to those who greet us on our return. I hold my fellow pilgrims with me, hoping they return safe and transformed.