Jack Rooney | Wednesday, September 21, 2016
One of my good friends, Catherine, took her college seminar on pilgrimages, and over the course of our friendship and travels, it has led to some excellent discussions. The class, she said, centered on answering the question: what constitutes a pilgrimage. So, when we traveled around Ireland and Europe during our semester abroad in Dublin, we began to debate if our own travels were pilgrimages or mere vacations.
We never quite settled on a firm answer, but we always strove to be pilgrims rather than tourists. It can be a small distinction at times, and one that never fits a specific set of criteria. Catherine said that at the end of the seminar, the class decided that even attending a Notre Dame football game could be considered a pilgrimage.
Sometimes it’s easy to know when you are a pilgrim. Last weekend, for instance, I went on a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, where in 441 A.D. St. Patrick fasted for 40 days. The mountain has been a pilgrimage site for more than 5,000 years, and pagans are believed to have gathered there to celebrate the beginning of harvest season. On Saturday, 44 Notre Dame students and I simply joined in a long line of pilgrims at this holy site.
At other times, though, it’s more difficult to know whether or not you are a pilgrim. In the spring of my junior year, I studied in Dublin and spent much of the semester traveling around Ireland and Europe. Now that I’m back in Ireland, I realize that some of my own travels have drawn me more towards tourism than pilgrimage. But I think wherever we might travel, or whomever we might encounter, we all ought to at least try to be pilgrims.
A few weeks ago, when I sat in on the orientation for this semester’s Dublin study abroad students, the director of the program, Kevin, encouraged them all to think of themselves as pilgrims rather than tourists during their time in Ireland. He urged them to seek genuine, authentic immersion into Irish culture and desire a deep understanding of a world different than their own comfortable homes.
To me, this is the essence of pilgrimage, and the element that separates being a pilgrim from being a tourist. Tourists seek fun and relaxation — worthy enough goals in some instances — but pilgrims seek understanding and knowledge. Pilgrims have a deep respect for their destinations and especially their journeys.
On Saturday, our group made up a small portion of the people making their pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. From what I could gather, the pilgrims came from all walks of life — children, seniors, families, priests. What united us all was a deep respect for the mountain and its ancient importance. Under a rare completely clear sky in the west of Ireland, we shared in an experience that has transcended time and religion.
Certainly, not all pilgrimages are as powerful, or obvious, as that one, but we can all try a little harder to be pilgrims in our travels and even our routines. The key, I think, is to look for the sacred — however you define it — in the seemingly mundane. Be present on your walk to class or drive to work. Try to learn from each place you go, each person you encounter, each thing you do. Simply put, be pilgrims.
As with most things, this is much easier to say than it is to actually do. When I returned to Dublin on Sunday night, exhausted from the hike (and staying up until 4:30 a.m. to watch Notre Dame fall to Michigan State), I slid somewhat comfortably back into my routine. I have to constantly remind myself that I live in a foreign country, and thus each day is an unprecedented opportunity to learn something new, experience something different and meet people I never would have met otherwise. The same would be true pretty much anywhere I lived, though. So wherever you live and wherever you travel, be pilgrims.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.