Thursday, June 9, 2011

Travel On

One of the immediate blessings of being done with the school year is that I have a little more leisure to read things that have been piling up. And also to dream about doing a little traveling. 

And in a nice piece of synchronicity, yesterday I had the luck to read a one page piece about travel by Ben Birnbaum. Do you Ben Birnbaum? I bet you don't. He's the editor in chief of Boston College Magazine, and an extremely talented writer in his own right. It's extremely difficult to write both well and briefly at the same time, and each month somehow he does that in his front cover column. More than once I have outlined his articles to try and learn how to be a better columnist. He's really really good.

So this month, intuiting all of our own dreams of summer travels, he wrote his column about the origins of travel in religious pilgrimages. And his piece had so many little "wow, I never thought about that" moments, I wanted to share it with you.

Here's the link.  I've also posted the article below. (Frankly, I think it's a little easier to read on my page than theirs.)

As they say in Australia, travel well.  See you next week.

Pilgrim’s Progress
by Ben Birnbaum

According to some of our oldest stories, meaningful travel—the kind that’s undertaken for more than the merely practical need to track down a deer or an enemy or a valley not threatened by a glacier—was initially fostered by the gods. Shamash, the Bronze Age sun deity of Mesopotamia, seems to have been first off the mark, using dreams to guide Gilgamesh in his search for eternal life, a journey that ultimately concluded with Gilgamesh’s discovery that immortality was just not available to him, though meaningful work was. Shortly thereafter and to the west, a passel of gods alternately aided and tormented Odysseus with their instructions during a long but ultimately successful journey to home. And the Bible is, of course, replete with God-directed journeys, beginning with Adam and Eve scurrying out the gates of Eden, then Noah’s voyage, and passing on to Abram (he was not yet “Abraham”) and Sarai (not yet “Sarah”), who gathered “all their substance” and obeyed God’s unambiguous “Get thee out of thy country . . . unto the land which I shall show thee.” And that doesn’t get us a third of the way through Genesis.

Several thousand years after these excursions were first scored in tablets or inked on parchment, during the Middle Ages, business- and God-ordained travel (pilgrimage, to give the latter its proper Christian name) remained pretty much the only categories of expedition known to human beings. Of course, functions of travel taken for granted by us moderns, such as repose or adventure, could hardly have made sense to men and women with no greater ability to conceive of leisure than of particle colliders, and who could hardly have wished for more “adventure” than that already provided by unpredictable weather, children’s fevers, and errant knife blades. In any case, it would have been impossible to associate pleasure of any kind with treks through territories replete with bandits, plagues, wolves, pestiferous inns, and wandering armies of uncertain loyalty and meager discipline (medieval Europe, in short).

Traders and diplomats (who made up most of the commercial traffic) were typically moneyed and experienced enough to surround themselves with personal security details, frequently and shrewdly hired from the local soldiery or banditry, depending on which happened to be more reliable. For religious pilgrims, many of whom entered into their excursions naked to hardships and dangers that ultimately included martyrdom, the privations were made endurable, or even welcome, by the understanding that they could be exchanged for forgiveness of sins and heaven’s favor. And the martyrologies of the time do indeed present stories of men and women who deliberately placed themselves (and companions and even minor charges) in mortal danger, with the hope—soon enough realized, according to these records—that their deaths would prove uplifting when entered as evidence of hurt endured for the glory of God.

As Europe became a somewhat more settled place in the High Middle Ages, the number of men and women who took to the pilgrim trail increased, and destination churches—thousands of shrines by this time strung out across Europe and West Asia, Canterbury to Bethlehem—responded by entering into competition for the business, disseminating guidebooks, sending out postings about the latest additions to their relic collections, the newest saints associated with their sites, and the cures that could be attributed to the touch of their tombs or a sip of their very own holy water (conveniently available in lead bottles for safe transport home). This business and its associated cash flow became terribly important to participating shrines, including Westminster Abbey, a big player that claimed to hold both Jacob’s pillow and Christ’s footprints, and that in 1244 acquired a vial said to contain the Lord’s blood. This moved a practical English bishop not to piety but to announce that as the “true cross” segment recently acquired by France drew its holiness only from the fact that it had been touched by Jesus’s blood, England “rejoices in a greater treasure.”

And inevitably, dutiful seekers—some of whom sold every stick they owned so as to afford their religious quests—responded to this marketplace of holiness by seeking market value in their pilgrim progressions, carefully and pridefully recording in their journals the miles traveled, the number and quality of relics venerated, discomforts bravely endured, lists of questions to ask oneself on entering a new city, useful foreign phrases and travel habits (always carry a chamber pot when climbing a hill), and of course descriptions of marvels, from funeral processions to circumcisions. “Curiositas” replaced “pietas” as the pilgrim’s central yearning (after business), and it’s been that way since.

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