It was over 600 years ago when Dante, the prolific Italian epic poet and pilgrim, decided on going on a pilgrimage from the mythological forest of his mind into the unknown. In the process, he ventured through the terrifying underworld, yet also acquainted himself with the heavenly spheres. This was all with the guidance of the poets and heroes who helped him become a hero himself.
And although Dante’s literary pilgrimage resides in the layer of reality we call “myth,” it has much to teach us about going on a pilgrimage ourselves.
Mythology, Travel, and the “Soulful Journey”
Phil Cousineau, who’s soon to lead our “Sweet Life of Mythic Italy” journey, says something remarkable in his beloved book, “The Art of Pilgrimage.” Phil writes: “If the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous. Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren’t trembling as you approach the sacred, it isn’t the real thing. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion.”
To truly embark on a soulful journey, we mustn’t avoid our own layers of hell whether they’re mental or physical. There’s something to be said about the strenuousness of a long hike or road trip as opposed to, say, an all-inclusive holiday getaway. This is particularly true when the journey contains points of interest along the way such as “holy ground, art, or [some form of] knowledge” as Phil writes. Yet with the right mentality, any journey can be a “soulful journey.”
For example, our upcoming journey through Italy will immerse you in what makes for la dulce vita or “the sweet life.” Food, wine, coffee, and dreamy medieval landscapes will fill much of the itinerary—so what makes this journey more of a pilgrimage than your average holiday?
Italy is a land where things happened. It holds the seat of what was once the Roman Empire and houses a plethora of significant art and mythology. After all, without Rome’s beloved poet, Virgil, Dante (whose home is in Florence) may have not chosen to brace the underworld and break new mythological and vernacular grounds.
Visiting a place drenched in unknown mythology, architecture, history, and lifestyle can be a challenge to both the intellect and soul. It’s often easier to remain lost in the forest of our minds. But like Dante, we must venture forth into new territory, to see what there is to see and meet who there is to meet, so might we expand and return from the pilgrimage with gifts and knowledge to benefit our communities at large.
Going on a Pilgrimage is Taking the Journey Embedded in Our DNA
The great mythologer Joseph Campbell shed light on recurring themes and archetypes present in many different stories. These myths and legends span myriads of different cultures and time periods. He came to know mythology, in his own words, as “psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”
The striking similarities between myths of the ages (e.g. the hero’s journey, recurring characters, and motific phases of the pilgrimage) certainly reveal what’s lingering inside the psychology and soul of humans: the sheer importance of pilgrimage.
So what can one do to turn an ordinary journey into a pilgrimage?
Seek Places of Peace and Power
Martin Gray’s brilliantly illustrated book Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power is an invaluable resource for finding the sacred wherever you may be traveling. Whether it be the neolithic stones of Cornwall and Wiltshire or the holy churches and mountains of Mexico—you’re sure to find a piece of the holy wherever you go.
A pilgrimage, however, isn’t only about reaching a destination to admire its glory, history, and ambiance. It’s about revealing an inner glory to build and expand on after your return. This is what we’ll cover next.
Create Intention Before and While Going on a Pilgrimage
Why are you traveling? If you’re going on a pilgrimage, hopefully your intention is to become inspired and to enter more fully into life rather than escape it.
The pilgrim is he or she who leaves their day-to-day lives in search of healing, meaning, and inspiration. Further, the ultimate goal of the pilgrim is to bring these gifts home to enrich and recreate their realities.
As an example, let’s say you’re planning a journey to England and wish to transform your travels into a pilgrimage. Your plan is to head to London for a visit with an old friend and to cradle your senses in the cafes and old streets that help make up la dulce vita, if you would. Now, however, you wish to bring deeper awareness to your journey, to come home inspired and energized rather than unchanged. At this point, you’re willing to speak with your friend about what type of journey you want while hoping for shifts in itinerary.
It turns out your friend is a good host. He mentions some points of interest throughout London including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. You feel your deeper, artistic side ring with delight, a side of you that has been waiting in earnest to sprout from the forest of your mind.
Embrace, Rather Than Avoid, Discomfort
Travel and seeing things requires risk, finances, and vulnerability. And while Phil cleverly teaches that sacred travel causes both “emotion and commotion,” we can also say that travel can be a sacred form of “motion,” steered not only by our highest triumphs but by our darkest fears and agitations as well.
A great way to embrace discomfort is by studying the way we perceive experiences, particularly ones we’ve decided to coin as “negative.” For example, is forgetting a vital item at home actually a loss or just an excuse to explore an intriguing shop in town to find a new one? Are the streets swamped with dangerous drivers and traffic an excuse to become frustrated or, rather, a prolonged opportunity to appreciate the surrounding scenery?
A pilgrimage is not to be seen as a straight, narrow path to the divine. Instead, enjoy getting lost in the woods. This is your chance, like Dante of Florence, to carve a brand new path untrodden by the rest of humanity!