It strikes me that I ought not to be making this walk upright. Pilgrims on their journey to see the Shroud of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City are known for crawling on their hands and knees as they approach the basilica where the Shroud is kept; my father told me that when he visited, he saw a line of prostrated devotees starting miles from the church. There are no such pilgrims here, but it seems that there could be. The stones upon which I walk are perhaps among the most sanctified in the secular religion of American civic life; certainly no single mile of soil in the United States has been more consciously constructed as a pilgrim’s road. I had not intended to make any sort of pilgrimage today.
My suitcase is an antique, a big red leather monster. It doesn’t do anything that modern luggage is supposed to do. Suitcases today have wheels and collapsible handles, so that there’s no difference between carrying one change of pants or twenty. Mine doesn’t have that, and I kind of like it that way. Suitcases are meant to be picked up and carried, hefted with one’s own arms and back.
I have been thinking about land and sacredness, about the idea that we can choose a spot on a survey map and declare it sacred ground. My thoughts are grounded in the Gaea Retreat, the Pagan nature center in Kansas where I most often make my pilgrimages, but thinking about that particular place leads me to think about places like it more generally. What does it mean to call a place “sacred?” What does that mean for our relationship to it? And how do our religious, spiritual, and magickal conceptions of a place sit alongside the legal and social borders of the location?
Having, for the moment, concluded my own pilgrimages to some of the places that Pagans feel sacred, I have been spending my time looking back at what others have thought about pilgrimage as a concept.The anthropologists Edith and Victor Turner claimed that the key feature of pilgrimage was something called communitas. Pilgrimage, they said, brought the pilgrims into a “liminoid” state, a state of being “betwixt and in-between,” outside of the normal bounds of societal rules and hierarchies. (This state is “liminoid” instead of “liminal” because in the contemporary Western societies that the Turners studied, pilgrimage is generally something people choose to do, rather than an obligatory rite of passage for the community; obviously this is not always the case, even in said Western, mostly Christian societies, but the Turners’ model focuses on pilgrimage as something optional rather than mandatory.) While engaged in this liminoid state, pilgrims enter into the state of communitas, wherein individuals become subsumed into homogeneous groups based on their shared “lowliness, sacredness, and comradeship.”
For the Turners, pilgrimage was a kind of radical egalitarianism, where, through the power of religious ritual, the structural bonds the divide society could be dismissed, leaving all pilgrims as an unmediated, undivided throng. This was, of course, a passing state of affairs; eventually the pilgrim returns home and reintegrates into the structures of society, with all the old hierarchies intact. Indeed, communitas, which the Turners also referred to as “social antistructure,” often ended up reinforcing the very structure it critiqued by acting as a sort of pressure valve for the greater society.
The sky has begun to purple above Glastonbury. The water from the White Spring has mostly dried from my body by now, though I doubt this pair of socks will ever really be wearable again. My friend Claudia, her son, and I stand now at the bottom of a very tall hill, one that looms even larger in the Pagan imagination than it does in reality: Glastonbury Tor. I tell Claudia that it amazes me to see how well the tor hides itself: the path to the top begins at the cobbled street outside of the White Spring, but nothing advertises the hill except for a few small signs. It occurs to me that in America, something like the tor would have much more fanfare about it, or at least a dedicated parking lot, rather than the gravel lot down the block designated for the Draper Factory to which we trusted Claudia’s car, hoping that nobody would mind us parking there after hours.