42. Simon Coleman, “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe”

by breavman99

accidental pilgrims

In the group of essays recently sent my way by Matthew Anderson were a couple by Simon Coleman. You may recall him as the co-editor of Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion, the anthology of essays on pilgrimage and motion I read last week. He is, Matthew tells me, a very influential writer on pilgrimage and currently the Chancellor Jackman Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. In this article, Coleman begins with a funny anecdote about supporters of the far-right political party UKIP mistaking Westminster Cathedral for a mosque. Coleman enjoys the joke, but he draws a serious conclusion from it: religious spaces are “deeply ambiguous” (72). “Capacious and complex buildings such as Westminster Cathedral–simultaneously a tourist site, the mother church for English and Welsh Catholicism, and a shrine housing saints’ relics–operate in a multicultural, multi religious milieu,” he writes. For that reason, “it cannot be assumed that regular citizens will have any idea how to read their architectural or liturgical signs in ways that art and ecclesiastical authorities would recognize as accurate” (72). I am embarrassed to admit that I’m one of those people who struggles to understand cathedrals; pretty much all I know came from the guided audio-tour I rented when I walked around in the cathedral in León, Spain, although I always visit cathedrals when I’m in Europe. There aren’t many ancient cathedrals in Canada, after all, and the stonework and architecture and engineering in cathedrals are pretty remarkable. Despite my lack of knowledge, though, I’d like to think I could distinguish between a cathedral and a mosque!

Religious tourism–pilgrimage by another name–is big business, Coleman points out. In Europe, it generates $18 billion in economic activity every year, and some 300 million people travel to a religious site in that continent. However, “we clearly need a more precise idea of how people understand (and misunderstand) these shrines and other religious spaces, just as close ethnographic observation is likely to imply that we should be wary of making sharp distinctions between pilgrims and tourists” (72). That caution is repeated throughout what I’ve been reading, and I would agree that the division isn’t clear-cut. When I walked the Camino Francés, I considered other walkers (and, grudgingly, cyclists) to be pilgrims, while those who flew to Santiago de Compostela were mere tourists. I’m sure that’s not an uncommon division for walkers on the Camino to make. However, when I got to Santiago de Compostela and rested for a few days, I felt myself becoming a tourist. My clothes were clean, I wasn’t walking (well, except here and there around the city), and I was taking in the sites and even buying souvenirs (tasteful ones, of course). It wasn’t until I started walking again, to Finisterre and then Muxia, that I reclaimed my identity as a pilgrim. My point is that the two apparently opposed identities are actually rather fluid, although given the powerful effect the walk had on me, I wonder what people who fly directly to that city and take a cab to the cathedral actually get from the experience. Something, I’m sure, or they wouldn’t do it. But what?

In any case, Coleman states his main argument very clearly in this essay:

we need a much more subtle and multifaceted appreciation of how much pilgrimage and tourism to Christian sites interact with other forms of mobility. In particular, the latter might include streams of migration that have, for instance, long marked–and made–the European cultural landscape and that are currently producing a crisis of identity. (72)

The travel Coleman traces in this paper “must be seen as complex, combining a mixture of motives and influences, both planned and unplanned” (72), and his intent is “to highlight and explore such complexity by demonstrating how religious tourism exists alongside, and indeed often intersects with, other forms of mobility, particularly though not exclusively in major, urban, religious contexts” (72).

Coleman distinguishes between tourism and pilgrimage: “it is conventional to see tourism as an exercise of leisure and free time or as an expression of preference,” he writes. “By contrast, pilgrimage carries connotations of subjecting oneself to the rigors and disciplines of religious regimes of authority, tracing routes formed by the sacred landscapes of a given tradition” (72). If this definition of pilgrimage is accurate, then the walks I make in Canada are not pilgrimages, because they are idiosyncratic, not subject to any discipline at all, and not part of any tradition at all. I might be appropriating the form of pilgrimage, but if that definition holds, I couldn’t be inventing pilgrimages of my own.

Migration, he continues, is different from either tourism or pilgrimage: it “ranges from the strategic progress of economic entrepreneurs to the forced mobilities of refugees, but is normally perceived as a very different activity than those other two forms of movement” (73). That’s very true, and I often think of how my walking is privileged in comparison to those who walk to Europe from Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, or even those who walk across the Canadian border in inadequate clothing in winter. That sense of privilege is one of the reasons I’m not interested in the European Peace Walk, which follows a route from Budapest to Trieste. While wealthy tourists (or pilgrims) are encouraged to walk in Austria and Croatia and Slovenia, penniless migrants are held in camps and behind fenced borders patrolled by soldiers and dogs. I couldn’t accept facing, or flaunting, my privilege as the holder of a Canadian passport in that way. It would make me sick.

So, tourism, pilgrimage, and migration are typically considered to be separate things. “I wish to question such assumptions,” Coleman writes, “by indicating how tourism, pilgrimage, and migration can merge and intersect in unexpected, accidental ways, prompting negotiations over forms of access and exclusion at different scales and contexts of operation, from those of the local shrine to those at the borders of the nation-state” (73). One way to examine those intersections is through the cathedral, which, “as it currently functions in European urban space, may provide a laboratory for the burgeoning if ambiguous forms of pilgrimage and religious tourism that we are seeing in many parts of the continent” by “providing both spectacular public architecture and multivalent, capacious spaces, in which numerous roles can be enacted serially or simultaneously” (74), such as in my own experience in Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral “provides the perfect place for what I call ‘accidental pilgrims’–travelers whose relationship to Christianity is often unclear, or whose roles even within the same journey may shift between that of pilgrim, tourist, and migrant” (74). Pilgrimage in these terms,” he writes, “is just one more element of a more complex mixture of identities and mobilities within the moral geography of Europe” (74).

Coleman offers examples of situations where emigrants return home from their adopted countries for their summer holidays, a time that coincides with annual celebrations or festivals (75). One such site is the pilgrimage shrine of Medjugorge, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which attracts visitors with a variety of motivations, from Europe and elsewhere, combining pilgrimage, tourism, and visits to the “home” country (75-76).

The increasing number of people who travel to Christian shrines, festivals, journeys, and heritage attractions in Europe, fascinates Coleman. “Such developments have occurred at a time when activities at the congregational level have often declined,” he writes. “More visiting does not mean an increased interest in religion per se, but it does expose people to religious themes and activities in a vicarious sense” (76). The Camino de Santiago is a prime example and a successful model, in terms of the numbers of visitors or pilgrims who participate, and Coleman notes that it is being emulated by pilgrimages elsewhere in the world (76-77). “Arguably, this tale of success for the Santiago pilgrimage has emerged not only form mixing religion and heritage, but also from fostering flexibility and ambiguity of engagement,” he writes (77). Travellers can walk, cycle, or drive; some see themselves as Christians, others as being more broadly spiritual, and still others (like me) have no faith at all (77). The Camino de Santiago welcomes them all.

From here, Coleman shifts to a discussion of–what else?–the work of Victor and Edith Turner, particularly their notions of liminal space, set apart from everyday space, and communitas, in which “everyday statuses were temporarily stripped away, allowing pilgrims to bond with each other directly, without intervening hierarchies” (78). I have to say that I experienced both of those on the Camino Francés, although that doesn’t mean that there weren’t conflicts along the path as well, particularly between walkers and (grumble grumble) cyclists. However, as Coleman points out,

Subsequent scholarship has often criticized this picture of pilgrimage, with some justification, as being overly idealized and ignoring the conflicting interests among pilgrims, as well as potential clashes between those who administer and those who attend sites. However, critics have also oversimplified the picture of pilgrimage provided by the Turners. The latter understood, for instance, that some of the same impulses that had promoted contemporary pilgrimage were also behind the growth of tourism, given the democratization of mobility and the growth of leisure time in many parts of the world. In addition, they argued that pilgrimage was a phenomenon that could be understood in relation to much larger historical trends. . . . Thus they indicated that pilgrimage has long been associated with forms of mobility that have not been exclusively religious, and indeed that it must be seen as an intrinsic part of the wider political economy of historical, as well as contemporary, periods in the West. (78)

He re-emphasizes the notion that pilgrim and tourist are shifting and connected identities: “both of these roles involve the person shifting between structured and unstructured activity, temporality, and experience” (79). In fact, he continues, “sometimes the division of roles and types of experience can actually be split three ways between pilgrim, tourist, and migrant” (79). In addition, the “structural divisions” of “forms of spatial practice” between “liminal and non-liminal, sacred and secular, cannot be maintained” (79). “As a consequence, it is useful to try to understand pilgrimage shrines through theoretical perspectives that are not drawn from the analysis of religion per se” (79). The urban cathedral, then, is “not only a place of worship, but also . . . a place that enables urban movement through the forms of flexibility (and accidental confluences) that I have been emphasizing,” Coleman writes (79).

Coleman turns to the work of cultural geographers Karen Franck and Quentin Stevens, who write about tight versus loose spaces in cities (79). Tight spaces are defined by surveillance and constraining behavioural norms, whereas loose spaces provide opportunities for exploration, discovery, and unregulated, spontaneous, and even risky behaviour (79). “Loose spaces allow for the chance encounter or spontaneous event,” Coleman writes, “and are most likely to emerge in cities, where free access to a variety of public open spaces combines with anonymity among strangers, diversity of persons, and fluidity of meaning” (79). Loose spaces, he continues, “express well the tensions and complexities around and within cathedrals–and some other shrines–as multipurpose spaces of behavioural fragmentation, translation, adjacency, and articulation” (79). Cathedrals combine flexibility and rigidity, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes serially. A mass might be happening, for instance, while tourists wander around listening (like me) to the guided audio-tour. “Pilgrimage in this kind of space,” Coleman concludes,

is not confined to the set-apart zone of the liminal and it is not isolated from other activities. Nor is the pilgrimage-tourism spectrum the only relevant behavioural and motivation index along which movement to and within cathedrals should be measured, given the salience of other forms of mobility, including migration. Thus Christian shrines are not irrelevant to a continent that is often simplistically labeled secular, nor is their influence only religious or confined merely to the diversions of heritage tourism. They can still rouse passion—often because of, rather than in spite of, their ideological and ritual ambiguities. (80)

I’m sure that Coleman’s take on cathedrals is accurate, although in walking pilgrimages, as I have experienced them, the destination is often less important than the journey. Even if some of the walks I have made shouldn’t be considered pilgrimages–and I’m still thinking about what the connection between walking and pilgrimage might be–often my arrival at the destination has been an anticlimax. When I reached the mouth of the Grand River when I walked through the Haldimand Tract, I found myself on a private beach lined with cottages. It was important to finish the walk, and I was happy, but the contours of the place of my arrival weren’t that important. Arriving at the cathedral in Bath, the terminus of the Cotswolds Way, was also less important than the journey there. The same goes for my arrival in Wood Mountain last summer. On the other hand, I was quite moved when I reached Santiago de Compostela. Perhaps it was the length of the latter journey, and its emotional and physical difficulty, that made my arrival so powerful? At the same time, though, I have to admit that getting to Santiago de Compostela was much less affecting than the long walk I had just completed.

I’m sure it wasn’t Coleman’s intent, but his essay has left me wondering about destinations and journeys, and about what a pilgrimage is or might be. That definition is important, but the more I read, and the more perspectives on the question I encounter, the less clear the definition becomes. Pilgrimage is a contested term, and the definition Coleman offers at the beginning of this paper, one I would have been happy to settle for, turns out to be one he calls into question in his argument. Perhaps I should abandon the notion of pilgrimage altogether when I think about my walks, especially the ones I make in Saskatchewan, but at the same time there is some kind of relationship. Those walks enable me to experience, in a limited way, what some would describe as the sacredness of the land, and that might be their connection to pilgrimage. I’m still not sure. At this point, I don’t have to be.

Work Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.