44. Peter Jan Margry, “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?”

by breavman99

margry shrines and pilgrimage

Peter Jan Margry’s take on pilgrimage is very different than Simon Coleman’s, whose work I spent the weekend reading. Margry begins this essay, an introduction to his anthology of essays by a variety of scholars, entitled Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, with the suggestion that the term “pilgrimage” needs to be re-evaluated and redefined, because despite all of the research into the topic over the past decades, “[t]here are still plenty of open questions, and distinct perspectives and schools of thought still exist” (13). Margry clearly wants there to be one perspective, one school of thought on the topic of pilgrimage, which puts his position quite far from Coleman’s contention that fuzziness in definitions of pilgrimage is inevitable (Coleman 364). Margry may be seeking for a unity of perspective that is impossible to achieve, but in this essay he makes an attempt at constructing a clear definition of pilgrimage that avoids Coleman’s notion of fuzziness and distinguishes what is a pilgrimage from what is not.

According to Margry, the authors whose work he has assembled are interested in “contemporary special locations and memorial sites and graves of special individuals in order to determine whether apparently secular visits to these sites and adoration or veneration of them has a religious dimension or may even be religiously motivated and—if this is the case—whether it is in fact appropriate to refer to these visits as pilgrimages” (13). The intention of the book, Margry writes, is “to define the distinction between secular and religious pilgrimage more precisely” (13-14). That’s not quite correct, however, because Margry immediately makes his central claim: “it is contra-productive to use the concept of pilgrimage as a combination term for both secular and religious phenomena, thereby turning it into much too broad a concept. The term secular pilgrimage which is bandied about so much today actually contains two contradictory concepts and is therefore an oxymoron or contradiction in terms” (14). In other words, a pilgrimage is not a pilgrimage if it is secular; it must be religious. The apparently secular instances the authors collected in this book discuss—the case studies here range from Deborah Puccio-Den’s discussion of the tree that memorializes the assassinated Italian anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, to the journeys people make to the village in Croatia where the former Yugoslavian leader Josef Broz Tito was born, to veneration of the grave sites of popular musicians (the Hungarian singer Jimmy Zámbó, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and Jim Morrison), to the memorial to American long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine in Eugene, Oregon, and the cancer forest in Flevoland, Netherlands—must therefore be redefined as religious, because, for Margry, a pilgrimage must be defined as a religious event. In that sense, Margry’s argument might appear to be close to Coleman’s, since Coleman describes pilgrimages as “sacred travel” (364), but I don’t see anything of Margry’s determination to come up with a singular definition of pilgrimage in Coleman’s writing on the subject.

Why has the definition of pilgrimage broadened to include—wrongly, for Margry—secular concepts? Part of the blame rests with the media, which has, since the 1980s, used the term frequently (and, I would assume, sloppily) (17). As a result,

the concept of pilgrimage has become embedded in common parlance, all the more because the massive “subjective” turn in Western society meant that basically everyone could decide for themselves what they regarded as a pilgrimage destination, and sanctity or sacrality could be attributed to anyone or anything. (17)

The term “pilgrimage” could therefore “be applied in a society where mass culture and personality cults such as those associated with film and rock stars, sports celebrities and royalty took on an increasingly important role, and media coverage followed the trend” (17). As a result, “[a]ny place where people met occasionally or en masse to pay their respects to a special deceased person soon came to be referred to as a ‘place of pilgrimage,’ although it was not clear what this actually meant” (17-18). Margry uses the term “mass culture” a number of times in his essay, and the echoes of the Frankfurt School’s rather dismissive take on popular culture strike me as important in his argument. There is, it seems, a truth about pilgrimage, which is sullied by mass media and mass culture, and that is, for me, a rather surprising perspective for an ethnologist to take. Perhaps that’s because his academic training was in history, rather than anthropology, although I could be wrong.

In any case, Margry doubts whether those who visit “the house where Shakespeare was born, the military Yser Pilgrimage in Flanders, a papal Mass in Rome, the D-Day beaches in Normandy, the Abbey Road zebra crossing, the World Youth Days, personal journeys, Disney World, or shopping malls can really be categorized as pilgrims” (18). There is, he admits, a “civil religion” element in commemorations of war dead or visits to the homes or graves of national heroes, or to famous battlefields (18). But today, “[i]t is mainly pop music and the rise of fan culture which stimulated their own culture of visits to the graves of rock stars and icons” (18). Graceland is the most famous example, but there are many others (18). “However,” Margry writes, “it is certainly not clear how attributions of holiness to the last resting places of music stars in general should be interpreted” (18-19). Secular pilgrimages may not convert musicians’ graves into pilgrimage sites, although “the visual and material culture associated with these graves does in fact seem to connect them with cults and pilgrimage” (19). Nevertheless, Margry wonders whether that connection is true: “Is it a matter of individuals visiting a grave or have the locations acquired lasting and universal sacred significance?” (19). The word “universal” is also used several times in this essay; Margry is searching for a definition of pilgrimage that will hold true across times and cultures (after all, that’s what “universal” means). I doubt that search for a universal truth of pilgrimage is likely to be successful. In any case, Margry doubts that the graves of famous musicians can be easily defined as pilgrimage sites. “At most of the sites,” he writes, “the meanings attributed by the visitors to the individual and the individual’s grave are confused or contradictory” (19). That suggestion comes from his ethnographic field work among people visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but I would think that visitors to sites that are more easily defined as pilgrimage sites would also be confused or contradictory. When I visited the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, where relics of three saints, including St. Jean de Brebeuf, are housed, I was merely curious. I was no pilgrim, in that instance, merely a tourist, but there I was, at a site others would consider sacred. Isn’t that likely to be the case for any such site? It will be considered by sacred by some, but not by others. How could it be otherwise?

Margry doesn’t like the way some researchers use the term “pilgrimage” metaphorically, and he cites Alan Morinis’s interest in allegorical or metaphorical pilgrimage, as well as his suggestion, in the introduction to his anthology Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, that “[o]ne who journeys to a place of importance to himself alone may also be a pilgrim” (Morinis 4), for particular scorn:

No matter how titillating it may be to thought processes and the imagination to combine these apparently similar phenomena, constantly linking them to each other does not seem to have provided any essentially deeper insights into the ‘traditional’ pilgrimage; in fact, its main result has been to increase the confusion surrounding the concept. (20)

Margry notes that “in recent decades the question of what the term pilgrimage means exactly and what should be regarded as the criteria for a pilgrimage has only become more complicated” (20). This complication “applies even more strongly to what is referred to as ‘secular pilgrimage’—a term consisting of two concepts which are troublesome to define and difficult to unite” (20). In order to “deconstruct” the concept of secular pilgrimage, Margry writes, “we need to evaluate the main academic research themes relating to the constitutive elements of pilgrimage” (20). That evaluation will enable Margry to define what pilgrimage is and what it is not.

The first theme Margry considers is the relationship between the individual and the group, and the possible interference between these two categories during a pilgrimage (20). He begins this discussion with Victor and Edith Turner’s suggestion that pilgrimage creates an alternative social structure because it develops a new community of pilgrims (21). “The liminal and transitional character of pilgrimage temporarily eliminates the pilgrim’s normal situation and status,” Margry writes, “and in consequence spontaneous, egalitarian ties are created which Turner refers to as the group experience or ‘communitas’” (21). This claim, however, is not always borne out by ethnographic studies, and if there is no communitas, what is there? “Undeniably, during a pilgrimage there are various important group connections and forms of sociability,” Margry states, but although in Christian culture “pilgrimage has collective elements which are identity-forming or demonstrative in character, in essence it is more individual than is often thought” (21). Here he cites, approvingly, Morinis’s suggestion that pilgrimage is an individual, personal affair, rather than a social one (Morinis 8). “To an increasing extent it is a personal journey, which is undertaken collectively when there is no alternative,” Margry writes (22). I’m not sure what the phrase “[t]o an increasing extent means in that sentence; is Margry arguing that pilgrimages across history are becoming more and more individual, rather than collective? He contends that pilgrimages are “personal visits, with strictly personal intentions towards the cult object” (23). That is one of the findings from his study of visitors to the grave of Jim Morrison; those who travelled there in groups turned out not to be among those with religious motivations for their visit, as compared to those who travelled there alone (23).

The second theme is movement versus place (23). “Movement is an inherent part of pilgrimage,” Margry writes. “But at the same time the pilgrimage site is fixed in space” (23). “This is why it is important for the theoretical discussion about the primary aspect of pilgrimage to continue: should the focus be on location and locality, with the sacred site as the ultimate goal, or should it be on the journey and being on the way?” he asks (23). For Margry, the shrine is, in the Christian pilgrimage tradition, clearly more significant than the journey; the cult object is associated with a specific location which “gives shape to the sacred, both physically and intangibly,” and since sanctity is attributed to that object, it is also attributed to the object’s environment, which becomes “a space where the pilgrim expects salvation, healing and solace, or hopes to effect a cure” (24). “The fact that things have changed is due to a development in which the pilgrimage journey has also become an end in itself,” which is the case in the contemporary interest in walking pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. “Whereas before the mid-twentieth century the cathedral of Santiago was the pilgrimage destination in the classical sense,” Margry contends,

it is now largely the other way around: the pilgrimage in the sense of a spiritual journey has become the rationale. Santiago has been discovered and reinvented by spiritual seekers and lovers of cultural history and tranquility. For many walkers the journey along the camino, or the ‘transit’ as I would call it, has become an individual rite of passage. (24)

The media and politics have played a role in this change:

Without the lengthy and wide media coverage of this ancient pilgrimage and the cultural politics of Spain, the transition from a destination-oriented pilgrimage to seeing the journey as a pilgrimage in itself would not have been so universal. It was due to this process that “transit” pilgrimage made its appearance in the west. Transit pilgrimage does not really have a beginning or an end, or at any rate they are not relevant. Moving, walking, the accessibility and freedom of the ritual, being in nature, and tranquility are all elements which have contributed to its success. (24)

“For many walkers,” Margry notes, “the shrine in Compostela is now so far removed from their new experiential worlds that when they arrive there they are disillusioned” (25). The Catholic church has also played a role in this change; since the 1970s, it has emphasized the journey more than “the cult object” (26). However, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and its existence suggests that there is more than one kind of Christian pilgrimage (26). “It is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” Margry concludes (26).

The third theme Margry discusses is the connection between tourism and pilgrimage (28). He notes that many researchers see similarities between tourism and pilgrimage, and that tourism is part of the motivation of pilgrims, a fact confirmed by ethnographic data (28-29). However, he contends that “the main goals are the sacred, the religious, the cultus object; without them, there is no pilgrimage” (29). Tourism would be, for an authentic pilgrim, a secondary motive (29). But if the only motive is tourism, “then there is no question of pilgrimage; the journey is for tourism or other motives” (29). Of course, people pay visit pilgrimage sites as tourists, without any religious motivitation—like me at the Martyrs’ Shrine—although they may be affected by the sacred place nonetheless (29). (Or, I have to point out, they may not.) Nevertheless, tourism and pilgrimage are not interchangeable: “Intersections between the two only come to the fore when tourists allow themselves to be carried away—intentionally or unintentionally—by the sacred experiences of the shrine or the pilgrimage” (29). That is the case even when the shrine is not conventionally religious. “The grave locations of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison are both tourist attractions where mass tourism is manifestly present,” Margry writes. “However, apparently visits to Graceland and Père Lachaise are stratified and contested” (29). From his own research, Margry has learned that “the religious factor” is present at Morrison’s grave, and the narratives offered by his fans “are distinct from those of the tourist masses” (29). I find myself wondering how these notions of stratification and contestation fit with Margry’s desire for a universal definition of pilgrimage. Perhaps he would argue that the apparently inauthentic “tourist masses” are on the wrong side of that contest, while the authentic pilgrims are on the right side? I’m not sure.

The fourth theme is the distinction between the secular and the religious (30). “No matter how complex and stratified pilgrimage may be, not all phenomena related to travel and veneration can simply be included in the concept,” Margry writes (30). There is an analytical need to distinguish between different behaviours (30). “Not surprisingly,” he continues, 

use of the oxymoronic concept of “secular religion” leads to constant epistemological confusion. Practically all studies which work with this concept fail to reveal what they actually mean by it. Moreover, because of its vagueness, it stimulates over-interpretation, tending either toward the secular or toward the religious. (30)

“The obfuscating effect becomes even stronger if the concept is also used in a metaphorical sense,” he continues (30). Margry wants the term “pilgrimage” used literally and carefully, and never metaphorically; otherwise, the concept becomes too confused and undefined.

“If one assumes that the religious dimension or motivation is a constitutive element of pilgrimage,” Margry continues, “then the next question is whether the ‘secular,’ modern and non-confessional shrines and pilgrimages, outside of the traditional (Christian) pilgrimage culture, do in fact have a religious dimension” (30). To answer that question, those “special places and their associated veneration” need to be approached on their own terms as much as possible, apart from institutionalized religions, to determine whether forms of religious devotion can be discovered at those sites (30). In fact, Margry wants to exclude “the epithet ‘secular’” from the discussion of what happens at those “special places” (30). While he agrees that “the boundaries between the religious and the secular are highly artificial and permeable,” he contends that “we still have to make the distinction,” because otherwise we lose any sense of the difference between the religious and the secular (31). “In short, the existing view that the sacred and the profane are not two separate worlds but are closely connected with each other has led mainly to further blurring of the boundaries,” and he calls for “a more precise distinction between the secular and the religious in relation to pilgrimage on the basis of ethnographic research” (31-32). That research, it seems, will uncover the motivations of those who visit “non-confessional shrines,” and whether those motivations are secular or religious in nature.

Margry’s fifth theme is ethnography and analysis (32). “In their external appearances, visits to graves, shrines and special places display parallels in rituality, materiality or (religious) vocabulary, but these say little about their religious meaning,” he writes (32). This statement leads to several important questions:

As religious experiences or impressions are difficult to pin down, how can religiosity—the condition of being religious—be identified? How does it manifest itself, and what exactly does religiosity consist of? Is it purely a belief in supernatural powers or a transcendental reality? (32)

The answers to those questions constitute Margry’s definition of religion:

As religion is seen here as a human, culturally determined activity, it makes sense to reflect on what people may possibly expect from religion. Here we must consider elements such as finding meaning in life, membership of a living community and identification with its deceased members, safety and security, strength and support, comfort and hope, and healing and resolution, but also the expression of gratitude and possibly the expectation or hope of salvation and eternal life after death. (32)

Religiosity, he continues, is not only about “having certain ideas, expectations, motives or feelings inside one’s head,” but also about “the articulation of actions and practices” (32). “It is in behaviors and rituals and through the attribution of meaning to material culture that religion can manifest itself most clearly, while as a rule its most precise expression is through oral or written communication or information about its content,” he writes (32-33). “However, in practice it still proves difficult to identify the religious element unequivocally in the course of research. There are often several religious narratives that unfold simultaneously or are intertwined with each other” (33).

Motives are central to Margry’s sense of what is religious and what is not. He suggests that “pilgrimage expresses the efforts the individual has to make to give meaning and direction to his or her existence,” according to ethnographic data (33). “Where the traditional religious contexts are no longer present or functioning, or are barely so, significant existential insecurities can develop, and people will look for alternatives,” he writes (34). This explains why new “expressions of of religiosity” take shape, including those that take shape around non-confessional shrines and similar sites (33).

“Because of the falsification or inadequacy of pilgrimage concepts, the understanding that pilgrimage has different meanings for different pilgrims and the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the phenomenon,” he concludes, “it remains difficult to formulate a general definition of the term ‘pilgrimage’” (35). Nevertheless, Margry sets out to construct such a definition. First, movement is not the central focus in pilgrimage, he argues: “for pilgrims the essence of a pilgrimage is to approach the sacred, to enter it, to experience, to draw near, to touch, to make it their own, and if possible to hold onto it for their everyday lives” (35-36). Walking pilgrimages, like the one that leads to Santiago de Compostela, would seem to be excluded from this definition. Margry approves of the definition of pilgrimage developed by a team of Dutch researchers (he was part of that group): 

Pilgrimage was defined in advance as a journey undertaken by individuals or groups, based on a religious or spiritual inspiration, to a place that is regarded as more sacred or salutary than the environment of everyday life, to seek a transcendental encounter with a specific cult object, for the purpose of acquiring spiritual, emotional or physical healing or benefit. A pilgrimage must therefore entail interaction between the sacred or the religious, an element of personal transition and the existence of a cult object. Without these objects, there is no pilgrimage; there is thus an essential distinction between pilgrimage and “secular pilgrimage” . . . in that pilgrimage has a transformative potential to give meaning to life, healing, etc. (36)

But nonreligious events, objects, or sites also have transformative potential to give meaning to life or to heal. Margry’s argument, it seems to me, can only make room for “secular pilgrimage” by claiming that what appears to be secular is actually religious. So the shrines and journeys that are discussed in this book, while ostensibly secular, will have to become religious (through analysis) in order for his argument to hold water. The confusion he abhors, then, becomes a foundational part of his argument.

For me, Coleman’s theoretical openness is far more congenial than Margry’s tightly controlled, even monological definition. I mean, any definition of pilgrimage that downplays the importance of the Camino de Santiago, as Margry’s argument attempts to do, is one I can’t get behind. Nevertheless, it’s been a valuable read, if only to see yet another version of pilgrimage, and to come to an understanding of the kind of push-back my paper’s argument might occasion. Better to know and be prepared than to remain ignorant!

Works Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.

Morinis, Alan. “Introduction.” Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. Edited by Alan Morinis. Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 1-28.