I am thrilled to be preparing to deliver a paper at William & Mary College next week at their annual symposia on Pilgrimage Studies. In many aspects, this opportunity feels very much like a pilgrimage journey in and of itself. A couple years ago I received an invitation to submit a proposal for this particular academic gathering, which very much felt like the call, the requisite summons of any meaningful pilgrimage. However, life circumstances prevented the manifestation of that opportunity until now. And so I have the opportunity to seek the wisdom gained these past couple years as I have journeyed through the descent, the time of darkness and disintegration that occurs when a journey is truly leaving its indelible mark on you, and prepare for my arrival.
In this setting my claim will be my belief that the act of pilgrimage is a practice of profound place-making. Using Uri Shulevitz's children's book, The Treasure as my primary text, I argue that pilgrimage doesn't set our longing heart in the direction of far-off sacred spaces to find resurrection within a celestial kingdom; rather, it roots us even deeper into our homescapes as the return requires creating meaningful places for the community to connect. While the journey is indeed important to return to a posture of collective provision within one's community, it is critical to note that that within this story (and very much like in our own lives), the protagonist Isaac could not have even made the journey without a deep knowledge of, and connection to, his place. Because he knows where he is, he is able to get to where he needs to go, and ultimately, to return.
We too must know our local landscapes well enough so that when it is time fulfill the call of a dream, we know how to navigate the land and engage with strangers in such a way as to not get lost. Engaging in regular practices of listening in place, where you unplug from your device and hear (really hear), and see (really see) the people and places that surround you and create the fabric of your home-land provides the most elemental conditions for co-creating places that provide for deep and meaningful community connection. For these are the very places and people who will receive the boon of your journey, the great gift that is given in exchange for the courage to respond to the call. Your community will receive the gift of your permanence.
If you do not have this book in your library, I encourage you to get yourself a copy. It is simple, delightful, and profound. And I hope your own copy of The Treasure, along with the following abstract for my paper, will inspire how your journeys will ultimately root you deeper into your neighborhoods.
Abstract: The Treasure: How Pilgrimage Cultivates a Connection to Place through Permanence
While the practice of pilgrimage is undergoing a resurgence, church authorities haven’t always been enthusiastic.Critics, like Jerome, thought it ludicrous that prayers offered in one place could be more effective than prayers offered elsewhere: “Nothing is lacking to your faith though you have not seen Jerusalem.”However, what if in the very leaving of our houses to engage the Divine, we actually return back to it not only more connected to our Sacred Source, but also more invested in our place on this planet through a commitment to faithful permanence?
Uri Shulevitz’s Caldecott Honor awarded book, The Treasure (1978) provides the archetypal stages of pilgrimage in a condensed child-friendly, but enormously profound, way.However, what makes this story unique, and its great gift to us as readers and practicers of pilgrimage, is the invitation to see that the true treasure for which we are seeking on pilgrimage is always back at home, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.Isaac, Shulevitz’s primary character discovers that the treasure about which he has dreamt, and for which he has searched, resides in the essence of his home: underneath his hearth-place.This finding compels him to invest further in his community through sharing his treasure with others near and far.
By looking at the ancient practice of pilgrimage through the lens of The Treasure, we can gain new insight on how this practice actually encourages one to become more rooted and connected to personal home-scapes: the neighborhood, local communities, and regional ecosystems.Patterns of narcissistic consumption of places and relationships have resulted in transitory lifestyles.Impermanence—a result of the provisional value of things accorded by the evanescence of social media—is valued over the tenacity required to remain. Isaac embodies the sort of rootedness, which is an outcome of the journey, that can effectively transform an ambiguous and meaningless space into one of deep meaning and wisdom.
The difference between a space and a place is the difference between a house and a home.Isaac leaves his house seeking; he returns to find his treasure has always been there and testifies to that wisdom by building a place of public worship; a place of deep and significant meaning that invites others in his community to be welcomed, to return, and to tell others about the wisdom encountered there.This is a true place, a home created and maintained by the initial dream to journey away-from.
In Isaac’s initial poverty, one can find themes of how impoverished the Western world is in our normative independence and isolation.Soul-less technology, especially screens and social media, further this distance from ourselves and one another.Through the journeying out to the places that call to us from our deepest dreams and psyches, connection with others is found.This connection and sharing of dreams is what can spur the return back to whence we came, rediscover meaning, and re-engage in practices that powerfully connect people to one another and their place.
The Treasure: How Pilgrimage Cultivates a Connection to Place through Permanence
Uri Shulevitz’s Caldecott Honor awarded book, The Treasure (1978) provides the archetypal stages of pilgrimage in a condensed child-friendly, but enormously profound, way. However, what makes this story unique, and its great gift to us as readers and practitioners of pilgrimage, is the invitation to see that the true treasure for which we are seeking on pilgrimage is always back at home, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Isaac, Shulevitz’s primary character discovers that the treasure about which he has dreamt, and for which he has searched, resides in the essence of his home: underneath his hearth-place. This finding compels him to invest further in his community through sharing his treasure with others near and far through the practice of profound place-making, which requires a commitment to permanence. I invite you into this story, which will also be looked at through the lens of Celtic Christian pilgrimage and place-making, of which I am familiar and practiced.
I believe that the pilgrimage journey, especially when engaged as a daily practice, can foster a connection to our physical places in an age when place is secondary to the modern nomadic pace.
This is the story of Isaac, a poor man who goes to bed every night lonesome and with hunger pains. However, while his belly is empty, his dream life is full. He repeatedly has a dream where a voice tells him to travel to the capital city to discover a treasure under the bridge near the Royal Palace. The journey that commences requires a deep knowledge of his local landscape, an abiding trust in fellow humanity, and ultimately a sense of communal imagination that relies on both the dream and what is needed to deepen one’s experience of home.
place-making can be understood as a form of contemplative practice in that it can be the result of the integrative themes fastened to a pilgrimage journey: geography, stranger, and imagination.
In an age of chronic and widespread displacement, the work of place-making—the discovery and cultivation of a sense of place—has gained new significance and meaning. I propose that ultimately place-making can be understood as a form of contemplative practice in that it can be the result of the integrative themes fastened to a pilgrimage journey: geography, stranger, and imagination. The deep knowledge and engagement of these three categories invites one to live more fully into their homescapes, more integrated within local communities, and ultimately, participate in providing transformative and flourishing aspects to local life.
Isaac’s journey to the city can tell us about the significance of place within the contemplative practice of pilgrimage. A journey through various topographies and encounters with others are requisite to understanding the call upon his life. It is here within the capital city gates, encountering a stranger at the site where his dreams told him to go, that everything is made clear for Isaac. This illumination and clarity was without question a profound experience of place. I would also call it an experience of homecoming, a sense of having arrived home within one’s self after a significant effort and journey searching for it.
What is place-making and how does it shape a framework for pilgrimage and result in a sense of permanence? Anthropologist Keith Basso, who has worked on mapping the place-names of the Western Apache people near Cibeque, Arizona, for over thirty years, describes place-making as a “retrospective world-building,” a form of cultural activity that is a “ universal tool of the historical imagination.” In the Western Apache world, places and place-names are dense with meaning, holding and embodying the entire history of the people. To say the name of a place, to tell a story about a place is to waken a memory, conjure up everything that ever happened there, and make it present again to the community. This is more than mere reminiscence; remembering what happened in a given place becomes woven into the personal and collective identity of the people. “What people make of their places,” Basso suggests, “is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the earth…. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”
Isaac’s experience can help us grapple with the growing concerns about the significance of place, considering in particular the widespread sense of displacement or disconnection that has come to characterize the contemporary urban experience within the Western world.
Movement and travel is fundamental to the human experience. A general arc from hunter/gatherer societies to today’s human populations underscores that there is an inherent desire to move. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Hebrew God is often portrayed as a traveler showing up to deliver divine guidance. The journey upon which the traveler embarks subsequently becomes sacred as well. This holy hegira underlays the constant travels and wanderings of many ancient Celtic Christians as well. Restlessness was in their blood as was the notion that it was better to travel hopefully than to arrive. This lens of hope presented a perspective that the road was a rite; that the path provided prescient knowledge and insight to their journey towards divine revelation. Isaac’s departure relied on the land as a liturgy, a sacred script that would prove his dream’s call. He is able to move through this wild landscape because it is known, much like the details of a familiar story.
The particularities of a place become both a sacred messenger and a storied record of divine encounters. Like the sacred lands of the Western Apache, religious sites in Celtic lands are known by meaningful name and also by the presence of standing crosses, communal land-markers of ancient stories of significance. This was a primal way of place-making. By naming a place through the placement of stone, or more notably, through tale-saturated titles, the Celtic people affirmed how important the natural world was to their experience with the numinous. Sacred legends associated with landscapes abound in Celtic country, and are often the narratives that bring people back to and into nature.
The geographies of Isaac’s surrounding home-scape shaped him. From the dust of the village paths to the surrounding forests and mountains, he lived in such a way that the interweaving of these ground-scapes became spiritual directors, forming in him a sacred imagination for what was needed in his community.
Writing about the power of the imagination in an essay on the civil war, Wendell Berry emphasizes that “the particularizing force of imagination is a force of justice…Imagination, amply living in a place, brings what we want and what we have ever closer to being the same…If imagination is to have a real worth, to us, it needs to have a practical, economic effect. It needs to establish us in our places with a practical respect for what is there besides ourselves. I think the highest earthly result of imagination is local adaptation.”
Isaac has the imagination to create something that would practically deepen the experience of other’s living within his community because he has lived there a long time. He has listened, and responded to the silence of what wasn’t there. His deep knowledge and relationship with the surrounding forests and mountains is beyond basic map-knowledge, these are places with which he is so familiar that he can navigate known routes from his village, to the city, and back again with a felt sense, and a confidence in his greater community that the accepted rides from a stranger are welcomed gifts from the guidance that is manifesting his dream. He isn’t lost in his landscape; he is home within it and this connection is one hard to come by when one’s primary senses are attuned to technological devices that prevent one from really seeing and really hearing from the geography that surrounds one’s lodging. For it can only truly be just that, an anywhere-space where one simply resides, a shallow rootedness that can easily be transplanted since the surrounding storied geography was never tapped, never learned, never adapted and assimilated, never penetrating the person behind the screen who somehow still manages to walk upon a sidewalk.
Isaac shows us what is an “experiential place sense,” the imaginative, affective response to a place that allows it to become significant for a person or community. When one sees more of a place, (these are the bits and pieces: birds and benches, angles and alleys, weeds and woods) because of one’s experiential sense of it, it allows us to plunge into a posture of permanence because we are enabled to gauge the true significance of what we gaze upon. This kind of seeing is akin to what the early Christians meant when they spoke of theoria, that was a way of seeing into the heart of reality that sometimes revealed the very face of the divine. Or like what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he spoke of “inscape,” the luminous, utterly singular texture of a thing that emerges with blazing clarity when a person actually looks upon that thing with care and sensitivity.
Pilgrimage requires all senses as it depends on our sensory selves to receive and transmit divine messages in the here and now. It is nigh impossible to have an I/Thou encounter based on particularity and receive its sacred import if podcasts and screens overwhelm our sensing selves.
This capacity is often grown by practicing the pace and posture of pilgrimage so that when we return home we are able to “see into” all that is there and all that is yet missing.
The Celtic way of pilgrimage paid attention to place, understanding that the sacred was revealed through the natural world and even through the hospitality of the stranger. When we travel with a pilgrim’s pace, we embrace the perspective and values of the divine. Charles Foster holds that a journey will challenge you to engage critical aspects of the divine through:
“…life on the edges; indiscriminate and costly hospitality; solidarity with the marginalized (most of the nomad’s time is spent outside main centers and in the company of peripheral people); intimate relationships with humans and the environment; a new view at every step; and the loosest possible hold on possessions.”
This was a way of living, of moving, and of arriving to a place that required radical engagement. It entreats the individual to live into communion with the seasons, the elements, the natural world and other humans. The journey becomes the medium by which meaning is made and relationships are maintained. While participants of a pilgrimage often intend to go at it alone, studies have repeatedly noted the importance of social interactions along the journey. Isaac’s acceptance of offered rides by strangers while en route to the city speaks to how we co-create meaning and movement together with others. Pilgrimage demands we pay attention, sensing messages for our inner journey through the faces with whom we share the sidewalk, as well as the environment that surrounds us.
We awaken to the culture of a place when we pay attention to the potential of interactions with both the seen and unseen world.
This kind of noticing requires unplugging from our devices and engaging in our places with our senses. It means tapping into the collective memory of a place through our bodies. The smells, sights and sounds of a place will reveal much about its stories—stories that induce knowledge and love of the land, the culture that co-habitates there, and the Creator who exists in and in between these places and its people.
Dreams are holy and contain sacred power as they project the location or echoing dimensions of a pilgrimage site—they can be portals of deeper connection to ourselves, our community, and the divine. Isaac’s dream repeatedly visited him, placing upon him a call to make a connection between his deepest desire, his geography, and the resulting imagination to create something on behalf of the common good. What makes Isaac’s particular experience unique and profound, is that while his dream, his call, demanded an answer of going, he did not travel to a distant center of worship.
The trajectory of his transformational travel didn’t lead him to a shrine, temple, or sacred grove; rather, it led him out to the city, to a particular bridge, to be laughed at by the captain of the guards: “You poor fellow,” he said, “what a pity you wore your shoes out for a dream! Listen, if I believed a dream I once had, I would go right now to the city you came from, and I’d look for a treasure under the stone in the house of a fellow named Isaac.” Isaac turns and retraces his steps back home, accepting kind offers from strangers, walking through forests and back over mountains. Ultimately, the treasure is found within Isaac’s home, a metaphor for the divine that is deepest within each of us.
To uncover this sacred treasure has the potential to transform our neighborhoods and communities as the boon isn’t meant to fund or create more self-serving interests or even create more global thinking.
The recovered treasure co-creates places that deepen community connection to place, one another, and the opportunity to experience awe and wonder locally.
Isaac’s pilgrimage journey awakens in him an imagination for something more, a storied aspect of his community that would be on behalf of the common good, something that would create connection, and provide a place to experience awe and wonder, critical aspects of a happy and whole human life. This imagination is tinged with gratitude, an essential quality that will ensure that one’s imagination doesn’t serve the ego, but rather, the eco—the whole house, the whole ecology of a place, the inscape—the inside knowledge of the interrelated dynamics for living together. If we are all to live together well in our places, we must create and know the stories of our interrelatedness.
With the treasure that is the result of his journey, he taps into the wisdom that has sat underneath his hearth, the heart of his home, waiting to be found, recognized, and its power used to imagine and create a place that would help to shape the identity of those who inhabited Isaac’s neighborhood.
A true pilgrimage practice becomes a way of being in the world, ultimately one that is insatiably curious for connection to the divine through others and the natural world. This sort of pace is also slow growing, like the rootedness of a tree. Our journey towards revelation and meaning should lead us to plant roots, roots that connect to our local ecologies and transform our neighborhood economies. In this way, pilgrimage becomes a practice of creating a deep and abiding sense of home.
Bringing back the boon of a pilgrimage is a requisite final stage of the journey. The Return demands a communal impact for the whole experience to be fully realized as a transformative event. Isaac’s treasure doesn’t spur him towards a rootless and fancy-free lifestyle. He invests what he has found as a result of his searching into his community, imagining and creating a culture of place and collective belonging, which produces deep roots and a sense of permanence.
With the security gained through Isaac’s found treasure, he sends a portion off to his sacred guide (the Captain of the Guards—-see the recurring theme? gratitude) and then he creates. This act of imagination is a doubling down—a commitment to his homescape through the creation of something that didn’t before exist. He has listened deeply to his landscape and strangers and heard the silence of what is not there—an act that is not possible through impermanence and light, non-localized living.
Isaac builds a house of prayer, and presumably based on its size and amount of seating, this is not a private altar. This is a place for his neighbors to gather, to come together, to experience in community wonder, wisdomawe, gratitude, thanksgiving. This is a place that will profoundly impact the collective memory of what it means to live in this village. The wisdom gained through Isaac’s journey now marks the character of this place, and is memorialized with an inscription: “Sometimes one must travel far to discover what is near.”
Like the Celtic standing stones, this house of prayer becomes a marker, a sacred story of the wisdom found there. Like the Apache, the people’s prayers that are offered here will soak into the soil, creating memories in this place, providing a depth that demands staying, knowing, and being together.
In Isaac’s initial poverty, one can find themes of how impoverished the Western world is in our normative independence and isolation. Through the journeying out to the places that call to us from our deepest dreams and psyches, connection with others is found. This connection and sharing of dreams is what can spur the return back to whence we came, rediscover meaning, and re-engage in imaginative practices that powerfully connect people to one another and their place.
How are you practicing presence and permanence in your neighborhood?
Do you know the names of landmarks and landscapes in your community?
Test this knowledge without the use of map-skills (no Google maps either!). What names do you know? Do you know their sacred stories?
Learn the ancient, indigenous names of places in your region, and the stories that accompany these names.
Practice your own place-naming based on the memories you have co-created in your community.
 Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 5, 7.
 Genesis 12:1, 4; Exodus 34:23 for examples of Hebrew bible text where God proclaims the Hebrew people a pilgrimage people.
 Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2003), 80.
 Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey (Nashville, NT: Thomas Nelson, 2010), xiv.