American Pilgrimage: Sacred Journeys and Spiritual Destinations
Jana Riess, Mark Ogilbee
Paraclete Press, 2006.
Suggested retail price: $16.95 (US)
Imagine packing your bags and setting out for promised lands across the
United States. Imagine being invited behind the veil to observe the inner
workings of institutions driven by the infinite spectra of the spiritual
quest. What a fine time it would be.
Ogilbee and Riess lived this dream, and I will confess to a bit of
jealousy. Most readers will recognize Riess as religion book review editor
for Publishers Weekly, a frequent poster to the Association for Mormon
Letters discussion list, and a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints. Her recent work, Mormonism for Dummies (co-authored
with Christopher Bigelow) was well received here. The present work is
likewise appreciated, constituting a travelogue of sorts across the
metaphysical map of America.
The authors set the stage in the introduction:
This is a book for pilgrims. It's about going deeper, and journeying
to places -- both external and internal -- that we might not expect.
This sets up quite an agenda for their tour -- a search for outer beauty
and inner enlightenment, mixed with a healthy sense of the serendipitous.
A heady brew, indeed, and one we all would love to drink in. Indeed, while
religion can appear somewhat sterile and predictable, spirituality can be
ever surprising and ultimately fulfilling.
As the authors make clear in their introduction, pilgrimages aren't always
about religion, neither are they necessarily journeys to physical places.
One may make a pilgrimage to, say, the Alamo, in memory of those who died
there. Another may sit at the beach and make pilgrimage to that intimate
place of personal meaning that can only be reached in the silence. However
one understands the nature of pilgrimage, there are wonderful rewards
awaiting those who embark on those journeys.
Part One is titled "Pilgrimages of Healing." Here the authors visit three
havens of healing for both body and spirit: El Santuario de Chimayo,
Chimayo, New Mexico ("The Lourdes of America"); The National Shrine of St.
Jude, Chicago, Illinois; and The Healing Rooms of Santa Maria Valley, Santa
Maria, California. Each takes a unique approach to the healing experience.
At Chimayo, for example, those seeking healing avail themselves of "holy
dirt," scooped from a hole in the ground just off the sanctuary. At the
Shrine of St. Jude, healing is effected by contact with St. Jude, the
patron saint of hopeless causes. (There are days when I can really
relate.) In Santa Maria, the power of healing comes with contact with
There are some wonderful insights here. Readers will likely be most
familiar with St. Jude. Most newspapers have religious announcement
columns, and it isn't unusual to read someone thanking St. Jude for favors
granted. But unlike other places of healing, a physical visit to the
Shrine isn't necessary for believers to enter into the healing experience:
It's likely that every spiritual pilgrim will have just cause, at some
point or another, to call upon Jude. And while it's excellent to visit
the National Shrine and soak up its atmosphere of decades of Judean
devotion with other, like-minded souls, Jude would be just as happy to
connect with us at our kitchen tables or on our front porches, one on
one. (p. 33)
Indeed, St. Jude medals are easily obtained by anyone, and many find
comfort in these emblems of connection with their patron saint.
And how wonderful is the chapter on the Healing Rooms, places where
ordinary people from many denominations, can come together to bring the
healing experience to each other. I was interested in the discussion of
the difference between "divine healing" and "faith healing." The former is
centered on "the healing power of Jesus," while the latter leans on one's
faith, which can be perceived as "not enough" when healing doesn't happen.
(p. 45) It sets this facility apart from the many faith healers who
populate the religious landscape today.
Part Two, "Pilgrimages of Benedictine Hospitality," sends the authors to
three facilities that follow, to one degree or another, the Rule of St.
Benedict, a life of contemplation, interaction with the real world, and a
policy of welcome and generosity toward all who find their way into their
midst. These places are: The Community of Jesus in Cape Cod,
Massachusettes; The Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky; and Mt.
Calvary Retreat Home and Monastery in Santa Barbara, California.
As a long-time reader of Thomas Merton, I was especially interested in
their visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. Reading this
chapter, I was reminded of my own several visits to monasteries in various
parts of our nation. There's nothing quite as refreshing as a time away
from the noise, the clamor of everyday life. Merton, I believe, found his
spiritual grounding after being granted permission to live the hermit's
life on the outskirts of the Abbey's grounds.
Part Three is titled "Crossing Boundaries." Places of spiritual growth
don't always need to look like your parents' church. Here the authors
study the natural world as a center of spiritual reflection. They begin
with a visit to the place where the swallows used to steal the show:
From the beginning, Mission San Juan Capistrano maintained the
sacred-within-the-secular. The original Catholic mission at San Juan
Capistrano was built in 1769 as part of the California "mission
This mission system was designed to bring Christianity to the native
population, of course, but the missions were more than just religious
institutions. They made wine; they taught construction and
metalworking skills to the local population; they hosted rodeos; they
garrisoned Spanish soldiers. They became the center of civic,
economic, religious, and political life in the region they served. (p.
Until recently, the swallows returned to Capistrano every year, right on
time, giving families and friends a reason to celebrate. With a recent
retrofitting for safety purposes, the nests were removed, and, alas, the
swallows had to find another place to live. But the celebrations, the
outreach, and the "sacred-within-the-secular" continue to this day.
The authors continue their journey to the Red Rocks of Sedona, Arizona.
Here one can find an assortment of New Agers and others seeking wisdom from
what the authors call the "desert silent rocks." The challenge is simple:
Come to Sedona, and the beauty of these desert silent rocks will
...Sedona is a fascinating and uniquely American pilgrimage destination
because it does not appeal to pilgrims of one faith only. Go up into
the red rocks and you will find fundamentalists and skeptics, seekers
and self-proclaimed heretics, each seeking to encounter the holy
according to his or her understanding. (p. 127-128)
I'm sure each of us can find a place in that broad spectrum -- even the
heretics! The beauty, the wonder of nature, is so nicely described here.
Finally, in Part Four, the authors visit "Modern 'Saints'" and their
influence on contemporary Americans. They begin in an unexpected place --
Elvis Presley's Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis as Saint? Do
folks actually make pilgrimages to Graceland? You bet! And did you know
that there is Presleyterian Church? Where do I join?
They follow this with a visit to Fountain Valley, California, home of the
"Alms Round and Dharma Talk" of Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn. Here they
immerse themselves in the teachings and practices of the famed "Lazy Monk,"
a spokesperson for inner and world peace.
Their final stop is to the quintessential example of Americans coming
together to find religion -- a Billy Graham Crusade, this one in Greater
Los Angeles. In this essay, the authors talk about a "travelling
pilgrimage site" -- the idea that profane space may become sacred, that it
can become "'God's house' this week." (p. 181) Marked by contemporary
music and enormous respect for the aging evangelist, this essay provides a
nice ending to an intriguing journey.
American Pilgrimage is an all-too-brief, but ultimately fulfilling,
journey, not just to sacred places, but through encounters with the people
who fill those spaces. At every stop, the authors share the stories of
people they meet along the way, those whose own spiritual paths have led
them to one place or another. And in their journeys, we may even find
reflections of our own.
Life's journey can take us to surprising and unexpected places. Ogilbee
and Riess are fortunate in that they were able to visit these places
corporeally. But there is hope for us all. Perhaps the most important
journey is that inner quest for understanding our true selves, for sorting
out the valuables from the detritus in our lives. And for this we need no
magic carpet, for as Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you."
© 2006 Jeffrey Needle