In a few weeks we will depart on something like a pilgrimage for a 31 day cruise into the Pacific along the routes traveled by Polynesian canoes over a thousand years ago. I have no idea what will have inspired the other passengers, but as for me there is something compelling about the Pacific in ways that I do not fully understand. What makes a pilgrimage different from a more ordinary vacation trip? It goes with the intent of encountering new and deeper spiritual truths in the unforeseen and unexperienced presence of God’s grace.
I am fascinated with what little I know of the history and culture of Oceania. For instance, European explorers were well into the eighteenth century before they could accurately chart their way into unknown latitudes and longitudes. On the other hand, Polynesians were not just explorers but travelers for whom multiple round trips between island groups as much as two thousand miles apart were a regular occurrence. Their systems of governance were as complex and sophisticated as anything in late medieval Europe. Theirs was an oral literacy, a very detailed and complicated literacy, and, thanks largely to nineteenth century missionaries, much of it has been preserved as written history. In spite of two centuries of European efforts to suppress local cultures in the name of Christ and good taste, there has been a resurgence of Polynesian pride, language, mythology and tradition residing in the context of modern society at a reasonable level of creative tension.
We will, in twenty-first century luxury, poke a bit more into all of that, with intermissions for bird watching, snorkeling, hiking, and time as well for reflection on the likes of Cook, Vancouver, Nimitz and Yamamoto. Yet I’d like to know more, so, God willing, this winter we will cruise up the coast of Asia from Singapore to Shanghai with more questions to ask and experiences to treasure. In the end, these two trips are pilgrimages in which the beginning is known but not the end, and the reasons for taking them uncertain. I imagine that purists will criticize us on the grounds that we will but superficially taste very small portions as we go along. Just two more American tourists whose only value is the dollar they leave behind for a trinket or two. There can be a lot of truth to that, but we have also learned that informed looking and listening can reveal a lot in a short time. Moreover, at our age we are looking and listening to taste as much as we can of God’s creation, and are humbly grateful to be able to do so.
These two trips will be very different from other trips of pilgrimage we have taken. A vacation trip in southern England some years ago turned out to be an unexpected pilgrimage into a profound encounter with our Anglican roots. Other trips to Israel and parts of the eastern Mediterranean were more deliberate pilgrimages with planned beginnings and expected ends. As with the nature of pilgrimages, our expected ends were not always fulfilled but what came in their places far exceeded them in the most wonderful ways. These pilgrimages will be different: planned but with few expectations about what we might encounter and a sense of eagerness for the mysteries that lie ahead.