For as long as humans have walked on planet Earth, they have walked to get closer to their Gods.
As of 2016, the greatest distance claimed for a “round the world” pilgrimage is 41,552 miles by Arthur Blessitt, a man from the USA, who has been walking on a mission since 1969. He has visited all seven continents, including Antarctica, having crossed 324 “nations, island groups and territories” carrying a 12-ft wooden cross and preaching from the Bible along the way.
Historically pilgrims undertook these journeys to holy places because it was important for their faith. If they had committed sins they believed that by going on a pilgrimage they could show God how sorry they were.
The Greeks made these quests, as did the Israelites, the Mayans, and the Chinese. Jesus hailed these journeys, along with the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammad. These wanderings have been around forever. Pilgrims made them in the eons before writing was invented. Believers made them in the millennia during which the great civilizations were built. Seekers follow them today.
Cancer, no matter what the type, stage or degree creates an immediate pathway in our lives, which can either be pushed aside for a simpler route or followed faithfully to its apex, the summit of which can be a deep encounter with healing. Those of us with cancer know that we cannot always be cured, but we can always be healed in the sense of embracing a broader vision of ourselves while celebrating our life and inevitable death with remarkable clarity.
This is our pilgrimage to a place that was perhaps inaccessible before cancer. This becomes our daily mission, to exist side by side with a life-threatening disease while unearthing through a solo safari, all of the treasures that exist in our remaining, cherished days. Living with cancer has often been described as a “journey”.
I choose to think of my own cancer as an “expedition” through which the very course of my life has been changed forever, and by which I am able—indeed eager—to discover something new about myself and my relationship to the universe each and every day.
Author and adventurer Bruce Feiler in his PBS series called “ Sacred Journeys “describes the 6 stages of every pilgrimage this way:
- The Call: The opening clarion of any spiritual journey. Often in the form of a feeling or some vague yearning, that summons expresses a fundamental human desire: finding meaning in an overscheduled world somehow requires leaving behind our daily obligations. Sameness is the enemy of spirituality.
- The Separation: Pilgrimage, by its very nature, undoes certainty. It rejects the safe and familiar. It asserts that one is freer when one frees oneself from daily obligations of family, work, and community, but also the obligations of science, reason, and technology.
- The Journey: The backbone of a sacred journey is the pain of the journey itself. In India, pilgrims approach the holy sites barefoot. In Iraq, they flagellate themselves. In Tibet, the more difficult the trip the most merit the pilgrim acquires. In almost every place, the travelers develop blisters, hunger, and diarrhea. This personal sacrifice enhances the experience; it also elevates the sense of community one develops along the way.
- The Contemplation: Some pilgrimages go the direct route, right to the center of the holy of holies, directly to the heart of the matter. Others take a more indirect route, circling around the outside of the sacred place, transforming the physical journey into a spiritual path of contemplation.
- The Encounter: After all the toil and trouble, after all the sunburn and swelling, after all the anticipation and expectation comes the approach, the sighting. The encounter is the climax of the journey, the moment when the traveler attempts to slide through a thin membrane in the universe and return to the Garden of Origin, where humans lived in concert with the Creator.
- The Completion and Return: At the culmination of the journey, the pilgrim returns home only to discover that meaning they sought lies in the familiar of one’s own world.
Most notable I think is #6, the final stage where we understand at long last that all of our accumulated experiences, including cancer, are steps in our pilgrimage through life. And all paths lead us home where we are in the perfect place, right here and right now. Even this body of mine, often stiff, easily bruised and perhaps still harboring cancer, is a most remarkable host that holds the heart and the hope that are part of my life-long expedition.
My pilgrimage is internal, as it is for many cancer survivors, but no less magical because of that. Those of us with cancer in our bodies might feel the weight of our burden every day, but we also know that it is only in the journey that we can find stability and stillness—and never in the destination.
So as the month of November blows across my calendar and with the Thanksgiving holiday reminding me that there is much I can add to my gratitude list, it’s with a great deal of hope and a deep sense of adventure that my pilgrimage through male breast cancer continues.