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The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground

"A compelling and evocative memoir . . . Readers seeking small marvels, instead of life-changing miracles, will find this a provocative and illuminating armchair adventure." — Publishers Weekly

"An affecting visit to the ancient, humbling act of pilgrimage." — Kirkus Reviews

"I greatly enjoyed this book, which is travel-with-a-theme — a pilgrimage about pilgrims and holy places that is not only enlightening but also very funny." — Paul Theroux

"She travels alone — all the better to accompany us, her readers, showering us with her gifts of observation and expression. And in the very tartness of her refusals to be taken in, she is far from what she calls 'oblivious to God.'" — Margaret Visser, author of The Way We Are, Rituals of Dinner, and The Geometry of Love

About the Book

Acclaimed writer Rosemary Mahoney — a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her book Whoredom in Kimmage, the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award, and author of the New York Times Notable Book The Early Arrival of Dreams — had long been curious about pilgrimage, about what it was that worshippers hoped to find by subjecting themselves to the rigors and dedication that any pilgrimage requires.

Determined to do more than simply report from the sidelines, Mahoney plunged headfirst into her subject matter, embarking upon six remarkable pilgrimages to write The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground (Houghton Mifflin; publication date: March 27, 2003). This evocative, fascinating book constitutes not only an astute study of spiritual practices but also a graceful, witty rumination on the nature of faith itself. A gifted storyteller and perceptive observer, Mahoney takes readers along with her to the Anglican National Pilgrimage in Walsingham, England; the holy baths at Lourdes, France; the medieval Camino de Santiago in Spain; the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, India; the Biblical shrines of Israel and Palestine; and the grueling St. Patrick's Purgatory in Ireland, vividly portraying the many faces of the faithful as she strives to understand the devotion that has motivated pilgrims throughout history.

Intellectual curiosity aside, Mahoney had personal reasons for pursuing this particular subject. She was raised Catholic, but as she grew older, her faith began to waver. Religion became less and less a part of her life. "About God I was forever uncertain, suspended, teetering," she writes. Chastened by the ambiguity of her belief, Mahoney found herself in awe of those who embraced religion wholeheartedly. By joining in the ritual of pilgrimage, she hoped to discover what she believed in and to reconcile her skepticism with the fervor of those who had no such doubts.

Mahoney's journey yielded a myriad of fantastic sights, new friends, and surprising discoveries. In the bathhouse at Lourdes, she was instructed to strip naked and stand with her arms above her head while attendants slapped a cold, wet sheet around her body, making her stagger with shock. "The whole thing had the mood of a twisted Nazi experiment," she recounts, made even weirder when she was told to wade through the stone tub and kiss a statue of the Virgin Mary "half the size of a Barbie doll." On the Camino de Santiago, she walked 475 miles, from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, over the Pyrenees into Spain, and clear across the Iberian Peninsula to Santiago de Compostela. Despite a crippling case of tendinitis that briefly kept her off the trail, Mahoney finished the pilgrimage in twenty-three days, meeting a diverse assortment of pilgrims along the way: a French lawyer who walked "to clear [her] head" after volunteering in Kosovo; a belligerent, drunk Brazilian who enraged Mahoney with insults in a crowded restaurant; an enigmatic young Spanish woman with a stone face and an iron will.

In Varanasi, Mahoney befriended a sage, sober sixteen-year-old named Jaga, seemingly an anomaly in that desperate city of hustlers and beggars. He became Mahoney's unofficial guide, leading her through scenes of poverty and sickness to witness ritual cremations and to consult with a guru (Goldie Hawn's spiritual adviser, apparently), who told her, "You are always eshpending money and no controlling with problem of drug life." In Israel, Mahoney rowed her inflatable rubber dinghy across the peaceful Sea of Galilee, spending a fraught night on a deserted shore near the town of Gergesa, where Jesus was said to have exorcised demons from a madman. And at St. Patrick's Purgatory on Ireland's Lough Derg, she spent more than twenty-four arduous hours fasting and praying, repeating the complicated prayer sequences until her limbs felt paralyzed and the ground appeared to sway beneath her.

Throughout her travels Mahoney maintained a critical eye and a keen ear, gaining newfound respect for both the worshippers who are so often ridiculed and the places that draw them year after year. As she walked the paths so many had walked before her, touched the walls and the hills revered by millions, and contemplated the difficulties of faith in the modern world, she began to make peace with her own troubled uncertainties and to understand the sense of connection people seek as they grasp for their own small piece of religious history. "It seemed to me that pilgrimage was an effort to see and touch things that were part of a story that had lodged in the mind," she muses, "a story that explained the purpose of life."

To accompany Rosemary Mahoney on her amazing journey is both a privilege and a delight. Impressively researched and exquisitely written, full of insight, adventure, and emotion, The Singular Pilgrim is a captivating work by a writer to treasure.

About the Author

Rosemary Mahoney is the author of The Early Arrival of Dreams, a New York Times Notable Book in 1990; Whoredom in Kimmage, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 1994; and A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman. She won the Charles E. Horman Prize for Fiction Writing as an undergraduate at Harvard and is also the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award.

A Conversation with Rosemary Mahoney

Q) This book explores not only the spiritual journeys of pilgrims around the world, but also your own conflicted feelings about God and Catholicism, the religion of your childhood. What conclusions about your personal belief did you draw, if any?

A) When I was younger I always thought that true belief was something that should come as an epiphany. I myself never had an epiphany about God, so I thought there was something slightly wrong with me. Visiting so many places of pilgrimage helped me understand the nature of my half-belief, helped me see that faith in God never exists without doubt or a struggle of some kind, that many people who call themselves faithful have just as many doubts as I do. From day to day I'm still uncertain as to whether I actually believe in God, but I do have an increasing faith in the power of the human soul.

Q) Each of the pilgrimages you embarked upon was venerated by a different religion. What did the pilgrims you met have in common — regardless of faith?

A) The pilgrims I met had in common curiosity, recognition of their vulnerability, and a certain determined conviction to respond to their own awe or reverence for the divine.

Q) On the Camino de Santiago, you found that many of the people you met were undergoing the pilgrimage for reasons other than religion: to clear the mind, to do something different. Was this the case on other pilgrimages as well? Do you think that embarking on a pilgrimage with secular motivations somehow tarnishes the purity of the experience?

A) The people I met were engaging in pilgrimage for all sorts of reasons, not all of them strictly religious. This was particularly true on the Camino de Santiago and at Walsingham, where the experiences lent themselves to spectacle and adventure. I don't think that engaging in a pilgrimage with a secular intent "tarnishes" the experience per se — it simply takes it out of the realm of the strictly religious and places it in a looser context. In the end, most pilgrimages — travels to traditionally holy places — no matter how irreligious or distracted the pilgrim, have some form of spirituality at their core. Medieval European pilgrims who traveled to Ireland's St. Patrick's Purgatory (where it was claimed one could get a glimpse of the afterlife) went chiefly out of curiosity about purgatory. It was as much an adventure as a religious experience. They wanted to see the reported fantastical sight for themselves, much the way tourists go to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful. Spirituality expresses itself in many varied ways, and over the centuries pilgrims have (rightly, I think) adapted traditional experiences to the needs and pressures of the present. The question may be: How closely does an individual need to fit his spiritual beliefs to the rituals and traditions of an organized religion? A person intent on the physical challenge of walking five hundred miles on the Camino de Santiago is engaging in a test of will and stamina that thousands of people have engaged in before him. It's likely that some spiritual insight may be gained in that endeavor. Spirituality is concerned with the meaning and purpose of the soul in relation to the world. Any form of sincere reflection on that could be called spiritual.

Q) What would you consider the most bizarre moment in your travels?

A) The most bizarre moment was being turned away by El Al Airlines before a flight from Bombay to Tel Aviv because my profile supposedly fit that of a terrorist.

Q) What moment came closest to encapsulating the spiritual connection you were seeking?

A) There were two moments that I found quite moving. The first was the night I spent camped out on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee after rowing across from Tiberias. Being all alone and isolated outdoors in a place where Jesus certainly had been made me feel distinctly his significance both as a historical figure and as a human being. The second moment came at the end of my second day at St. Patrick's Purgatory after I had stayed awake for thirty-six hours, barefoot, praying, and fasting. I was particularly moved by the willingness of the two hundred other pilgrims to go through this extreme and excruciating ritual in honor both of God and of the penitential history of the place.

Q) Jaga, the sixteen-year-old boy who became your guide in Varanasi, is a particularly compelling character in the book. Have you kept in touch with him? What do you see in his future?

A) I received several letters from Jaga in the year following my 1999 visit to Varanasi, and I wrote him several letters in return. But since then I haven't heard from him. Jaga was uncertain about his own age, but according to his estimate, he would be nearly twenty years old now. When I was with him in Varanasi, I liked to imagine that he would go to school and perhaps to university and that he would do something creative and constructive with his great intelligence and wit. But the opportunities for him in Varanasi seemed quite limited, and the chance that he would end up being a tour guide or hustling tourists for local businesses along the Ganges was high. What seemed to separate Jaga from the other boys who spent their days on the Varanasi ghats was his understanding that there was a world beyond the tourist industry in which he had been raised. I think that awareness might have pushed him to expand his world.

Q) Many people in the book express surprise that you were traveling alone. Were there times when you wished you were traveling with a companion?

A) I like traveling alone, and I find that my awareness is sharper when I'm on my own. But there were indeed many moments in my travels when I wished that I had a friend with whom to discuss the various things I had seen. I do think that when the focus of the travel is spiritual, traveling alone may be the best way to go. It's easier to think and reflect when you're alone. I talked to myself out loud a great deal while researching this book.

Q) In the section on the Holy Land — Israel and Palestine — you visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where two years later the Israeli army would hold a group of Palestinians hostage for thirty-nine days. What thoughts went through your head when that siege made headlines?

A) I watched the siege of the Church of the Nativity on the evening news with the same horror, astonishment, and disappointment as the rest of the world. Such murderous fighting taking place on the spot where Jesus was purportedly born seemed a cruel irony and the measure of how far we have strayed from Christ's great message of peace. It also struck me as terribly sad that such fighting is nothing new. People have been fighting over the Church of the Nativity for centuries.

Q) You spent a great deal of time following in Jesus Christ's footsteps, trying to picture what he was like as a human being. Did your efforts bring you closer to Christ?

A) Following in Jesus' footsteps, visiting the historical places he visited himself definitely did bring me closer to him. It's easy to perceive Jesus in purely mythological terms, but seeing the sights he saw, rowing on the Sea of Galilee, standing by the well in Nazareth, made him a great deal more real to me, and more human. It's his humanity that I admire.

Q) Your book features many competing moments of spectacle and humility. How does one manage to find honesty in a lavish, tourist-driven production such as that at Lourdes?

A) The institution of Lourdes is quite a machine. The honesty and integrity there come with those pilgrims who visit the shrine with a rather pure intent in their hearts.

Q) After your six widely disparate experiences, what have you learned about why people are so drawn to pilgrimages in the first place? What are they looking for?

A) It's easy for human beings to feel vulnerable and insignificant in the face of universal and scientific facts. We don't really know why we're born, we live for a short period of time, and when we die we have no idea what happens afterward. The search for God is obviously an attempt to find some meaning and purpose in a condition that can feel a bit random and pointless. Religion and the belief in a being more powerful than we offers some narrative explanation for our existence. Since God doesn't appear to show himself in a direct, straightforward fashion, we have — since the beginning of recorded history — devised our own ways of communicating with him. Pilgrimage to a holy place is a very pointed effort to seek or recognize the ways that God may be manifested on earth.

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