City on a Hill

This is a guest post by Mike Bennett, republished with permission from his blog Through a Glass, Brightly.

In the high Arctic there are mountains without names.

I’m flying from London to Vancouver and somewhere in Greenland there are ranges of hills far from anywhere, which must almost never have been gazed upon from the ground; mountains about which there are no legends about a giant who threw them there, no gods born in their flanks, no colossi striding them in times of old.

Now they are gazed upon by aircraft in their flight, as remote and untouchable as the random shapes of clouds.

I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the subject of pilgrimage, and here on a flight across the roof of the world seems a good time to catch up.

Why pilgrimage? We have seen how, shorn of all vestiges of religion, religions have a lot to offer. There is wisdom from self-appointed prophets and reluctant Messiahs. We may not believe what they believed, many of them may not have believed what they said they believed, and most of them certainly did not believe what later scholars claimed they believed. But in amongst the things they said and the things they are said to have said, there is gold – useful advice for living life; rules and principles by which to behave towards others; common precepts by which to order a society.

So we could ask ourselves for each of the things we find in those religions, whether there is some good in them.

And so to pilgrimage. What is it? Does it have any place in a world without mythical beings, saints and martyrs?

I was thinking about this while flying from Dulles Airport in Washington DC, up the Eastern Seaboard by night to London. Night fell and I had quickly lost sight of where we were, when we came upon a city, bright and abstract in the distance. There was no GPS but I knew we were due to fly past Philadelphia and New York before Boston. So this was probably Philly or New York. But there was something more than that. I was reminded of all those ancient Christian hymns about a City on a Hill, a New Jerusalem, a sort of ideal city.

The writer JRR Tolkien describes the effect he is trying for, as something akin to being on a ship and glimpsing a distant island. In your imagination the island is full of detail and promise. Tolkien wrote whole books describing the other side of the island, with the intention that no-one should read them. His aim was to provide just enough unseen detail, enough back story, that in the books he does want you to read, there is a sense of a broader world, a world unseen and unknown but very real.

So too with the mysterious city on the horizon. There was a sense in which it could be anywhere and nowhere, real or mythical. As long as I just looked at it from the window, like Tolkien’s distant island it was nothing more than an ideal.

Pilgrimage is the act of collapsing the space between the ideal and the real. A person grows up with stories and ideas of a city or a place, but the sense of what that place is really like in that person’s head is very different to the sense one would get from the place itself.

So when a person makes a journey to Jerusalem or Santiago or Kerbala, they are not just traveling to some religious place, to make some pointless gesture at some shrine. They are taking steps to inhabit, at least for a while, a place which occupies a very real amount of space in their heads.

So what would be the equivalent for those of us who acknowledge no gods and venerate no saints or sacred places? How do we visit the City on the Hill?

The answer seems almost trivial, but I am going to suggest it by way of example. Like many people, I have spent much of my life watching movies and reading books set in New York, without having been there. I considered, as I think many of us do, that I more or less knew what it was like as a city, what it would be like to visit. But of course when we visit a place for the first time that has occupied so much space in our imaginations, it is very different (as we knew it would be) but also different in a way that wasn’t how we thought it would be. For one thing, New York is at one and the same time both bigger and smaller than you thought. Taking a cab across the Queensborough Bridge, walking up a large part of Broadway or across the park, the scale is different to what you think.

My first visit to New York was in January 2002. The atrocity that was the Twin Towers was still fresh in everyone’s minds and the city was a sobering place to be. I was invited to a meeting in a skyscraper downtown, just off Wall Street, to present some ideas to some financial folks. I arrived at the airport late at night and took the subway to my cheap hotel on the Upper West Side. My hotel was one of those thirty bucks a night places where you get your own room but share bathrooms. The door had layers of history inside and out – a peephole, a tin can lid to cover it, paint on that and so on. There was a metal radiator that was too hot to touch, and a proper New York movie-style fire escape right outside the window.

My first real glimpse of New York was in the morning, making the commute alongside everyone else. I had wondered if all the buildings were tall or if some were shorter – things like that are hard to picture somehow. In the West Nineties the buildings were of stone, not skyscrapers at all, and all with that Florentine style of eaves that you see in the comic books and movies. Downtown (past subway stations just like in the movies) was another matter – these are all or mostly of glass and steel. After I had made my presentation I was loaned an office for the afternoon, where I could gaze down into the canyons and streets of New York just like you read about.

So that was my pilgrimage. I have been back many times since then, but there is something special about that first time – about going and occupying a space in the world of real places, that already occupied a space in one’s own mind.

Is pilgrimage the same for everyone? I remember one young chap from my political activist days, a member of a youth movement, who liked tough guy action books and movies. He had a couple of hours between flights in New York, and “of course” as he put it, he went to the Bronx to look at the places his heroes inhabited. That was his pilgrimage. I have never been to the Bronx.

So this is my suggestion: that for each of us, there are many places which we have built up a mental picture of in our minds – sometimes idealized, as a sort of city on a hill or some special Jerusalem, or sometimes maybe just somewhere that we think of as the place where our heroes lived, be they mythical or real. So go there. It might be New York or California, London or Cairo or Jerusalem. There will most probably be several places of pilgrimage for you. They may not be the same as they are for someone else.

I can’t quite put the reasons into words, but it seems to me there’s something good about being able to occupy our imaginative spaces, to claim the worlds of our myths as part of our reality.

Here’s what I would suggest: tourism may be a matter of going to all sorts of places and seeing interesting things that we may never have seen before. The Seven Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon – these are interesting places to see, but we may not have given them much thought. Also it’s very tempting to end up doing the tourist “thing”, crossing off places that everyone else has seen and that everyone in your peer group wants to be able to say they’ve seen. Pilgrimage is something quite different, something more personal. Find the places that occupy a space in your imagination (if you’re into intergalactic science fiction you might have a challenge – the best I can recommend is Arizona or Tunisia, or maybe Hollywood itself). Find your Jerusalem, your Makkah, your City on a Hill, and make a pledge to yourself that one day, whatever the circumstances life finds you in, you will make the effort to go there.

Also, and this is just an idea, but do what I did and go there as a real person not as a tourist. Find something to do that is part of the life of the place. Take no camera at least until later. You can use your camera to go back over places and find the best angles, the best framings of shots to show people the place that you live. But don’t use it as a surrogate for being there yourself. Don’t be like those tourists in London who try and walk right through you forgetting it is not some 3D experience. Be there yourself, situated in the place and living in the moment.

So that’s my idea. Pilgrimage as an observance which, shorn of its religious context and content, still has something to say to the modern secular humanist. Or indeed to anyone.

Your Thoughts?

This was a guest post by Mike Bennett. Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!