Were It Up to Me

Were It Up to Me August 14, 2023

This being a blog about pilgrimage as a way of life, it makes sense to head off on my next official venture, The Via Francigena.”  It is 2000 km from CanterburyRenaissance de la via Francigena en France to Rome, but I am only going 250 km this time.

Were it up to me,

I would go the whole way at once.  But life rarely affords such time when one has a spouse, a house, a family.  Thus I will do this in multiple stages.

The first lesson of pilgrim life it that it never entirely up to me.  To be a pilgrim is to meet the world as it is, not as you want it.   Were it up to me, lots of things would be different.

For those who cannot go on pilgrimage, reading about it is what they can do.  Which is why you read this blog.  But I am not alone here at Patheos.  They have just finished a list of the “The 100 Most Holy Places on Earth.” When I heard, what else could I do but check it out.  You should, too.

Were it up to me,

they would not have it in countdown order, suggesting that places get holier as you get to#1.  This practice, of creating a ‘top one hundred’ leading up to the best book, game, song, movie, etc. began back in 1955 with the first “Billboard Top One Hundred Songs” but the concept goes back at least to 1913, according to Billboard Magazine.  That idea caught on beyond music, obviously.  Bot how can one rank religious value using a commercial metric?  To be fair, the author, Travis Henry does say on the intro page to the list:

We are acutely aware that the evaluation of holiness is up for debate and inherently intertwined with subjectivity.  For some, No. 95 on the list could be a person’s No. 1 and vice versa. Personally, I hold dear a small bedroom in a suburban house where I first fell to my knees as a little boy and talked to God.  This cherished space won’t make the list. And I’m OK with that.

Were it up to me…

I would have listed them alphabetically to remove any suggestion of comparative holiness.  And it might have to be larger than 100.  That said, it is worth visiting the page and the list.  Many were known to me, nearly as many unknown.  Some are all but impossible to visit now, but of those listed I have visited 21 and hope to see about a dozen more.

I did notice that of the top twenty I have visited thirteen.  Several will remain unseen – Mecca, Mt. Sinai, Angkor Wat, and Badrinath temple, are either off limits or too remote to undertake.  Two are of no interest to me – the Church of the Nativity and the Garden Tomb.  Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, and the Garden Tomb is far from authentic as well/

Now, the criteria include ‘popularity’ for pilgrims, and those sites get plenty.  If holiness is what people ascribe to a place, that matters.  But as the list was curated by one BYU professor, wholly educated and expert in the Mormon tradition, and otherwise based on statistics such as visits, I would argue for some rearranging and reassigning.

Were it up to me…

I would choose not one guide, but several people  and from various religious traditions and well as historic fields.  For example while there are many Buddhist and Hindu sites on the list, along with many Christian ones, there are three Mormon sites and only two Jewish sites and only three Islamic sites.  Really?

The synagogues of Toledo are pretty powerful, and Bet She’arim, where the father of the Talmud was buried around which a town grew up in the first centuries CE, and one could make the case that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a holy site however terrible the reason.  Three easy candidates right there.  Medina, Imam Ali Mosque, Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, are just the easiest Islamic sites to mention.  Why not Stonehenge, Avebury, The Ellora Caves, Tai Shan, Qufu?

I sound harsh, which is not my intent at all.  But as you may have sensed, I bring a skeptical eye to any “top ten” or “top one hundred” list.  They are legion (get the joke there?) and always have a bias.  Just this week I listened to a podcast critiqueing a computer aggregated “Top One Hundred Books” which was pretty good except that there were so many that were equal to those on the list.  And you have to admit choosing the Proust as Number One is ultimately personal, no matter how learned the opinion for the same reasons Mr. Henry notes.

My last criticism is that it focuses on the place not the visit.  I shall, in time, share my moments among those on the list and those not.  But

Were it up to me…

I would focus less on the sites and more on the rewards of going to any of these places, or better.  Yes, there is some pleasure in arriving, of saying to yourself, “Been there, done that.”  But often the journey outshines the end (looking at you, Machu Picchu).  There are some Basho And I Take A Long Walk by [W. Frederick Wooden] fine books, better than anything I can write, right here.  They can lure you away from the destination and to the journey.  The decision, the planning, the going, the effort and frustration and confusion and disappointment and discovery are all part of what makes a place sacred.  The holiness is in the place, but you also bring it with you, like the shinto Kumano Kodo I traversed, where you stop along the way and perform rituals of reverence and purity on the way to the destination.

That’s why I am about “Pilgrim Life,” which means trying to bring the pilgrim spirit to every day.  Mind, I have not succeeded yet.  You could say I am still on my way to being a pilgrim.  Were it up to me, so would we all.

And yes, I bought the T-shirts.



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