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Phil Cousineau’s “The Art of Pilgrimage” Essay

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Updated: Dec 7th, 2021

The first word that strikes my attention in this book about pilgrimage is see. Phil teaches us to see or how to see the world because that is one of a pilgrimage’s objectives – seeing. He said that we should imagine ourselves like the peripatetics of Aristotle. Those artists walked through and fro in front of a live audience – their students actually – and motioned or acted and described what art is all about. They are acting and living art; pilgrimage is acting and living art, too.

Moreover, as we go on and discover the meaning and objectives of pilgrimage, we will realize we are dealing with a different kind of art: the art of seeing what is sacred.

“What legendary travelers have taught us since Pausanius and Marco Polo is that the art of travel is the art of seeing what is sacred.” (XXIII)

This essay is not a book review, although we are basing it on the many passages of The Art of Pilgrimage, but rather a reflection and insights on pilgrimage while taking some valuable and spiritual ideas of Phil Cousineau on pilgrimage, and also adding a few of my personal reflections and experiences on spiritual journeys or pilgrimage.

Phil suggests on how we should conduct our own pilgrimage. Look out to the world, visit those places, but never missing seeing them as if you are an artist, describing the beauty and magnificence of those wonders in the world. Every beautiful thing in the world is a wonder. This and many things about pilgrimage are what we can learn and appreciate in The Art of Pilgrimage.

The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation, but to avoid the call of our senses; meaning it is not the call of the physical or material desires of the body but the spiritual needs that we are addressing. In pilgrimage, we are not resting, we are exerting efforts actually for our souls. We are serving our soul’s desires. First, we prepare for our journeys; later, we realize they have become pilgrimage, and then that’s the time we realize they are spiritual.

What really brings us to travel? What do we get of going abroad or somewhere away from our usual and ordinary activities? What do we get of ‘punishing’ ourselves, climbing on foot – “a rough, wild path in a landscape where everything is new?”

Pilgrimage is the kind of journeying that marks just this move from mindless to mindful, soulless to soulful travel.” (XXIII)

We find what material things can not deliver in a pilgrimage, but maybe nothing – if we haven’t appreciated the “art of the pilgrimage.” There are so many things, not physical, not material, that we get from it. It’s like a gravitational force pulling us towards that place we haven’t been in our lives. Pilgrimage is actually stopping but not relaxing from the rigors of daily life. We are journeying to places we haven’t been or returning back to places that have captivated our souls. A pilgrimage is searching for our soul, and what our soul really wants, or what it has missed all this time.

As Huston Smith says in his Foreword, “Travel brings a special kind of wisdom if one is open to it. At home or abroad, things of the world pull us toward them with such gravitational force that, if we are not alert our entire lives, we can be sucked into their outwardness.”

The many great places of the world, as far as Phil’s pilgrimage book is concerned, are not found in cities with gigantic building of marbles and palaces, but in the ruins of old cities, in the rural villages of Thailand, India, Japan, or the Philippines, or in the forbidden areas of Cambodia, Burma, and China. This is where you find places untouched by time and sacred to their people who know how to fill the souls’ desires.

Pilgrimage is one of Phil’s loves all his life. Even when he was a newly born babe, his parents bundled him and drove straight from the army hospital where he was born at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, to Detroit, where he grew up.

His family believed travel is good for the mind and soul. They used to take trips to museum, homes of inventors, and tombs of famous authors. But one of his most memorable trips as a child was to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He was able to take a visit on the hallowed ground where his favorite game was first played, and took a chance to see the great relics of baseball, like Babe Ruth’s bat, Ty Cobb’s spikes, and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s glove.

He was raised in a French Catholic home outside Detroit, and was comfortable with the notion of following in the footsteps of writers, painters, even ballplayers. As a young man, Phil was privileged to “recreate” the old Grand Tour of Europe “tramping over the cobblestones and riding the rails of the Old World for six glorious months.” This awakened his soul, or in his words, “lit a fire in my soul”; he was immersed in his travel which was so meaningful to him that he sent a telegram to his family telling them that he wasn’t coming home for a long while.

“If we truly want to know the secret of soulful travel, we need to believe that there is something sacred waiting to be discovered in virtually every journey.” (p. XXII)

His own words can explain the longings of his heart and soul: “To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, I longed to travel deliberately, to encounter the ‘essential things’ of history, venture somewhere strange and unknown, ancient and elemental.”

Phil had longed to see the sphinx of Egypt or the world of the pharaohs, or to have a glimpse of ancient mystery. He was told by an Egyptian friend on the eve of his departure to Egypt that “making a pilgrimage was a way to prove your faith and find answers to your deepest questions.” Though he was struck by the word pilgrim and pilgrimage, for they were new to him at that time, it came to him that man really has to make a pilgrimage, that we are not permanent residents of this world, but pilgrims and passers-by.

Indeed, as many of world religions would say we are just passing by, we are all going home to that ‘place’ God has prepared for us. We are all going home to our ‘final, resting home’. This material world is a temporary world; it is not our home.

“To people the world over, pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing, or even to perform a penance. Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one with purpose has no soul.” (p. xxiii)

Then Phil, as he now successfully came to Egypt, and explored the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, came across a group of Bedouins sitting in the shade of towering date trees, who invited him to sit with them. One of them told his story of his being able to participate in the excavations of the temple grounds, and they all did it with their bare hands. Phil was reminded of his father’s stories about Herodotus and Pausanius who traveled in those temples. As he watched the pyramids and the Bedouins, he felt a stillness and a timelessness that he had longed for. It was only then that he felt utterly happy. In his journey to ancient historical and biblical places, which his Egyptian friend called pilgrimage, he felt he was at the crossroads in his life and seeking answers.

This book is divided into seven valuable parts or stages which all contribute to the meaning of life and pilgrimage. Phil Cousineau is a pilgrim artist – I can say. In this work, he is able to incorporate the art of writing and actual experience. His experiences as a world traveler to exciting and wonderful spots and his versatility in the written word are effectively proven in this book.

Phil says that the art of Pilgrimage “signals the skill of personally creating your own journey, and the daily practice of slowing down and lingering, savoring, and absorbing each of its stages.” Figuratively, in life we have to slow down a bit of what we are working, of what we are immersed about. We have to contemplate on the things that are not common in our lives, and these are the spiritual things, those that give meaning to our existence, and other things that we cannot see but we can feel through our spiritual actions.

Phil became inspired by the pilgrims’ stories of the Canterbury Tales. Long ago when people took pilgrimages as a religious responsibility, or to fulfill certain religious practices, they would travel to religious sites, and along the way, they would listen to stories – real inspiring stories that touched the hearts.

Additionally, Phil’s stage of his pilgrimage is filled with questions and answers, but also inspiring suggestions. He says, “Each state of my trek through the Mediterranean for the next year became imbued with the spirit of pilgrimage in which I was aware, as never before, of traveling back in time in search of the sacred, to places where the gods shined forth, to holy ground that blazed with meaning.” (p. XX)

Providing a background for the Art of Pilgrimage, he quoted some Biblical events about pilgrimage. The earliest traveler was Abraham who made the earliest recorded pilgrimage when he left Ur 4,000 years ago upon God’s promise that he was going to multiply his descendants as multitude as the sand and the stars in the heavens. His descendants Moses, Paul, and Mohammed also made their own sacred journeys. The Israelites journeyed from Egypt, passing through the Red Sea, to the Promised Land. Biblical events tell us of pilgrimages. The three main religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – all have their own ‘destined journeys’ and pilgrimages. Their followers made these same pilgrimages to commemorate those pilgrimages, and to fill their souls with spiritual inspirations. These religions have one and simple lesson: we are only journeying on earth; simply, we are pilgrims. Someday – anytime – we all go home after a long pilgrimage.

As early as the fourth and fifth centuries, people from all walks of life left their villages to journey to the Holy Land, to “follow” the footsteps of Christ, or take upon themselves as personal sacrifice, to fill their souls with “heavenly manna” as they journey for a sacrifice. Followers of Islam – or the Muslims as they are popularly called – also take on the road to fulfill the hajj to Medina and Mecca to commemorate what the prophet Mohammed had done centuries ago. The Irish too have their own pilgrimage called turas in going to the shrines of saints and ancient Celtic heroes. Other pilgrimages which can not be considered spiritual but whose objectives are said to be ‘uplifting’ to the spirit are travels done by lovers of philosophy and poetry in going to the shrines of classical writers in Athens, Ephesus, Alexandria, and to the tombs of Dante, Virgil, and so on.

The Medieval times were filled with pilgrimages. They were so popular that religious devotees traveled regularly to holy sites like Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, or Canterbury. Thus the famous Canterbury Tales was born. Reading materials and literature, not on pilgrimage itself, but on various interesting topics were being brought by pilgrims as sort of entertainment along the way. There was an indispensable book for the pilgrims, and this was The Pilgrim’s Guide which combined inspiration and references, and which is regarded as a model for the present guidebooks on pilgrimages. The Pilgrim’s Guide featured sights, shrines, and people, and other important information for the pilgrims to know and which they would encounter along the way. Phil says The Art of Pilgrimage is modeled on the traditional Pilgrim’s Guide.

He provides this inspiration on why we should travel:

“As the Sufi mystic Mevlana Rumi wrote seven centuries ago, ‘Don’t be satisfied with the stories that come before you; unfold your own myth.’ His poetic brother here in the West, Walt Whitman, put it this way: ‘Not I – not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it yourself.” (XXVIII)

Such is the urge and longing for us to travel; meaning it has to be experienced personally because we cannot get the real feel of it if we just read it or hear of it from others.

In journeys, you always search for wonders – wonders of the world that have been declared only by those who know how to appreciate real works of art; these are edifices and wonders touched only by Godly hands. Take for example Mekong River. This is a river that is not an ordinary channel of water – it spans several Asian countries, and a means of transportation bringing us to places where treasures of the past have been buried, and where Phil brings us in his book. Mekong River is itself a wonder bringing us to the other wonders, preserved by time and Godly intervention.

The Mekong River in Cambodia leads to the one of the great riddles of the ancient world – the walled city of Angkor Wat. Here our spirits witness to what Phil says as numerous marvels or “marvelous enigma” which can be considered as one of the Wonders of the World, and which can even rival inspired architecture of Solomon.

Other wonder sights requiring photographs are the nagas, “the five-headed stone serpents that undulated along the moat and of the chiseled lacework in the colossal gateway”. An encounter with a Buddhist nun was one of the memories of Phil’s stay at Angkor Thom. Here is a creature, a victim of the cruelty of war (the demonic Khmer Rough), poor, without a family, her head shaven, and without any worldly belonging, but who can give a hearty smile and a gaze with almost surreal serenity, and something that can let you feel that you belong to a family. She will let you feel that. This is one of those creatures our spirits want to gaze when we go to places we haven’t been. These are real human beings who have lived their lives seeking the longings of the soul, and which they have found even while still in their worldly bodies.

And Phil believes this is one of the objectives of pilgrimage. This is precisely the reason why Phil Cousineau has dedicated his life to going on pilgrimages, write books and produce documentaries about them. This is why Phil has found life in pilgrimage.

The Knock

Knock is always silent, especially it is a spiritual knock. When someone knocks at the door of our soul, we have to open right away, take hold of the opportunity. Else you lose the opportunity and it will never come back again.

Phil quotes a Biblical passage where Jesus said that we should knock and the door will be opened for us. Let’s see how Phil relates this knocking of the door to pilgrimage and travel.

Opportunity and great times for us only knock once in our lifetime. We have to take hold of it right away, “grab it swiftly”, because the moment is sweeping past. It is going away, and you may not have another chance. The knock is the opportunity, the luck, the time, the moment, that we have to take hold right away.

Phil tells us of “the moment of the knock” as personified by the Greeks as god Kairos who is “envisioned with winged feet and scepter, poised on a razor’s edge, left hand inches away from the scales of Fate. …He symbolizes chance, fortune, and synchronicity, which is another kind of knocking at the door.” (p. 37)

We have to grab and take hold, tightly, because fortune comes only once and may not pass our way again.

There are different kinds of ‘opportunity’ or fortune for different kinds of people, depending on their need and wants. Writers and poets usually bring with them a pen and paper to keep watch on their so-called “Muse” – or the inspiration to write an idea, poetry, or literature – that will come anytime of day or night, whatever they are doing. That Muse will come any moment but will just slip away right there and then.

Cousineau quotes Marlowe speaking in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on the subject of taking hold of opportunity. It was a vision from childhood when he said:

I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At the time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there. (pp. 37-38)

Such is the invitation to take hold of any opportunity that Phil wants of us to take action with much delay. Even in our own daydreaming, even in childhood, we have to do it, don’t lose the chance.

Phil’s pilgrimage brought him to Thailand. He took note of the beauty of the bells which were rung each morning and several times of the day from monasteries. These bells were used to call for prayers. Monks and Buddhists – whatever they were doing in their ordinary course of life – would pause and say something in meditation. They were taking hold of something – strength, guidance, opportunity, and then afterwards, they would continue again with what they have left a while ago.

In Capadocia, Turkey, five times a day there are calls from the muezzin to bring men and women to the mosque to pray. During the prayer, quiet and stillness would rule the land, and then moments after, they would come back to life, already revived and full of vigor. Christian churches still practice the traditional Angelus hour; that is at six o’clock in the evening, bells from Catholic churches ring to invite the faithful to pray the Angelus, and recite the prayer to the Virgin Mary.

All these tell us that there is “pounding” of the door, a knocking that we have to listen, or calling us from home. These are some of the things or graces that we encounter in a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a knocking of the door, some answer that we have given to the call from the soul.

There is a call or calling that we have to answer in our life. In school or at work, there are times that we tend to hear something from within, or from the events in our life, something tells to do this, but sometimes we refuse to heed the call.

Then our call to sacred journey also appear and give us that “ringing bell”, sometimes they just come at a “click” or snap of a finger. Phil says it doesn’t come by expectation. When we imagine that something is calling us, maybe an inner whisper from the subconscious, or a spiritual call from “heaven above”, we have to heed the call by listening. Listening can be had by “stillness”, and which has to be practiced, maybe constantly or regularly. Phil says, “Be still and quiet and you may be surprised what you start to hear.” We can practice more precisely or effectively if we do it in solitude. We have to do in a place that is sacred, where there are no disturbances. We can acquire a whole lot of meditation in solitude and great inner solitude. Phil quotes a poet, saying: What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.” (p. 39)

Being in solitude can give us a lot of spiritual benefits. It might also be the same as meditation in other sects. In this state, we can ask ourselves questions that pertain to our spiritual life, or even to our present state of life, and we can discover answers to questions, or inspirations. Problems can be solved through meditation.

The knock to be silent is an effective tool in this troubled world of high technology. We are living in a very materialistic world, with computers, cell phones, electronic gadgets, which many of us believe can answer to our life’s problems. But they don’t. They are simply material things that fade away or will be gone any moment.

Opportunities for our spiritual lives will also be gone if we don’t answer the call, or answer to the knock from the inside and from the outside. Our inner selves want to answer spiritual questions. God makes the call through pilgrimages. Bells from all over the world have been ringing for us to pause, make a meditation, contemplate, or pray, many times of the day.

The Calling Forth

Phil narrates his life at the University of Detroit where he studies but also worked at a factory at night. He studied with a scholarship but had to work and support his family which was separated by divorce.

During this time, he had a foreman who was an ex-Green Beret who always inspired him to keep going, to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, and to go out and see the world. This man used to tell him stories about the rock gardens of Kyoto, the bars of Singapore, the rice paddies of the Philippines, the cafés of Paris, and many other exciting stories about countries of the world. From then, he was inspired to have a dream of going to places, so that he wrote in his locker large swirling letters the names of the places he wanted to visit after his graduation.

That time in his young life was the period of calling for Phil Cousineau. He became inspired to pursue his dream, his profession, but his calling of going to places for a pilgrimage was always at the back of his mind. He made every effort to fulfill his plans; it became a lifelong obsession and he was successful in doing it.

The Art of Pilgrimage gives advises to pilgrims and travelers on what to do, what to bring, and what to expect when they reach their destination. Phil tells us to choose a theme to make our pilgrimage exciting and fulfilling.

We have to choose a theme. Phil’s favorite subjects are cobbled streets, brick roads, dirt roads, old Roman paved roads, and with these themes, we can know where we are going and what to do. A camera is a necessity for every travel. We have to take photographs or sketches, or write about them for reference, posterity, and physical beauty. Phil says that these are not only for physical beauty but they bring with them allegorical meanings, like for example “windows, doors, clouds, faces, children, café signs, bicycles, tilework, and bookstore facades.”

Phil goes on journeys with groups where he advises and guides. He says he gives exercises for the participants such as seeking out “one or two things that marshals the attention and seizes the imagination”.

He also encourages the participants to try to focus on details: “the doors of Dublin houses, Parisians with their dogs, roadside shrines in Turkey, tile patterns of Lisbon, the promenading rituals of Lisbon and Barcelona.” (p. 102)

All the activities should be accompanied with writing, drawing, photographing, and discussing what are present in the vicinities or what have caught the attention of the participants.

My Own Pilgrimage

In my life as a pilgrim here on earth, I know every thought, every deed, should be focused on something beyond, because pilgrimage is focused on something beyond, or the future, or the after-life – to be frank about it. We can not live here forever, that’s why we say we’re just passing by, and going to a place which is not the same as this material world, but which is more spiritual, religious, most probably the opposite of what we are doing here on earth. Perhaps, something immortal.

Only those who believe that man is a spiritual being – or man has a soul – believe in the religious motive of pilgrimage. But even if you do not believe in it – because you do not have to believe in the spirituality of pilgrimage – something will come to you, something will happen to you, once you are in there. You might be converted, or you could be transformed into a mature human being; you might probably be led to believe that man is also composed of an immortal soul, after you’ve gone to all those places. And which all these mean that going to places for a pilgrimage is in itself conversion. More than spiritual undertaking, it is conversion itself.

But we have to be careful, because as Phil says you might be one of those who will still long for more than what you have seen. You have to believe. You have to dig up what are behind in those relics, in those marvels of nature, and in those creations of man which have become ‘touched’ by Godly hands. This is all because there are hidden messages behind. God does not speak straight. Or, remembering one of those philosopher’s quotations, God works straight in crooked lines.

When Jesus preached and talked to his disciples, he talked in parables, in things only those who were destined to understand, so that only those who could grasp the real meaning can be saved. God has kept all these things to be hidden in the ordinary man’s understanding.

We are destined to understand, to know knowledge from God if only we go places, discover the world, be a ‘pilgrim on earth’, because God has given us all the necessary tools and methods so we will understand everything that he has taught us, everything that has been embodied in the Ten Commandments and the Bible, and all the Scriptures and writings of the prophets. He let us understand if we allow ourselves to understand; if we remain open, and exert efforts to be open, and if we go to places where these methods were laid open by his own Hands.

Why do we have to go to these places? Why don’t we remain in our homes, or churches, or communities, where we can meditate and pray, contemplate about life, read books and religious materials, instead of going to all those places, and risk our lives, spend our money and resources? Why?

That might be the opposite of the whole message of a pilgrimage. But why? The simple question can be answered with a simple situational answer. We all believe in God. If you are a Christian, you believe that Jesus Christ once set foot in the Holy Land, was born in a poor town called Nazareth, went to Jerusalem to preach, and everything that is said in the New Testament that you believe in. If you are a believer from a far-flung province of your country and you are poor, you can not go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But you still need to go on a pilgrimage, exert your efforts to go to the place, because it is different when you set foot on that place, feel or touch the places or the relics, and contemplate and pray in those places about your existence here on earth. It is really different, although it does not ruin your being a Christian.

It is also a matter of belief. Believers of Islam believe that they have to go on a pilgrimage – at least once in a lifetime – to the land where the prophet Mohamed had set foot. If you are an avid fan of poetry and other classics, going to the places where poets, musicians, and great men you admire, were born and had lived their lives, is more than admiring them.

Lastly – and this is a very personal belief which I think is a personal belief of our dear author and pilgrim Phil Cousineau – to be a pilgrim is to complete one’s existence here on earth.


Cousineau, Phil. The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred. California: Conari Press, 2000.

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