Pilgrimage: A Therapy of Distance
I’ve discovered an author of the highest rank in Peter Brown – his The Cult of the Saint is a masterful study of the character and evolution of saint cults in late antiquity. The clarity, perceptiveness, and synthetic force of his ideas is beautifully conveyed throughout.
I was so struck by this characteristic observation on the nature of the pilgrimage that I had to share it with you:
The cult of relics … gloried in particularity. Hic locus es: “Here is the place,” or simply hic, is a refrain that runs through the inscriptions on the early martyrs’ shrines of North Africa. The holy was available in one place, and in each such place it was accessible to one group in a manner in which it could not be accessible to anyone situated elsewhere.
By localizing the holy in this manner, late-antique Christianity could feed on the facts of distance and on the joys of proximity. This distance might be physical distance. For this, pilgrimage was the remedy. As Alphonse Dupront has put it, so succinctly, pilgrimage was “une thérapie par l’espace.” The pilgrim committed himself or herself to the “therapy of distance” by recognizing that what he or she wished for was not to be had in the immediate environment. Distance could symbolize the needs unsatisfied, so that, as Dupront continues, “le pèlerinage demeure essentiellement départ”: pilgrimage remains essentially the act of leaving. But distance is there to be overcome; the experience of pilgrimage activates a yearning for intimate closeness. For the pilgrims who arrive after the obvious “therapy of distance” involved by long travel found themselves subjected to the same therapy by the nature of the shrine itself. The effect of “inverted magnitudes” sharpened the sense of distance and yearning by playing out the long delays of pilgrimage in miniature. For the art of the shrine in late antiquity is an art of closed surfaces. Behind these surfaces, the holy lay, either totally hidden or glimpsed through narrow apertures. The opacity of surfaces heightened an awareness of the ultimate unattainability in this life of the person they had traveled over such wide spaces to touch.
Brown P. The Cult of the Saints. The University of Chicago Press. 1981. pp. 86-7.