A Conversation with Phil Cousineau

Documentary Filmmaker, Author and Travel Leader to Sacred Sites

Documentary filmmaker and travel leader to sacred sites and author of The Art of Pilgrimage.

Q. What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation?
A. Vacationers have a deep desire to empty their minds on pleasure trips that are essentially about being entertained. Tourists generally travel to acquire, shop and eat, and might be compared to passive voyeurs. Such trips can leave people feeling empty, or worse, shattered and depleted.

Pilgrims remain fully involved while on their sojourn and constantly remind themselves of their spiritual intentions. They rarely go empty-handed, taking small gifts to leave behind at the sacred sites they visit. Individuals returning from a pilgrimage to a sacred place, such as Jerusalem or the legendary Spanish road to Santiago, tend to come home feeling rejuvenated and revitalized. That’s because they’ve devoted quality time to centering their thoughts on what nourishes them and recharges their spiritual battery.

Q. Why do people make spiritual pilgrimages?
A. I see the increasing number of people making pilgrimages as a direct response to the mechanical aspects of modern life. Most suffer from mounting pressures in their lives. Many feel burdened by the effort to keep up with the news. All of this causes people to shut down emotionally and spiritually.

Just as in heliotropism, by which plants naturally turn toward the light, when the soul feels depleted, it will spontaneously turn toward the Light, and the individual will feel an urging from within to make a meaningful journey.

Q. How do pilgrimages generally begin?
A. In my experience, most pilgrimages are precipitated by a spiritual crisis. Many begin with a feeling of wanting to pay respect, give thanks, do penance or renew a weak relationship with the Divine.

A pilgrimage might begin with a sacred vow, like the one I made to my father. To honor him, ten years after his death I traveled to Cambodia with my brother. I felt my father’s presence while I was there, viscerally, in dreams and even as a hand on my shoulder. 

Q. Why are some sites considered sacred?
A. The Irish believe that in certain places the separation between the physical and spiritual worlds is extremely thin. Pilgrims will pray at sacred sites and mingle there because they believe that they are standing on holy ground, a place where they can sense the presence of ancient saints and heroes, as well as prayers of earlier pilgrims. Some believe that prayers at these sites are more accessible to God.

Q. How do you suggest readers prepare for a pilgrimage?
A. Begin by meeting with an elder, such as a priest, pastor, rabbi or spiritual counselor. Declare your decision to take a spiritual journey and share your intention for the pilgrimage. This constitutes a commitment, which begins to make the journey real.

Also talk with others who have been there before you. Read books about the site, culture and history of the sacred location in order to become sensitive and receptive to seeing and noticing things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Careful preparation provides a mental buffer against the many modern distractions present, from souvenir sellers to the Palm Pilots and laptops that visitors carry with them, even to such sacred sites as Lourdes and Fatima.

Q. How can pilgrims make the most of their journey?
A. Begin each day by praying five minutes, reading sacred literature and doing what I call active imagination work. Remind yourself daily of your intention. During the first few days of any journey, a sense of torpor and restlessness can overtake the soul, which if you’ve flown, is still lagging behind. Dawdle and let it catch up. By all means refrain from turning on CNN and opening up the laptop before breakfast.

Q.  Does one actually need to travel to a sacred site to experience a transformative pilgrimage?
A.  No. Whatever and whoever is worthy of your reverence, respect and admiration can provide an opportunity and vehicle for a transformative experience. For example, I once made a pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, because I wanted to honor him as the first author in my boyhood who inspired me to become a writer. When you take it seriously, any spiritual or secular pilgrimage can evoke awe and wonder within.

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Related Article:  The Spiritual Pilgrimage

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