A fascinating development has been occurring in Russia of late. A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate estimates that the number of pilgrims that have come to venerate the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra that arrived just a couple of weeks ago has surpassed the half million mark. Now, the relics of St. Nicholas were brought back to Russia in late May as part of an agreement made by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill during their visit together last year in Havana. It’s the first time the relics have been moved from the Italian city of Bari in nearly a thousand years. And the Russian faithful seem to appreciate the rarity of this event. Organizers for the display of the relics estimate that anywhere from 18,000 to 48,000 pilgrims visit Christ the Savior Cathedral (where the relics are housed) every single day, and that the line can stretch for 3 kilometers, which is nearly two miles. The average time for standing in line is about nine hours. And of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first to venerate these sacred relics.
In reading about this sea of pilgrims, it made me think of a wonderful article by the political theologian William Cavanaugh entitled “Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age.” Cavanaugh argues that the classical notion of the Christian pilgrim is a radically powerful response to globalization.
In making this observation, he brings up the notion of the modern tourist. What is a tourist? A tourist is one who is generally, first and foremost, a vacationer. This is highly significant because we need to ask: what precisely is he or she vacating? And the answer of course is their jobs; their employment; the vacation is in effect a temporary reprieve from the daily grind of the professions and the necessities of producing money.
But it wasn’t always this way. We forget that the origins of tourism stretch back to the medieval pilgrimage which was situated within a thoroughly moral sense of life; and in this sense, the pilgrim wasn’t vacating the necessities of life; the pilgrim instead was embracing the necessity of his or her life in communion with God. There was nothing particularly vacating about a pilgrimage.
But over time, as Cavanaugh points out, particularly in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, we see a shift away from penitence as a motivation for travel, replaced with business concerns and pursuits of pleasure. And so, along with the rise of the modern age and global capitalist systems, the purpose of a vacation was not so much to pursue spiritual or moral growth; the purpose of vacation was to unwind, to relax, to counter the tensions we experience in modern life; it’s the means by which we take a break from the mundane repetitiveness of the secular professions.
Cavanaugh notes that in the ancient world, travel symbolized life’s journey, particularly the notions of fate and necessity; in the modern world, however, travel symbolizes one’s freedom and escape from the daily grind of the necessities of producing money. And so Cavanaugh sees the quest to transcend the necessities of the material conditions of life as the heart of modern tourism.
In many respects, tourism is a substitute for religion in the modern age; people travel to exotic places to experience a sense of life’s authenticity and beauty which overcomes the discontinuities and artificialities of modern life. And globalism has radically capitalized on this. Today, tourism is such a part of our globalized world that it has become a mass industry that thrives off of this democratization of travel through the widespread access to money and to free time, or better, freed time. The very fact that we are able to go to so many different places as tourists fully accommodated for in our every need suggests that the tourist is far more than a man in plaid Bermuda shorts; as Cavanaugh puts it, the tourist is the aesthetic of globalism; he is the embodiment of a world economic system – devoid of any borders or frontiers or cultural identities – that seeks to turn every square inch of this world into a consumable experience.
Now the Christian pilgrim stands in stark contrast to the vacationing tourist. Again, even though tourism originated from pilgrimages, the differences between the two belie any causal relationship.
For example, pilgrims were not trying to find freedom from necessity but were rather trying to respond rightly to the necessity of their destiny in God. And so humility is the essential virtue or characteristic of the pilgrim. And as a result of pilgrimages to holy sites in the medieval period, a whole web of philanthropic networks such as sanctuaries, hospices, and monasteries, were set up by the church to assist parishioners on their spiritual journey. So in many respects, the secularization of say the hospital corresponds to the secularization of the traveler.
But even more to the point, as Cavanaugh notes, pilgrims journey toward the center of their world, while vacationers journey away from the center of their world. The pilgrim moves toward the source of blessing, while the tourist moves away from that source only to enjoy its fruits devoid of that source. The pilgrim affirms the world in the holy site he or she is visiting, while the tourist desires to escape the world. Note that the pilgrim welcomes fellow pilgrims as part of the communion of the experience, while the tourist regards other tourists often with disdain.
And so, if Cavanaugh is right, and I think he is, that Christian pilgrimages are indispensable resources for combating the secularizing habits and assumptions, arrangements and practices of globalization, then with this mass turnout to venerate the relics of Saint Nicholas, Russia is once again demonstrating itself to be a distinctively Christian nation that is rising from the compost of secular decay.