What is Gained From an Unlikely Pilgrimage
As summer comes to a close, travelers are shaking sand out of their selfie-sticks, packing up their beach reads, and plastering self-satisfied smiles at their Instagram vacations. The thought to describe their vacations as “pilgrimages” is not likely to occur. In fact, a pilgrimage might seem like something from another era.
But that is the subject of Al Regnery’s latest book, “Unlikely Pilgrim.” Regnery is a long-time Washington, D.C. denizen more likely to be associated with publishing houses and exclusive dinners with national and international leaders than contemplative travel. Over the course of spending half a century in politics, he has written well-regarded books about the history of conservatism and is associated with presidents and diplomats.
But in his latest book, Regnery sets all that aside for more profound pursuits—reflection, the state of his soul, and, as he describes it, an opportunity for the “unruffled contemplation of God.”
Over 11 summers, Regnery takes several unique trips with his friend and traveling companion, Nick. Perhaps because of Nick’s training in theology, or merely in spite of it, their travels take on far deeper ramifications than simple sight-seeing tours.
Guided by Nick’s deep knowledge of religious history (which spans Anglicanism to Islam), and Regnery’s search for a spiritual home (raised Quaker, he eventually became Catholic), the two visit the oldest surviving Christian church in the world, villages where people still speak Aramaic (the language spoken by Christ), sit overtop of where the Nicene Creed was hammered out to save the Roman Empire by establishing Christianity as the state religion, and view where St. Paul established the first church in Europe, among many other meaningful sites.
In one memorable trip, the two apply for visas to visit the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos, which limits foreign visitors to ten non-Orthodox men a day (up from five, when Regnery visited; women have not been allowed since the 9th century).
In between the six hours a day that they are in mass, the monks spend time in the 10th century Greek monastery of Xenophontos. Rengery spoke with Damianos, formerly a doctor in Queens where he was raised, who is now a monk on Mount Athos—which, by the way, means “haven for those who seek salvation.” He describes his job as “hav[ing] no equal. All day, every day, I know that God is watching me, and I try to assure myself that everything I do is for Him.”
The monks of the Holy Mountain in Athos carry on thousand-year-old traditions, finding peace in the face of arduous work and nothing in the way of property. As one abbot has described it, a monk there is “happy because he has nothing, but he has everything.”
The theme of their first pilgrimage is a thread through those that follow.
In Normandy and Brittany, the two contemplate the demise of Christianity in one of its former strongholds. The opposite is true in their travels through Romania, where they find the monasteries overflowing with monks and nuns—a normal response to the excesses of the formerly Communist state, an abbot tells them.
Their travels through Syria take on a poignant note when the Christian ruins and artwork they visit—and which Regnery describes—become an unintentional memorial. ISIS, and civil war in Syria, has destroyed them all.
There are parallels between Regnery’s book—written as a man in middle-age—and Elizabeth Gilbert’s millennial blockbuster “Eat, Pray, Love,” which she wrote on her own pilgrimage of sorts at the age of 34. But where Gilbert seeks to find herself in a single year dedicated to pleasure and meditation, Regnery’s 11 pilgrimages take on a far more profound and expansive note.
A sense of history, the very real physicality of covering hundreds of miles on foot, and pondering the deep, fundamental questions about what drives us collectively and individually pepper the pages of what is simultaneously a travel memoir and a tribute to the very human search for meaning.
As a millennial who is constantly in search of the deeper things, I admit to reading Regnery book on the beach, in Bermuda (as I went to write this review, sand dropped from between the book’s pages).
It was a welcome respite from Twitter, my news alerts, a backlog of emails, and a stack of breaking news, political “must reads.” In fact, it was a welcome reminder of what Russell Kirk calls “the permanent things” that give life meaning.
Travel once was, and still can be, associated with self-discovery, inevitably more valuable than what is memorialized in an Instagram post. For your next trip, use Al Regnery’s travels as an example. Pack walking shoes, a backpack, and a journal. If Regnery’s example is anything to go by, the benefits will last far longer than a Snapchat story.