24: Pilgrimage

24: Pilgrimage

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles


As I make my slow pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery seems to gather and grow.

~Arthur Christopher Benson

Near the end of my fall semester abroad in Valparaíso, Chile, I was at an asado — a Chilean barbecue — with my host family. It was Sunday of a long weekend for a religious holiday celebrating the end of the month of the Virgin Mary. Until 2008, Chile had three national holidays honoring the Virgin Mary. This one was the Day of the Immaculate Conception.

Every year the holiday is celebrated with a pilgrimage to Lo Vásquez, a religiously important church in the Central Valley between Santiago and the coast. To avoid the heat of summer, the pilgrims walk through the night. The authorities close down the relevant highways for the event. Thousands of people walk the thirty kilometers from the coast to Lo Vásquez. Others trickle in from other parts. A small number of dedicated people spend days walking from Santiago. When the highways reopen at 10 A.M. a flood of Chileans descends on the small church. Apparently, over the course of the three-day weekend 650,000 people make their way.

At the asado, several friends of my host mother were talking about the pilgrimage. I questioned them about it and they suggested I go. They knew a group of men who were planning on departing from a nearby church. I gave it a bit of thought and decided to do it. They assured me the men would be perfectly welcoming even though I am completely non-religious.

At around 11 P.M., my host mom drove me to the church to meet the group. I had imagined a group of middle-aged men. Somehow I had expected them to be obviously religious. I probably wouldn’t have been surprised if they had been wearing burlap monks’ robes. Instead, I was introduced to a group of high school kids who looked pretty similar to my friends from home in Connecticut. There were eighteen of us. Before setting out we stood in a circle and prayed. One of the kids did most of the talking. He offered thanks to the Virgin Mary and said we were making the sacrifice of doing the pilgrimage for her. We started walking at 11:45.

A slow-moving herd of people covered the highway. To my surprise, the vast majority looked to be the age of my companions. A friendly, light-hearted atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie prevailed. Everyone seemed to be making the hike to Lo Vásquez with their closest friends. My group was close-knit too, and they were quick to bring me into the fold. As is typical of Chileans, many of my fellow pilgrims had nicknames and were eager to talk to the foreigner. Kiwi wanted to know about my host family. His friend, Palta (which means avocado), asked me about my university in the U.S. Gabriel talked to me about travel and practiced his English a bit.

While the majority of the pilgrims were quite young, there were people of all ages walking the highway. We passed one man with a clubfoot who was proceeding slowly with the help of two crutches. Later we passed a little old woman dressed in black supporting herself on the arm of a man who appeared to be her middle-aged son. There were a few families on the road who walked with babies in strollers.

All the pilgrims seemed to be devout Catholics. However, the reasons for undertaking the pilgrimage were diverse. For my new friends, it was a religious activity they took seriously, but they had a good time with it and it was a social outing, as well. For others, the walk through the night represented a genuine sacrifice. Some prayed that the sacrifice would bring health to a loved one. Others wanted to give thanks to the Virgin for having answered a prayer.

For anyone, the moonlit hike is a bit taxing. Even for me, a fit, 22-year-old, walking for seven hours while my body was accustomed to sleeping was difficult. By 5 A.M. my body was displeased with me and persistently lobbying for sleep. I closed my eyes to rest them. Shortly after, Gabriel tried to get my attention, “Mike... Mike!” I woke up from a dream and Gabe poked fun at me for sleepwalking while we hustled to catch up with the group that had gotten ahead of us.

Over the course of the walk there had been stands set up alongside the highway selling provisions to the pilgrims. As we got closer to Lo Vásquez, the stands were more frequent and elaborate. Some were full-fledged restaurants with large grills and wait service. Across the road, in the median, people had pitched tents to get a few hours rest before completing the last couple hours of walking. Others, who were less prepared, had simply passed out on the side of the road. Some of the naps might have been unplanned. The last few times my group stopped to rest, I fell asleep immediately to be awoken when it was time to continue.

Finally, we reached the crest of a ridge and could see the steeple of Lo Vásquez through the morning haze. An hour later we arrived. The highway near the church was packed with vendors selling everything from electronics to underwear. A bicycle repair stand was doing quite well as many pilgrims choose to bike the thirty kilometers. (According to the unwritten rules of the pilgrimage, pilgrims must arrive under their own power; so self-powered wheeled vehicles are acceptable. We saw three teenage boys on skateboards.)

After working our way through the market we regrouped near the church. The grounds had been turned into a densely populated, makeshift campground. We went straight to mass and managed to keep our eyes open throughout the service. About halfway through, an older woman fainted in the first row. A small team of volunteers whisked her away on a stretcher as the service continued. After mass, several of my companions went to confession. The group jokingly grumbled as Kiwi got in line, feigning concern that it would be a while.

Having successfully completed the pilgrimage, we moved towards a huge dirt parking lot where hundreds of small buses called micros awaited the business of exhausted pilgrims. Once our group had filled one of the micros, most of us fell asleep immediately.

My experience was memorable and it was the kind of experience that integrating into a foreign culture can afford you. Thinking about the pilgrimage later, I was struck by the fact that nothing like it would happen where I am from. It would be inconceivable for the Merritt Parkway to be closed down for a religious pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the people I did the pilgrimage with were not unlike the people who live near the Merritt. The different cultures just produce different customs. The group of close friends I walked with spent the night on a religious pilgrimage. My friends might spend a day together at a Dave Matthews concert. Although the events could hardly be more different, the social atmosphere and sense of camaraderie had a lot in common.

~Michael Damiano

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