Le Point Vierge: The Problem of Pilgrimage

“Przszedłeś jako ciekawy turysta, odchodź jako bogaty pielgrzym”  

  This inscription can be found on a plain wooden post at the base of the mountain Giewont in Zakopane, Poland. It glares at the traveler as he walks down the winding dirt path to the small hut that once served as the hermitage of Brother Albert Chmielowski. As one whose knowledge of the Polish language consists of little more than varying ways to order pierogi and pączki, I had to have someone translate this sign for me upon seeing it for the first time. It contains a simple command: “You came here a curious tourist, leave a rich pilgrim.”   

Beyond this inscription, I found myself struck by many other sights and experiences during my six weeks in Poland this summer. Many of these were quite foreign and, to be sure, many of them I am still processing. It is precisely their foreign nature that compels me to find a place for them in the mental schemata that collectively constitute my views on life. Although I have never been a fan of mere “take-aways”, I think the phrase above does better than any other in making sense of how I should view these experiences. If it is taken seriously, it is not mere decor for what is essentially a common resting place along a trail; it becomes a hermeneutical key that unlocks a way of seeing the world differently. This key fundamentally relies on the distinction between the “tourist” and the “pilgrim.”  

We all know what it means to be a tourist. It seems to be built into the DNA of most modern Americans. Tourism is what one does when he has finally saved up enough money to leave his usual place of residence. Stereotypically, it manifests itself in the form of pina coladas and Instagram filters, but that does not always have to be the case. It’s possible to be a tourist even without engaging in the vanity that many do today when they are traveling. Tourism is, after all, a way of personally taking in novel experiences, although these days one might think it was merely for the sake of communicating those experiences to others. The tourist consumes a new place, digesting its raw material until the only thing that’s left is the entertainment value it provided. It purports to provide a break from what many see as the strains of modern capitalism by relying on the same frame of mind that created those strains in the first place. Pilgrims, on the other hand, do things very differently.   The pilgrim’s goal is never to consume what he encounters in his journeys: it is to incorporate. The pilgrim does not try to mold what he experiences into the “perfect vacation”, eagerly attempting to escape his ordinary commitments; he lets these new experiences shape him, no matter how uncomfortable this process may be. 

One of the reasons the phrase above is so powerful to me is because Brother Albert was himself the model of a pilgrim. A Third Order Franciscan, he went on to found the Servants of the Poor, also called the Albertine Brothers, in 1891. He was an ascetic and a saint who felt that God called him to be intensely devoted to the poor in every single aspect of his life. An exemplar of the monastic virtue of poverty, Chmielowski felt that he had to live like the poorest of the poor in order to bring God’s love to them. However, model though he was, he did not start his life as a paragon of pilgrimage. His pilgrimage began as a young man, while he was fighting against the Russian Empire in the Polish uprising of 1863. Finding himself in one of the most intense battles of the conflict, he joined a cavalry charge against the enemy. During this charge, a well-aimed grenade exploded in front of his horse, instantly killing it and knocking him to the ground with a badly injured leg. He was carried off the battlefield to a nearby cabin where Finnish soldiers allied with Russia discovered him. They saw that the only recourse available for his injured leg was amputation, and without anesthetic, the only thing he had to mitigate the pain was a cigar that he clenched between his lips during the operation. It was during this time of great suffering that Brother Albert’s faith was first born. He offered his suffering as a sacrifice to God, feeling that he was being drawn close to the Passion of Christ so that he may learn to love as Jesus himself did.   

This experience gave birth to Chmielowski’s most well-known accomplishment. Exiled after the war, and newly fitted with a wooden prosthetic, he trekked all over Europe to begin the study of painting. His studies took him to Paris, Munich, Ghent, and eventually all the way back to Poland, where he settled in Krakow. It was here, in this city, that he first developed his passionate love for the poor. He frequented several different homeless shelters, becoming well known to all the destitute he met on his path. He saw mirrored in these faces the pain felt by Christ during His Passion, and the pain that he felt during the war. This became the theme that animated his most famous painting, Ecce Homo, which depicts Christ as bloodied, beaten, and adorned with a scarlet robe and the crown of thorns. It is a dark image, but through this darkness, one can still see a small aura of light that peeks out from behind the pillars near Christ’s head.   

Although many proclaimed Ecce Homo a masterwork, with it and paintings like it bringing Chmielowski some degree of standing in the contemporary art community, he still felt that he was neglecting God’s call in some way. After years of deep reflection, he decided to give up the life of an artist entirely and devote himself to serving the poor as a beggar himself, eventually joining the Third Order Franciscans and moving into his hermitage at the base of Giewont.  

Brother Albert’s life draws a stark line across the boundary that divides the pilgrim and the tourist. His life was dominated by suffering and sacrifice, something alien to the tourist. He was a man that possessed enormous artistic talent, one who knew that he was more than capable of getting lost within a world of his own creation, endlessly inspired by new ways of seeing the world. However, he felt that to live this way was to go astray in some fundamental way.  

His intuition was simple: to continue living as an artist was to reject his calling as a pilgrim. He knew that in order to be worthwhile, pilgrimage must be all consuming and it often requires suffering. Brother Albert was tired of treating his faith like a sideshow, he was ready to embrace a new life, no matter what this new life would ask of him. 

A similar tension struck me with a sort of desperate urgency as I wandered through the capital city of Vilnius, Lithuania. It is known as the city of Divine Mercy because it once served as home to Saint Faustina, the recipient of the Divine Mercy message. A friend and I decided to make a brief weekend pilgrimage there in order to follow the “Divine Mercy way.” This path crisscrosses the entire city, spanning about twelve miles if you stop at every destination, and ends at the Divine Mercy shrine which holds the original Divine Mercy painting that so many now associate with the devotion. My friend and I decided that we would walk this trail like true pilgrims: on footeven going barefoot for one stretch of the journeyand in constant prayer. I don’t know if simply comes from my own spiritual weakness or if this is something that most people undergo on similar pilgrimages, but after the first several miles of walking from one baroque church to the next, in 90 degree heat, I started to daydream a lot about finding some nice beach to lie on, where my only concern would be how much money I had to spend on beer and gelato. As I continued vocally praying my rosary, I was inwardly kicking myself for choosing to go see some dumb picture instead of going to another city in Eastern Europe where the exchange rate was favorable enough that I could live like a king for the weekend.  

Yet, through all of this internal monologue, I still felt that this suffering was worthwhile in some way. I knew that there was a reason God had placed me in this situation. Some part of me was telling the other parts of me that I had to look past the sore feet and tired legs. This part of me was saying that, this discomfort, by itself, was neither problematic nor valuable. It was merely the landing ground for something elsesomething that I urgently needed to be told. I made up my mind that I would do my best to listen. 

After I returned to America, part of this message came to me while reading one of Thomas Merton’s last works, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It has to do with what he, in the tradition of the Rhineland mystics (John Tauler, Henry Suso, Meister Eckhart), calls “le point vierge”:  

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or a spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. 

This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.  

Le point vierge is what every pilgrim seeks. The pilgrim does not travel so that he can see interesting foreign countries, although that is fun; beautiful gothic churches, although they are worth seeing; or even so that he can say he experienced hardship along the way. He seeks the point within himself where God is at work. This point can only be found if he is willing to give himself completely over to God in absolute poverty of spirit.

There are different ways to reach this point, some of which require no traveling at all. Indeed, the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse do not ever leave their mountain home in Southeastern France, even forsaking most vocal communication with their fellow creatures. They find God in silence, solitude, and discipline. However, the type of pilgrimage that requires travel can be one way to get closer to this point, if God so wills it. The external preoccupations and illusions of everyday life are stripped away in the physical act of moving one’s feet towards a destination that contains what you know not. You must be willing to give yourself up to God, letting him take you where He wills, so that He can show you things that you have not imagined. Most people who have taken pilgrimages to the world’s most famous holy sites will tell you that they did not receive grand ecstasies or visions when they arrived at their destination. Usually the things that they learned were hidden, only to be uncovered later when they realized how God was silently working in their life.  

Once again, Brother Albert was a witness to this reality. For most of his life, art was his greatest joy. However, as an artist, he often felt that his goal was simply to lose himself in novel experiences of his own making. He was torn between this life, which, fundamentally, relies on the same mindset as the modern tourist, and another sort of life, which seemed as alien and scary to him as true pilgrimage does to most of us. But he knew that his career as a painter was only the preparation for this next life.  He felt called to learn how to walk among the poor and suffering like the Christ of his own Ecce Homo. God was telling him that he needed to become like the light that emanates from the pillars behind Christ’s head; he needed to become a visible sign that it was still possible to radiate light in the darkest of situations. He was scared because this call came to him in incredible darkness. He was ignorant; God alone knew how many souls would be lost if Brother Albert had stayed an artist. God alone knew how many souls would not know what it means to be a pilgrim if Brother Albert had chosen to stay a tourist. Brother Albert simply knew that he had to listen.  

The inscription above may not be the only key to the question that Brother Albert spent his life pondering. Another inscription gets very close as well. It can be found in the St. James chapel, located within the basement of the John Paul II Center in Krakow, where I lived during my stay in Poland. For most people, this chapel probably goes unnoticed. It is tucked away underneath the Center’s basilica, nestled in the middle of a series of similar underground chapels. However, this one is special. In the center of the room, near the altar, stands a large statue of St. James. The walls are painted with a mural depicting the entirety of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James in English. This path, or rather this network of paths, spans the entirety of Europe and goes through most of its major Christian holy sites. Many who read this inscription may think it is merely describing the path, but that is shortsighted. It offers the astute observer a new way of living. Displayed above the altar, it reads, “Vita hominis peregrinatio.” The life of man is pilgrimage.  

Dan Grifferty is a junior studying classics.