Thanne Longen Folk to Goon on Pilgrimages

St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers
The Canterbury Tales is one of English literature's greatest shrines.  I use the word deliberately. Medievalists and their students journey to it just as surely as the pilgrims in the tales themselves journey toward Canterbury. It is a long, rough slog. You have to have mastered Middle English to approach the gates and then there are the tales themselves to master.  Here is how the Tales begin:

      Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
      The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
      And bathed every vein in swich licour,
      Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
      When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
      Inspired hath in every holt and heath
      The tender croppes, and the young sonne
      Hath in the Ram halfe his cours yronne,
      And smale foweles maken melodye,
      That slepen al the nyght with open ye
      (So priketh him Nature in hir corages);
      Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

The original is in iambic pentameter, but since I'm only concerned with the meaning, I'll give you a prose version:

When April with its sweet showers has pierced to the root the drought of March and bathed every vein in a liquid whose magic brings forth the flower; when likewise Zephyrus with his sweet breath has brought to life every wood and heath with tender shoots and the young sun has run half its course under the sign of the Ram and small birds that sleep at night with eyes open sing (So does Nature goad them into these wild ways), then common folk yearn to go on pilgrimages.

My mind turned to the Canterbury Tales because Nancy is about to leave on a month-long trip to India for no other reason than she wants to. I am about to follow her. In Chaucer’s day one didn’t travel for such frivolous reasons. One traveled to enlist St. Ronan or St. Giles to help in curing your carbuncles.  Nowadays, one needn't be sick to travel. Quite the contrary, one gets sick because one travels.

In ancient times—and, indeed, it is still so in many countries—the pilgrimage was the poor man's sacrifice. The Mahabharata, one of ancient India’s major epics, makes that abundantly clear when its author, Vyasa, declares:

This is the secret of the sages, O King: the holy practice of pilgrimage [tirthayatra] excels even the sacrifice.

Vyasa's point was that one can easily give gold or jewels to assuage a god’s need for adoration if one is a king. But what is a poor man to do? The answer: go on a pilgrimage.

Salmon Rushdie wrote that a migration was a crisis in the making, a time of painful redefinition. Each  immigrant was about to “tear down the old” in search of the new. Rushdie’s rumination—the thought around which Satanic Verses crystallized—brings out a modern difference between immigrations and pilgrimages. Nowadays the former are escapes; the latter, merely escapades.

The modern world has produced a new kind of pilgrim; perhaps the dominant kind, though I have no numbers to back that up. I am thinking, of course, of the “tourist,” the one who goes on a pilgrimage just to, well, go. There is no pact with St. Bernadette to cure scoliosis; no sacrificial "thank you" for her having done so.

I know what was in the for the immigrant. I thank my parents for that.  I know what was in it for the pilgrim.  I thank Chaucer for that.

But why do tourists put themselves through long lines, disrobing searches, ridiculous regulations that screen for three plus inches of gel, delayed departures, long layovers, lost luggage, microbe laden lounges, recirculating cabin viruses, suspect water supplies, suspicious vegetable salads, painful shots, cramped seats behind fellow passengers who refuse to raise their back rest even an inch, overbooking, undercooking, marathon hikes to connecting flights, unavoidable arrivals at the height of rush hour?

Beats me.