Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sacred Journeys (with Bruce Feiler)

On the evidence of the 2014 PBS six-part series, Sacred Journeys, people who embark on religious pilgrimages are not particularly pious -- indeed, they are not even really religious.  At least, this is the reassuring message of the first two of six documentaries presented by Bruce Feiler on world pilgrimage sites.  Pilgrimage seems to involve lots of strenuous travel, much hiking, coping with crowds and inconvenience and hardship and, accordingly, not a lot of reflection, prayer or theology.  The first episode, which chronicles a trip to Lourdes by twenty or so wounded American soldiers is particularly mindless and egregiously disingenuous.  Lourdes seems to be a high-priced Vegas-style resort city with an impressive cathedral built atop a craggy bluff pierced by grottos and medicinal baths.  There is a cavernous underground basilica -- it seats 25,000 -- and the world's most elaborate and ornate wheelchair ramp leading from the riverside grotto up to the cathedral on the top of the cliff.  Not surprisingly, the Hispanic soldier raised Catholic who lost half of his body in a IED blast in Iraq experiences the healing balm of the holy waters most literally. -- his pain goes away and he seems to be at peace with his mutilation. The other soldiers, many of them non-Catholic, regard the experience as metaphoric and consider the holy water as incidental to fellowship, including the consumption of lots of beer in the taverns and bistro's adjacent to the pilgrimage site.  Feiler, who gapes at everything with annoying gullibility, doesn't comment on the obvious incongruity of hordes of soldiers descending on a city sacred to a religion ostensibly pacifist and devoted to peace.  Indeed, much of the film is turgid "wounded warriors" stuff, a "thank you for your service" public service announcement, screened by a public television network that is resolutely liberal, non-violent and, undoubtedly, vehemently opposed to the very wars in which these poor fellows lost sizeable chunks of their faces and bodies. The visual information about Lourdes is interesting; the interior shots of bathing stations in the grottoes are fascinating.  But there is no bite to the program.  Feiler takes everything on face-value and the documentary seems carefully designed to not give offense to anyone, including the atheistic secular humanists in the audience.  The second episode is better -- an account of vigorous pilgrims hiking an 800 mile trail on rainy, windswept island in the Japanese archipelago.  The trail is sacred to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, an eight century monk named Kobo Diashi.  The landscapes featured in this program are spectacular and the Buddhist temples have a splendid weathered beauty.  Feiler provides next to no information about the doctrines taught by Kobo Daishi -- as far as Feiler and PBS are concerned, one religion is as good as another and a general, tolerant aura of moral equivalence underlies the show.  The Japanese Shikoku pilgrimage involves competitive walking, although equally efficacious is making a bus tour of 88 temples located along the coast line of the rugged island.  We see some impressive rituals, including the Homa or fire ritual, and the people watching the rite seems duly impressed and sanctified -- it's all very moving until you remember that there's a camera crew with sound engineers scrutinizing these "private" encounters with the sacred.  Feiler, the "presenter" as the Brits would say, is the kind of man whose mind is so open as to wholly vacant.  It would not be out of character for him to praise a hike to Nuremberg to attend the rallies in that City, or, perhaps, a pilgrimage to the temple of Baal to observe the ritual incineration of infants and toddlers -- it's all the same to him. 

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