Pilgrim’s Progress

Volume 45, Issue 2, by Michael J. Crosbie

I remember it being a very hot day. I had traveled with friends and colleagues this past April on a pilgrimage to the ruins of Chichen Itza, Mexico, one of the places on my architect’s bucket list. Now I stood at the threshold of this monumental site, ready to sacrifice myself to the heat (and the occasional iguana) to learn some deep, sacred truth.

The anticipation of this adventure, which was organized by the Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, was almost too much to bear. How would we receive these incredible religious ruins? What secrets would they admit to us as we wandered among them, immediately and over our next few days in their presence? What spiritual transcendence could we hope for, experiencing these mute stone structures of an ancient civilization, one whose primary traces were the mysterious, sacred buildings they left behind?

And then it all went…terribly wrong. As I drew closer to the ruins, making my way through a densely forested pathway, I was approached by a child, imploring, “Want to buy a handkerchief, mister? One peso, almost free!” A bit farther on, as I strained to see on my right the outline of the El Castillo–that dramatic flight of steps to the heavens–an alarming growl rose from just off to my left, the sound of a wounded, angry animal of the jungle. Was I about to be consumed before consummating my tryst with these sacred stones? No. It was just another vendor, his long table spread out with souvenirs, blowing into the carved wooden head of a jaguar, the cat that used to rule these ruins. Another vendor next to him hawked tee-shirts, and another beyond offered onyx paperweights carved in the likeness of a portion of the male anatomy, detailed in every way. And there was another vendor, and another, and another, as far as the eye could see. But I still hadn’t seen a blasted ruin!

We arrive at pivotal sacred sites around the world, our spirits ready to be lifted into communion with ancient truths, to dive into the deepest pools of transcendence, and someone is trying to sell us gee-gaws. Or we turn a corner in Paris, ready to be floored by the aura of Notre Dame, and it is covered with scaffolding. Or it is just closed for the day…no explanation at all. What is the pilgrim to do?

The next day in Chichen Itza, we came early. Really early–the ticket sellers hadn’t even yet arrived in their booths as we milled around, counting out exact change. I rushed with my ticket down the pathway, not a soul in sight. For a while, maybe only 15 minutes, it was just me and El Castillo, this mysterious mountain of stone that refused to tell me anything. I sketched in peace and scribbled notes. I then walked to the epic ball court nearby, with its rings of stone protruding as witnesses to the ghosts of gamesmen who might hope eternally in vain for the ultimate “do over.” I sat against a wall, the humidity beginning to rise, and looked for a long time at the two facing ball-court walls, silent in their secrets. More notes, more sketches.

I was grateful for the silence.

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