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Search for the meaning of, and motives for, pilgrimages

On Glory Roads: A Pilgrim's Book about Pilgrimage, by Eleanor Munro. New York: Thames and Hudson. 297 pp. $17.95. What is it that sends masses of people in search of ``harmonic convergence''? What set the pilgrims of Chaucer's time on the roads to Canterbury, Cologne, Rome, and distant Jerusalem?

Eleanor Munro, whose previous books include ``An Encyclopedia of Art,'' ``Through the Vermilion Gates,'' and ``Originals: American Women Artists,'' wondered about the phenomenon of pilgrimage, and not just abstractly. Her wonderings became the purposeful but open-ended wanderings chronicled in this book: from the Hindu shrines that dot the body of ``mother India,'' to the Buddhist temple Borobodur on the island of Java, to Jerusalem, sacred to three religions, to Delphi, Eleusis, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

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She has traveled also in the realms of reading - religious history, psychology, astronomy, astrology, anthropology, and art history - in search of information and explanations.

The underlying thesis of her book, as she describes it in one of her footnotes, is that ``there are various local styles of pilgrimage but universal laws by which it is enacted.'' Her book does not prove this thesis, nor, I suspect, is it intended to: Munro is out to illustrate, not to prove. This is a meditative, reflective book, a careful blend of objectivity and subjectivity, written in an open-minded spirit delicately balanced between belief and disbelief.

What are the ``universal laws'' of pilgrimage? Munro sees several interrelated processes at work. Pilgrimage is linked to our need to orient ourselves in the universe: to mirror, ``help,'' or ``correct'' the motions of the stars; to find a fixed polestar; to participate in a ritual that links us to cosmic order. The word comsos, of course, means an ordered universe.

But does our ``blessed rage for order,'' as Wallace Stevens called it, signify a corresponding order ``out there'' or only express a deep human need? And isn't there a danger of totalitarianism implicit in the notion of a cosmos with a place for everything and everything in its place?

Munro tackles these larger questions even as she is treating us to vivid descriptions of her travel and intriguing interpretations of whatever she encounters, from the floods of Hindu pilgrims at Benares, to the shadow-play at the Borobodur, to statues of the Hindu goddess Kali, to the cult of the Black Virgin.

Daughter of a rationalist, ``empiricist'' father, Munro describes her approach as ``visionary humanist.'' Although she does not share the beliefs of the various pilgrims she meets, she examines them in a spirit of openness, curiosity, and understanding.

In formulating her own theories, she is perhaps too eager to find significant patterns and not skeptical enough in subjecting her hypotheses to the most stringent standards of proof. But this is in keeping with the tenor of her book, which is much like that of a pilgrim at the start of her journey, filled with uncertainty, anticipation, hope, wild surmise, and a sense of mysteries not yet revealed.

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Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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