In recent years there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the practice of spiritual pilgrimage. The Camino de Santiago, 900 k. of trail across northern France and Spain, has become the hallmark of the resurgence, now hosting well over 100,000 walkers a year.
Most of the major religions have some kind of tradition of pilgrimage. The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca with specific symbolic actions, is one of the five pillars of Islam. In Judaism, pilgrimage centers around Jerusalem and the site of the former Jewish temples. Buddhist pilgrims flock to important places from the life of the Buddha. Baha’i pilgrims walk the steps of the Bahai temple in Haifa, Israel.
Pilgrimage also has a rich history in Christianity. The Bible even from it’s beginning in Hebrew scripture speaks of a people on the move, wandering through the dessert being led by and provided for by God. Abraham, father of monotheism, set out from his native land allowing God to lead him. Some say the Magi who traveled from the east to find the Christ child were the first Christian pilgrims. Others in the New Testament made journey to see Jesus for healing or to hear him teach. Early Christians traveled to the Sea of Galilee and other sites from the life of Jesus. In the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, his mother Helena traveled the Levant to find the exact locations of events from the life of Jesus so that they could be remembered. Today, many of the traditional Christian sites in the Middle East are those built on the places found by Helena.
How do we define pilgrimage? Different faiths and time periods and philosophies give varying nuance to the concept. We attempt here to give lay down the basic general framework recognizing that pilgrimages can be unique and diverse.
First of all, pilgrimage moves. Pilgrims are not staticly sitting in one place, they are not kneeling in a church or sitting in a board meeting. The pilgrim journey by definition involves movement from one place to another, be it across the street or around the world. This movement may be physically challenging, such as walking great distances. This movement may be personally challenging, bringing interactions with people or customs outside of our comfort zones. This movement may be disorienting and humbling, as we enter a place we have not been and must rely on others to guide and assist us.
Pilgrimage remembers. Pilgrimages lead us to places of sacred and historical value, where we remember events and ideas that have impacted our lives, beliefs and philosophy. The Hajj to the Ka’ba remembers the triumph of monotheism over polytheism. The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania remembers that Christianity survived and outlived the Soviet union despite Soviet attempts to eradicate religion. Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem are reminded of their covenant with God.
Pilgrimage inspires and transforms. Pilgrims do not move just for movement’s sake, or remember for remembering’s sake, but with the goal of being inspired and transformed in their daily life. Some pilgrims come with a specific goal– to find peace about a recent troubling event, to seek guidance for a big decision, to refresh one’s sense of spiritual connection to divinity,
The association of a place, particularly geographically elevated places, with experience of divinity or proximity to the divine is a pervasive theme transreligiously and transculturally. MeacLeod, founder of the Iona community, calls this concept “thin places,” where the separation between humans and divinity dissipates and communication between them comes more easily. The Old Testament speaks frequently of pagan “high places” of worship in the surrounding area. Many significant biblical events take place on mountains; Moses recieves the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. Abraham offers to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The transfiguration takes place on an unspecified mount (traditionally thought to be Tabor.) The Sermon on the Mount has even taken on the name of its elevated place of preaching. Jerusalem itself was built on a hill.
Pilgrimage seeks out these thin places, physically pursuing locations that facilitate spiritual experience, healing, direction and other types of brushes with the divine. In the journey, pilgrims are removed from the distractions of everyday life, possessions and relationships and go to a new spiritual and physical place of encounter. The sacrifice and pain of the journey embodies the pilgrims’ longing for spiritual encounter.