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What is Pilgrimage?


Pilgrimage is a spiritual tradition found in the history of nearly every major religion. Why has it been so important? Is pilgrimage still significant today for communities of faith? In this informational essay, we explore the purpose and ethos of modern pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is a spiritual tradition found in the history of nearly every major religion. The 'Hajj (the trip to the Ka'ba in Mecca),' is one of the five pillars of Islam and has always been a central element of the Muslim faith. Sacred journeys have been equally important in the Hindu tradition. Journeys of veneration to Jerusalem, during and after the Diaspora (597 BC), have also been significant, historically, within the Jewish faith. Buddha prescribed four places of pilgrimages to his followers, representing the stages of enlightenment, making sacred journeys an essential part of their quest for self-knowledge. Though it is sometimes overlooked or underestimated, pilgrimage has been equally prominent within the Christian tradition for the past two thousand years.

According to James Harpur: "The first pilgrims associated with the Christian faith were arguably the Magi, the 'three wise men' who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, journeyed from the east to Bethlehem, guided by a star, to pay homage to 'the one who has been born of the Jews.' Their story contains some of the classic elements of pilgrimage. First and foremost there was a journey. In their case this would have been a long one from Iran, since according to the fifth century Greek historian Herodotus the Magi were in fact a Median tribe who lived within the Persian Empire and who were renowned as soothsayers and astrologers. Like pilgrimage before and after them, the men were anxious to experience a source-for Christians the source-of sacred awe."

All types of pilgrimage then have at least two elements in common: the journey and the desire and intention to experience a source of awe. And if the story of the Christian pilgrimage begins with the Magi from the east, it certainly does not end there.

Christian Pilgrimage and the Holy Land

Though we've already heard that the Magi's journey is considered by some to be the first Christian pilgrimage, others have argued that Christ himself was the first pilgrim and that his journeys (and the way he interacted with the world) can serve as a model for our own travels. Indeed, much of Christian pilgrimage has been an attempt to follow, in a literal sense, the "footsteps" of Christ, retracing his walks and seeing the sites and the landscapes that he himself would have encountered. Many people feel that, in this way, they can make a closer and more meaningful connection with the texts of the Bible. There are sites all over the Middle East that can be seen as significant in this way. On the western border of Jordan, one can find what may be the original baptismal site of Jesus. In Jerusalem, one can stroll down the "Via Delarosa" which is said to be the path that Christ walked when carrying his cross down to Golgotha. In the Palestinian West Bank, we can find the town of Bethlehem: the site of Christ's birth. Egypt is also of interest as the country where Mary and Joseph sought asylum after being warned of Herod's intention to kill their son. In Iraq, the ruins at Kohe (near Baghdad) contain the remains of what is believed to be the oldest known Christian church structure. The "Road to Damascus," in Syria, is where the Apostle Paul saw his vision of Jesus and was converted to Christianity.

Why go on a Pilgrimage?

Jean and Wallace Clift, in their book the Archetypes of Pilgrimage, formulate a long list of possible reasons and motivations that have caused pilgrims to embark on a journey or a sacred quest: To go see the place where something happened, to prepare for death, to honor a vow, to reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of oneself, to admire something beautiful, to make a vacation more interesting, to go outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen, to answer an inner call to go, curiosity: to see why others go there, to give thanks, to express love of God, to draw near something sacred, to achieve pardon, or to hope and ask for a miracle . Though all pilgrims share the desire to travel and experience a sacred source of awe, their motivations for their journey are surprisingly diverse.

Pilgrimage and Tourism

People in modern times often wonder about the difference between "tourism" and "pilgrimage." We usually think of tourism, of course, as a leisurely activity, whereas pilgrimage is somehow more sacred and ambitious. In truth, there may be some overlap. Even on a spiritual quest, one might, at times, feel like a tourist. While seeking the sacred, interacting with a new community on a deeper level and challenging the normal routine of your life by putting yourself in a strange or difficult situation, you may also be visiting "tourist" sites: museums, galleries, cafes and even shops. On the flip side, someone who thought of himself as a mere tourist might suddenly find something that he considers sacred, he may touch a piece of history or feel a spiritual presence, causing new insights and challenges to his original perceptions of the world. There is certainly a difference between tourism and pilgrimage, but, on our personal journeys, we are perhaps always both pilgrims and tourists. Even a great pilgrim might occasionally find him or herself more motivated by leisure and simple curiosity than by a quest toward greater understanding and a search for the sacred and the transcendent. Though there is nothing wrong with tourism, we have somehow lost the balance between these two types of journeys: the journey of leisure has become more popular than the journey toward meaning and sacred awe. So how do we transform our "tourism" into "pilgrimage"? How do we bring back the balance between these forms of travel?

The Departure: Starting your own Pilgrimage

Here are some suggestions that may help you make any journey more meaningful. Since the word "pilgrimage" means many different things to many different people, this is by no means a definitive, or authoritative list.

LET GO OF EXPECTATIONS On a pilgrimage, things will never turn out exactly as you expected. There will be hardships and surprises, but both can be important teachers and can help us grow spiritually, culturally and intellectually.

WALK HUMBLY. GIVE OF YOURSELF AND ACCEPT THE GIFTS OF OTHERS Pilgrims, as travelers, are foreign to their environment. They are in a new place, a new landscape and a new culture. They rely on the hospitality of strangers.

Traveling toward Jerusalem and other Biblical sites, Medieval Christians were often forced to rely on strangers for food and shelter. They also came to pay homage and tribute to the churches and the poor. They would always leave a gift or token behind as a symbol of their friendship. Any successful pilgrimage, by its very nature, will enhance our own perception of humanity's interdependence.

SEE THE WORLD FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE. Imagine: you are a young Muslim who has traveled to Mecca for the first time. You may come from a cosmopolitan city or a small village. You may be rich or poor. In front of you are thousands of other Muslims, like you but also different-there are Muslims from all nationalities, ethnicities and from all walks of life. They are diverse but they share a common purpose.

To be exposed to other cultures, as any pilgrim knows, can be a revolutionary experience. When we are exposed to a different community, a different nation or a different religion our own beliefs are challenged and our worldview is expanded. Pilgrims are by their nature peace-makers and should seek to understand and find common bonds between diverse groups.

USE THE JOURNEY TO EMBRACE BOTH COMMUNITY AND SOLITUDE A pilgrimage is a great opportunity to be by oneself and to embark on an inner, as well as an outer, quest. The outer movement towards a physical goal can help us reach our inner destination of spiritual fulfillment or our search for a source of "sacred awe." To compliment the inner, solitary path, the journey is also a great opportunity to bond with a group dedicated to a similar vision or goal and also to interact with the people you meet along the way.

TAKE SOMETHING HOME WITH YOU One of the most powerful parts of traveling to a new place and possibly encountering a different culture is that the memory of your journey will resonate long after you have returned home. Even tourists take home mementos to remember and cherish their travels. Take some time after your journey to share your experiences with the people you love. What did you learn from your travels? What surprised you? What mistakes did you make? What did you feel? How have your experiences changed you? What did you learn about the culture that you interacted with? What was it like to connect with a source, place or idea that you found sacred?

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