Spiritual pilgrimages

Belinda works the check-out at my local supermarket. She is bright, vivacious and frighteningly energetic. Last Christmas, during her university holidays, she decided not to go backpacking around Europe but opted instead for, as she termed it, “a spiritual pilgrimage”.

She ended up working as an unpaid teacher at a special school for children with AIDS run by Marist Brothers in South Africa. The experience was cathartic. It, quite literally changed her life. But then pilgrimages so often do that, don’t they?

Pilgrimage is such an evocative word and, while most religions have places of pilgrimage — some simple, some austere, others quite magnificent — I was intrigued to discover that today more people are embarking on pilgrimages than at any time since the Middle Ages.

Pilgrimages have become the biggest single growth sector within the ever-expanding travel business. Millions of people from all walks of life from all over the world are, quite literally, setting forth on spiritual journeys along the ancient pilgrim roads, to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela or to Rome, Mecca or Jerusalem. They have become seekers after the Truth, followers of The Way, even visitors to The Castle.

For many years, as a freelance journalist working for major European papers, I travelled as a writer, an adventurer, even as a tourist, but it was as a pilgrim that the places I visited and the people with whom I came into contact affected me the most. Something shook me out of my smug Western complacency. Something profound shifted within me — especially when I came across some of the small grottos to Our Lady dotted around Ireland, the home of my parents, or when, after a gruelling flight from London to Rio de Janeiro, I opened the shutters of my hotel room to be stunned by the enormous statue of the Cristo Redentor atop the 2300-foot peak of Mount Corcovado, with arms outstretched over the blue and white magnificence of the city below.

Something about both the place and its inhabitants has an effect on you and you become changed, transformed, touched. It has been said by many pilgrims that what you see depends on what you, as an individual, are capable of seeing. The sacred is always there, even among the tawdry, cheap tourist souvenirs or the crush of the crowds. And it is waiting to wake us up.

There is no doubt whatsoever that certain places on the face of this earth have become centres of deep spiritual energy and that making a journey to such sacred sites can be powerfully transformative. Christians journey to the Holy Land, Buddhists travel to places where the Buddha preached, shamans head out into the wilderness, while most Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca at least once during their lifetime, if at all possible.

And now even Australia has become a centre for pilgrims. In July this year, thousands of young Catholics from all over the globe descended on Sydney for World Youth Day, with many locals opening their homes to these pilgrims as a gesture of hospitality and warm-heartedness. Although this event, hosted by Pope Benedict XVI, has been a relatively new experience for the New South Wales capital, other cities across the world have been accustomed to regular influxes of pilgrims for hundreds of years.

But what exactly is a pilgrimage and, importantly, what constitutes a pilgrim? Strictly speaking, a pilgrimage has been defined as a journey that is made for religious reasons beyond the call of everyday worship to place that is believed to be holy. It is a quintessentially spiritual experience — and definitely not a vacation. Put another way, it is very much a spiritual enactment of the inner journey to God where the pilgrim is free to focus intently on meditation and prayer, opening his/her heart with devotional worship.

Just as all roads lead to Rome, there are many different forms of pilgrimage and even a short journey to a sacred spot can be a pilgrimage. As for the journey itself, this too can become a means of ascetic practice: some pilgrims take the more arduous route, walking when transport is readily available (as they do along the Camino de Santiago in Spain) — even crawling the last part of the way on their knees or making full-length prostrations.

As for what constitutes a pilgrim, we probably get a more accurate meaning from the Latin per agrum, meaning “through the fields”. This is evocative of a traveller on a spiritual mission walking over scared earth. Pilgrimage is ordeal, not travel with air-conditioned coaches, gourmet meals and comfortable hotel beds. The demands of the spiritual compass are uppermost and we put, as the writer Phil Cousineau writes, “the soles of our shoes to the soul of the world”.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales we have an entertaining account of a motley collection of medieval characters heading off, for all manner of reasons, on a pilgrimage to St Thomas à Beckett’s tomb in Canterbury. There is a knight, a priest, a yeoman, a miller — even a cook — among the travellers, all of them hoping to reap a range of benefits from their journey. This factor has not changed.

A pilgrimage remains first and foremost a journey with purpose. Some folk may hope to obtain spiritual succour or even material benefits: perhaps a cure for a disease or some other affliction, perhaps the achievement of peace of mind, a sense of merging personal energy with that of the Divine, of being one with other like-minded souls. Some may wish to do penance for their sins, or give thanks for the blessings they have already received, while some individuals may wish to offer praise or devotion.

Whatever the motive, the fact remains that all pilgrimages are journeys of renewal. As pilgrims we return to the source for something we have lost and we return from that source restored, rejuvenated and revived. A hunger for the sacred has been satiated.

When the Irish professor and writer Joseph Campbell was asked about the purpose of spiritual life, he replied, “The main awakening of the human spirit is compassion. The main function of propaganda is to suppress compassion.”

When he was asked to elaborate, he stated unequivocally that “tourism” was the only way to achieve this; by going somewhere different, he explained, we learn what we have in common with others; we learn how to “demystify” the stranger among us; above all we learn compassion.

The main aim of a pilgrimage is to open our eyes, our hearts and our souls to the fact that the sacred is all around us and inside of us all of the time, even if we did have to venture halfway around the world to find it. This factor alone makes a pilgrimage so special for so many.

It is important to note that despite the plethora of scared sites around the world, no place needs to be blessed by priests or approved by politicians to be made holy. Those who travel to Lourdes, Stonehenge or the Great Hall of the Buddha, determined to unravel the mystique surrounding God, have to negotiate their own way through the multitude of unhappy and frankly confusing religious differences and reach out above and beyond the barbed wire of inflammatory politics.

You can become a tourist at a sacred site, or a pilgrim — the choice is yours. But beyond the surface of embellished shrines resplendent with jewel-encrusted icons and beneath the wood and the stone, even above the noise and confusion, the sacred still somehow manages to shine forth.

In the middle of the vast Todaiji temple at Nara in Japan one hot summer’s afternoon many years ago, I was touched by the sacred. Neither the bustle of tourists nor the almost ceaseless chatter of Shinto pilgrims could compete with this encounter. The sheer size of the enormous Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in the country, whose fingers are the size of a human being, stood out stark and terrifying.

Almost imperceptibly, a sense of the secret divinity of the soul became overwhelming. The longer I looked up at this great, big, fat Buddha, the more insignificant I felt. A feeling of tremendous serenity gradually stole over me. The scent of incense hung heavy in the still air as outside the Sika deer, looked upon as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roamed the grounds, startling nervous tourists by chewing their maps or boldly running off with their bento lunches.

Somewhere in the background a bell slowly tolled and the priests began their steady chant. Moments such as these stay with you forever. What I brought with me into the temple that summer afternoon was physical and mental exhaustion; what I left with was peace and stillness. For me that summer, a pilgrim’s journey had become a pilgrim’s way.

If nothing else, a pilgrimage reminds us that we walk our own way alone in this life, that we are all pilgrims. No one is more learned or more intelligent or more experienced than anyone else. On a pilgrimage, all pilgrims are the same. There is no one to judge you. There are no written laws, not even the obligation to walk the pilgrim trail. But there is profound feeling of belonging to a people in a single movement towards a single goal: to heal. On a pilgrimage, everything is connected. Separate identity is an illusion. We are all one.

There is a beautiful Chinese story that says quite forcibly that there are some things only you can do for yourself. T’ao-ch’ien asked a fellow monk to accompany him on a pilgrimage to assist him in the practice of Zen. His friend replied, “I’ll certainly try to help you in any way I can, but there are some things you must do for yourself.”

“What do you mean?” T’ao-ch’ien asked.

His friend answered, “Well, my eating or drinking will not fill your stomach. When you want to urinate, there’s nothing I can do about it. And only you can make your body walk along the road.”

The answer opened T’ao-ch’ien’s mind and he made the pilgrimage alone.


Places of Pilgrimage:

Santiago de Compostella, Spain

Of all the traditional pilgrimages, the Way of St James — better known to the locals as the Camino de Santiago — has probably undergone the biggest resurgence. Although the bones of the apostle James are said to be buried in the city’s enormous cathedral, this pilgrimage is more about the Camino — the journey itself rather than the destination. Most pilgrims start their walk at either the Pyrenees mountain range or from the towns of Tours, Le Puy, Arles or Vezelay in neighbouring France. The aim is walk all the way to Santiago in the northwest corner of Spain. Along the route, there are a number of refugios (special hostels catering to the needs of pilgrims). At each stop, walkers are supposed to get their credencial (a passport-like booklet) stamped. This document is subsequently presented at the end of the mammoth trek as evidence of having completed the full Camino.

Further details: www.catedralesantiago.es


Lourdes, France


Without a doubt, this is one of the most famous and enduring pilgrim destinations in the world. Lourdes was once a sleepy little village in southern France where, from February to July 1848, local 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous reported seeing visions of a figure dressed in white, whom she later identified as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary. The apparition asked that a chapel be built on the site of the grotto and that people pray there. A spring discovered by Bernadette at the grotto is believed to have miraculous healing powers. Since this time, a colossal pilgrimage industry has mushroomed in Lourdes. More than five million pilgrims visit the town every year and only Paris, the national capital, has more hotels!

Further details: www.lourdes-france.org


Canterbury, England

The ultimate destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims, Canterbury in southern England, became a pilgrim destination after 1170 when King Henry II (father of Richard the Lionheart) unintentionally ordered the assassination of his former best friend and chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Four knights, thinking that they were carrying out the king’s orders, murdered the archbishop in cold blood inside the Cathedral. Beckett was later canonised, while locals began to insist that pieces of cloth anointed with his blood had special healing powers. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb at Canterbury and all sorts of miracles were reported. In 1173, filled with remorse, the king himself visited Beckett’s tomb, walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and confessing his sins before the High Altar, while monks and bishops lashed his naked back with a whip. To this day, Canterbury remains an important pilgrim destination for many English Christians.

Further details: www.canterbury-cathedral.org


Knock, Ireland

On August 21, 1879, village girl Mary McLoughlin witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary with St Joseph and St John the Evangelist, and a special altar surrounded by angels at the southern gable of the local parish church in Knock, County Mayo, in the west of Ireland. More and more people began to witness the silent, motionless apparitions. They seemed so real that one old lady, Brigid Trench, went up to the gable and tried to kiss the feet of Our Lady. Since this time, Knock has become a major Marian shrine and is well known for its many healings and conversions. Its status was confirmed in 1979 when the late Pope John Paul II came as a pilgrim to the Shrine. Each year, more than 1.5 million pilgrims converge on this tiny, hospitable yet incredibly tranquil town.

Further details: www.mayo-ireland


Rome, Italy

As the headquarters of the Catholic Church, the Vatican City in Rome, Italy is obviously one of the major Christian pilgrimage sites. Whether it’s to visit the Basilica of St Peter or participate in a Papal mass, there are a multitude of reasons for pilgrims to visit the Holy See. There are also an abundance of sites in the capital city itself — indeed, Rome is one big trail of relics and historical events. What is perhaps not quite so well known to spiritual seekers is the Via Francigena. Similar to the Camino in Spain, this particular walk goes all the way from Canterbury to Rome, over the Alps and Apennines (and involving a ferry ride across the English Channel). Although it has been in use since the 10th century, this walk is not as well established or organised as its Spanish counterpart and camping out or paying for expensive hotels remain the only options on many parts of the walk. This may change, however, with the current Italian Prime Minister’s promise to rejuvenate the Via Francigena.

Further details: www.viafrancigena.com

Jerusalem, Israel

Arguably the most important pilgrimage site of them all, the “Golden City” is held sacred not only to Jews, but to Christians and Muslims, too. This is partly why there has been so much fighting over the city down through the centuries, from the Crusades of the Middle Ages to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People from all over the world have made their way to the Holy Land, while some organisations can in fact trace their origins back to these early pilgrimages: the Knights Templar and the Knights of St John were both established originally to protect pilgrims from attack. The old walled city of Jerusalem is quite literally awash with sacred sites, from Temple Mount where the Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept, to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Stones, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall … the list just goes on. Outside the city are the heights of Mizpah where the prophet Samuel was born, where King Saul was elected to his high office and where the prophet Jeremiah lived. Here it was that the medieval pilgrims caught their first sight of the Holy City, calling it Montjoie. Most of them, Jews and Christians like, would fall to their knees and recite the Psalm: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.”

Further details: www.gojerusalem.com


The Ka’ba, Mecca

A centre of great sacredness, the Ka’ba is believed to have been built at God’s command by Abraham and his son by Hagar, Ishmael. It stands on a site that many people believe to have been a sanctuary founded by Adam, the first man. In 630CE, the prophet Mohammed dedicated the shrine to the one true God. Every year more than two million pilgrims visit Mecca to perform Hajj. At the sight of the Ka’ba, many pilgrims are often spiritually overwhelmed and as they enter the haram, the sacred area around Mecca, they exclaim, “Labbayka! Labbayka!” (“I am at your service!”). From then on, pilgrims focus only on God. Hajj can only be performed in the 12th Islamic month.


Claire Porter has been a freelance investigative reporter for the past 30 years. She has a special interest in the dynamics of human healing.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Loving And You A Recipe For Valentines Day

Loving and You – A recipe for Valentines Day

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (69)

The meaning behind “The Flower of Life”

Reiki And What It Can Do For Me

Reiki and what it can do for me

Astrology Spirituality

The spiritual meaning behind our love of astrology