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What is a Pilgrimage?

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The definition of a pilgrimage is a long journey, especially one made by a person going to a holy place..

What is a pilgrimage and why do people go on them?

My motivation to make a pilgrimage is perhaps as multi-layered as anyone else’s. Growing up in a central Anglican tradition with a father who was a Methodist at heart, pilgrimage was not part of my upbringing. As a child, I visited many holy places with parents, but did so as a reluctant tourist and site-seer rather than through any religious devotional reason. My first (and so far,) only trip to the Holy Land was described as a Study Tour. As the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin reminds us, there was a “strong critique of pilgrimage mounted by the 16th- century Reformers, although it is important to remember that it did not begin with them. Even at the very origins of Christian pilgrimage in the patristic period, Gregory of Nyssa voiced loudly his doubts on the whole exercise.”[1] Those voices became even louder during the period of the Reformation when it was considered unnecessary to make a distant pilgrimage or to seek holy places. I am, in part, an inheritor of such views. I find myself unwilling to pilgrimage to contemporary centres of ‘revival’, because of an inbuilt suspicion (or theology) that affirms that God can be found and experienced everywhere. Therefore, there are no places where God will be experienced more than any others, nor mediated through a person or place more powerfully than any other. And yet.

So how should we understand pilgrimage? A traditional pilgrimage “usually involves a physical journey (which may or may not be long and arduous) to a special destination, accompanied by a particular state of mind and often with the hope of transformation.”[2]. This definition poses the question of what motivates a pilgrim? James Harpur comments that it is often impossible to outwardly distinguish between a pilgrim, a walker and a tourist. He suggests that the “membrane between the sacred and the secular are porous”[3]

Dee Dyas adds that: “Pilgrimage' is also an image often used to describe the human journey through life, sometimes as a general description of personal growth and exploration, sometimes, as in Christianity, describing a particular spiritual pathway which will lead to encounter with God.

Finally, 'pilgrimage' can be employed to describe inner journeying experienced through prayer, meditation and the imagination. Pilgrimage, therefore, is less a single idea than a cluster of images or a mosaic built up of many different elements. Together, these multiple understandings of pilgrimage have profoundly influenced patterns of living across a range of cultures and through many centuries.”

With the upsurge in interest in pilgrimage has come the re-establishment of pilgrim routes. Perhaps most famously, The Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of Saint James. This is a network of pilgrims' ways leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galiciain north-western Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. It is also popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts and organized tour groups. So much so, that according to Bureau d”Acceuil in Santiago numbers have risen from 2490 pilgrims having certified to have completed the route in the 1985[4] to over 300,000 per year in 2017 (walking part or all of the different routes.)

In many religions and secular philosophies, there has been an increased desire to visit holy places and experience something of the numinous.[5] Charting the rise in the popularity of pilgrimage is substantial body of academic and popular writing considering why this is so. However, the popularity of pilgrimage is not limited to the religious but to the not-so religious secular/ spiritual as well.[6]

The advice offered by the web site of The Confraternity of St. James- which assists would-be pilgrims to Santiago, and whose U.K. offices are located close to Southwark Cathedral at Blackfriars- seems to confirm this.

Every camino pilgrim has their own reason for doing the camino. Some of the most common reasons we hear include: The challenge; physically but also to live more minimally for a while It’s a chance to get away, clear your head and regain some perspective You can reconnect with yourself and be with your own thoughts To process any recent grief or trauma The opportunity to meet and become friends with many different people from all over the world and share their stories ...and numerous others.[7]

This articulates scope for ‘personalising’ the practice of pilgrimage; not just in how pilgrims choose to travel, but how they interpret their pilgrimage and what they seek from it.

While it is difficult to assess all the reasons that people become pilgrims, studies in numerous settings have produced similar results showing that there are fairly common themes cross-culturally. In some cases, it may be the appeal of communal worship. Pilgrims from diverse backgrounds such as Tenrikyo religion (in Japan), Islamic African Americans, Shikoku pilgrims in Buddhism and Catholic pilgrimage groups to Lourdes have all testified to this as being a motivating factor.[8]People may make a pilgrimage in order to pray for the dead or to benefit family ancestors. It may for the seeking of healing for yourself or another. It could be in response to a worldly request for improved prosperity in business, education, child-bearing, or economic well-being. Finally, it may be related to a particular worry or concern regarding mortality. Inevitably, there are as many motivations for pilgrimages as there are pilgrims.

Dee Dyas, reminds us that the idea of pilgrimage is one which carries meaning in purely secular terms: “we speak of pilgrimages to sports arenas, to the resting places of celebrities (such as Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley); we also use the word to describe returning to places which have particular personal meaning. The distinction between pilgrims and tourists is sometimes very fine and both religious and secular pilgrims frequently seek to prolong the experience or transfer its benefits by bringing back souvenirs (or relics) and records of their journeys.”[9]

So, there are a plethora of motivations, perhaps as numerous as the number of pilgrims.

What ever your motivation, or means of travel, pilgrimage is a spiritual (and even secular) practice that welcomes all. Long or short, close-to-home or far-afield, there is a pilgrimage destination that could suit you.


[1] Gregory of Nyssa. On Pilgrimage. In C. Bartholemew and F. Hughes (ed) Explorations of a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage. Routledge. Oxfordshire. P.110. [2] James Harpur, The Pilgrim Journey. A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World. Lion. Oxford. 2016 p9 [3] Ibid. p.8 [4] C. Bartholemew & F. Hughes. Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage. Routledge . London. 2016. [5] Numinous was derived in the 17th century from the Latin numen, meaning a "deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space" describes the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. The word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book The Idea of the Holy (1923) [6]For a comprehensive, but not exhaustive list of some key texts, The University of York’s resources: from The Centre of Christianity and Culture provide a good starting place. [7] [8] Ian Reader Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. OUP. Oxford. 2015. P.71. [9] Dee Dyas. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage: Journey, Spirituality and Daily Life. The Centre for Christianity and Culture. University of York. York.

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