“Pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler.”
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
Psalm 84:5 NRSV
Because we’re going into a new year, learning about spiritual pilgrimages is only fitting. Going from 2022 to 2023 is like a Prophetic Pilgrimage. Where would this new year take us?
Before discussing why people go on pilgrimages, let’s define one. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. It’s usually a journey to a shrine or other location important to a person’s faith, but it can also be a metaphorical journey into one’s beliefs. Pilgrimage is a meaningful journey. Pilgrimages follow paths walked by pilgrims for hundreds or thousands of years to historical or spiritual sites. Many religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: the birth or death of founders or saints, the area of their “calling” or spiritual awakening, the place of their connection (visual or verbal) with the divine, the locations where miracles were performed or witnessed, the areas where a deity is said to live or be “housed,” or any site with special spiritual powers. Such sites may have shrines or temples that devotees visit to be healed, have questions answered, or achieve other spiritual benefits. Pilgrims make such journeys.
The Holy Land, synonymous with Israel, is a pilgrimage site for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a 2011 Stockholm University study, pilgrims visit the Holy Land to touch and see physical manifestations of their faith, confirm their beliefs with collective excitation and connect personally to the Holy Land. A pilgrimage is a sacred journey. It allows us to pause from our busy lives and seek quiet and reflection. It lets us “walk through” whatever issues we have.
The Social Aspect of the Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage can be a social activity, allowing us to enjoy the company of others we meet on the road. It recharges us mentally, physically, and spiritually. People go on pilgrimage at a crossroads when their life direction or relationships change. Others may be seeking a more profound spirituality, healing, or forgiveness. Or a pilgrimage may mark a birthday, retirement, or another occasion for giving thanks. It’s a great way to meet new people and see new places. Pilgrimage can change lives. It is a time to let the old go and welcome the new. Pilgrims are inspired and changed by the places they visit. Pilgrimage can increase awareness and wonder. Or advance our life’s purpose. Pilgrimage helps us focus on “what matters” and rediscover the joy of giving.
To appreciate life’s gifts for Christians, a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place to ask for the Lord’s blessing or physical or psychological healing. The pilgrimage could be to the Holy Land to walk in Christ’s footsteps or to a nearby shrine or grotto. Pilgrims travel not as a vacation or sightseeing tour but as a prayer and a quest to encounter the Lord. Pilgrimages have been taking place since the early days of the Church when people wanted to see where Jesus lived and taught.
Some Traditional Reasons
Some religions still see a person’s suffering on a grueling journey as penance for their sins, although many modern religions no longer promote this.
God will see this as a sign that they are genuinely sorry and forgive them. To go to heaven, they seek God’s forgiveness. Those who seek something difficult or impossible to achieve, like healing from a long-term incurable problem like illness or infertility, or finding success in a field that has eluded them, be it work, romance, or anything else, may look for a miracle from God. They make a pilgrimage as thanks for the miracle. Henry VIII reportedly visited Walsingham to pray for a son. Pilgrims have reported miracles during and after their journeys. One source says the Catholic Church recognizes 65 miracles at Lourdes.
Many pilgrimage sites housed religious relics, such as a cloth soaked in a saint’s blood, a piece of a saint’s skeleton, or a piece of Jesus’s cross. Some believed that touching holy artifacts brought good luck, mainly if they belonged to someone with desirable traits, such as courage or healing abilities. Even in the Bible, ordinary people made pilgrimages, like Mary and Joseph, who went to Jerusalem for Passover. The pilgrimage would require time and effort. Next week, we’ll examine these costs.
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