Today, more and more people are using vacation time to go on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred site or shrine. Reasons for doing so vary. Pilgrimages may be done for physical healing or spiritual healing thus effecting a person’s inner transformation. A pilgrimage is not a retreat. One does not go into solitude for a few days to pray and to reflect on one’s life in silence. Pilgrimages are often made in groups where there is interchange and sharing about life with its aspirations, problems, and foibles. There is prayer, liturgical and communal, and of course, laughter and good cheer. Going on pilgrimages gives one a respite from the hum-drum grind of daily life. Pilgrimages resemble vacations that restore body, mind, heart, and one other essential, faith.
For centuries, pilgrimages have been done by virtually all faith-traditions. Buddhists visit Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace or Bodh Gaya, place of Enlightenment, and Hindus visit major temple cities throughout India. Able-bodied Muslims travel to Mecca at least once in a lifetime to make the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. For Jews, the Wailing Wall is a most sacred site.
Life as a Pilgrimage
Going on a pilgrimage is one way of allowing the physical journey to strengthen the inner journey. Medieval Christians had a specific vision of life: ‘We have here no lasting city. Life is a journey, a pilgrimage to the Promised Land—to life beyond the here and now.’ Today, this image is not so prevalent or popular. ‘Eat, sleep, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ is on the contemporary mind, if not on the lips. Still, even secular men and women must acknowledge that life does move steadily and irrevocably forward on a trajectory, at least chronologically. How each of us makes this journey is a personal question that calls for a personal response. We may say then that we are all pilgrims—at home everywhere and at home nowhere. We are a people on the road, moving forward toward the beyond. For Catholics, belief in the Communion of Saints becomes palpable, thereby taking on greater meaning in the here and now.
What Happens on a Pilgrimage?
When you go on a pilgrimage, you meet other people from every walk of life. You begin to share your thoughts and feelings. You speak about reasons for going on pilgrimage and about what’s important in your life. Often, you meet people who are suffering a great trial, perhaps the loss of a loved one. They need inner healing and prayer. Or, you meet people who have undergone remarkable conversions of heart, converts, who, according to human logic, were not disposed to receive remarkable graces. You rejoice with them. You meet the most unlikely pilgrims who don’t know why they have even come. They’re just there. They need your support and that of your fellow-pilgrims. It is said that every year, Dolores Hope, the wife of the entertainer Bob Hope, went on pilgrimage to the Jesuit Shrine at Auriesville, NY, the shrine of the North American Martyrs.
Egeria, the Pilgrim
In the fourth century, a wealthy Galician woman named Egeria (Etheria) made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Had it not been for her eyewitness account about liturgical practices there during Lent and Holy Week, scholars would probably not know about the way these liturgies were celebrated. Her book, The Pilgrimage of Etheria continues to be a valuable primary source for fourth-century liturgical practice during Lent and Holy Week.
Catholic Pilgrimage Sites
Most Catholics are familiar with pilgrimages to Lourdes in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Fatima in Portugal. People visit these places, most often for a physical healing. Once there, however, they receive other graces, thus making the pilgrimage more significant than expected. Organized pilgrimages to these shrines are easily arranged. And Rome has numerous sacred shrines to visit, including St. Peter’s Basilica for starters. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land need no further comment. Regional pilgrimage sites are located throughout the world. A few miles west of Barcelona, Spain are the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat and the Ignatian shrine at nearby Manresa. For me, these pilgrimage sites remain unforgettable experiences.
One of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites today is that of St. Thomas of Canterbury at the Cathedral by the same name. In 1170, Henry II instigated Thomas Becket’s assassination in his own cathedral during the Vespers liturgy because of a clash between sacred and secular power. The event has been immortalized several times in the play “Becket” by Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, in the verse drama, “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot who drew heavily on the writings of Edward Grim, a clerk and an eyewitness to the murder, and in the award-winning film, “Becket,” starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. Just days after the saint’s murder, Christians returned to his cathedral and transformed it into a place of prayer and pilgrimage.
To learn more about places of pilgrimage in this country and elsewhere, the Internet is an invaluable source of information. One link among many is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Catholic_pilgrimage_sites. If you are planning a vacation for next year, you might think about making a pilgrimage out of your vacation or your vacation, a pilgrimage. You’ll be glad you did!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.