Places of Pilgrimage Mean Connecting

Updated on January 21, 2023 by Meg
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The Communal Nature of Places of Pilgrimage

Places of pilgrimage are revered because of some mystic or sacred connection. Could it be possible that the alluring aura of such destinations has been created and enhanced by the seekers who have been drawn to them?

Pilgrimage is said to often involve “communitas,” the experience of bonding with fellow travelers. The notion is that as part of a “flow,” the individual self becomes less important.

We asked a cross-section of seekers to describe their experience.

Sari Pitaloka, 46, of Jakarta, had such an experience while making the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj.

The Hajj. Photo: Al Jazeera English (Flickr)

“It shows us in real time, real experience that we as human beings are all the same and equal–men, women, rich, poor, black, white, yellow, red. We are all one, brothers and sisters, all created by and belonging to one and the same God,” said Pitaloka. “During the Hajj, we learn so much, receive so many signals, taps on the shoulder, hints and we look in a mirror. We realize we see ourselves as a reflection of the world and people around us.”

Feeling the Love

Aaron Zucker, a student at the University of Alabama, traveled to Jerusalem as part of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which organizes educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. Despite somewhat shaky initial footing, he too soon fell in step with his fellow pilgrims.

Read more: What is Pilgrimage? Spiritual Seekers Share Experiences

“The group of people on my trip was ideal for me,” said Zucker. “At first, my two fraternity brothers that I went with and I were nervous, confused, and annoyed by most of the other people on our trip. Geography was the main reason for these original feelings. Out of 40 college students, there were the three of us from down south, and pretty much everyone else went to school around the large cities up north.”

“But after spending almost all hours of the day together, and having religion as a common ground, we grew to love each other,” he continued. “It seems crazy that you can say you love someone after ten days, but think about this… Let’s say you hang out with someone for one hour a day for a month. You would feel like you know that person pretty well right? We accomplished that feat of being around each other by the second or third day out of ten.”

Tom Nowakowski 40, of Palm Springs, California, felt this magic while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile trek from Mexico to Canada.

Connecting with 'trail angels' is part of the spiritual experience of a long mountain trek. Photo: By Denali National Park and Preserve

“When we go on a long trek like the PCT, we quickly realize that if we let go of our expectations and pre-conceived notions of how things are supposed to happen, they generally happen on their own, fulfilling most of our needs and often exceeding our wildest dreams,” said Nowakowski. “It is such a frequent occurrence that the trail community has coined a term for this phenomenon, ‘trail magic.’ Everybody has stories about wonderful interactions with total strangers somewhere along the trail. It is very common to be invited to spend a night with the family giving us a ride to the closest town. Many people–‘trail angels’–go out of their way to help and accommodate hikers on their long adventure.”

Connection is the Essence of Pilgrimage

Amanda Pressner, 32, made contact with a few angels over the course of her year-long, four-continent journey. She also found her connection deepen with the two friends with whom she was traveling.

“I don’t think we felt it day-to-day so much but the trip indelibly changed our relationships with one another,” she said. “I think it was a sum total of all the little things–getting stranded together in the Peruvian desert with no water–and consequently getting rescued by a priest in a minivan. Having to go to the hospital as a trio to get tested for parasite, encouraging each other up and over Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail.”

Hendrik Stagehuis, 37, of Jakarta recalled an experience he felt conveyed the spirit and nature of his Hajj pilgrimage. The tahallul is one of the rituals of the Hajj in which participants undergo a haircut, which symbolizes freedom or release.

“I was with my group of around 10 guys and we all dived in to get our haircut,” he remembered. “I had never done it before and it was like being at the sheep shaver, handled very quickly and efficiently, hair flying around everywhere in the crowded barber factory and within two minutes I lost my wealthy hairdo.”

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“We were watching each other getting shaved and it was hilarious, at the same time a great experience of joy, relief, feeling purified, freed, clean like a newborn baby!” he continued. “And the next thing we did was butt heads for a photo. It’s difficult to describe the true feeling of brotherhood, connection, friendship, power, energy, happiness and total freedom I and all of us felt, no doubt one of the greatest experiences of my life. That’s what a simple head shave can do for you!”

Bob Davies, 65, of Durban, South Africa had a different experience during his pilgrimage to the 88 Buddhist temples on Japan’s island of Shikoku.

“Such tendency of ‘communitas’ detracts from the very personal, spiritual potential of a pilgrimage by clouding the inner uniqueness of each of us and our opportunity to experience the power of choice and the implications of the outcomes of our decisions,” he said.

He said he chose to make his Shikoku pilgrimage in the winter, as then there would be less people, saying “I can always find and bond with people, a bit more difficult to interact with ‘God’ from the deepest level of one’s being when others are around. I need strength, not to develop the dependency upon the collective and engineered energy of a group to ‘find myself.’ ”

Reconnecting to the Past Through Places of Pilgrimage

For some, that connection to others is the specific purpose of a type journey referred to as “roots pilgrimage.”

“There are many things calling people to visit their ancestral lands, probably as many things as there are people doing it,” observed Professor Dallen Timothy, director of Arizona State University’s Tourism Development and Management department. “Most of what I’ve observed though is people’s desire to connect with their ancestors in one way or another. They feel a hollowness or something missing in their lives.”

“Some people feel a spiritual or religious obligation to visit their homelands,” he continued. “Some people are simply curious about how the places and landscapes might have looked when their forebears worked and lived there; some groups of people were dispersed throughout the world by force, or they were severely persecuted, like, for example, African-Americans and Jews, causing them to need some form of closure.”

Cheryl Finley, 46, is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University. She frequently writes and lectures about African diaspora art, heritage tourism, and the aesthetics of memory. As part of her dissertation field research in 1999, she traveled to Ghana to study an exhibition in Cape Coast Castle.

Descendants of slaves make 'roots' pilgrimage Ghana's Cape Coast Castle. Photo: Monocletophat123 (Flickr)

“Beyond the mere sight of Africa as a symbolic motherland, the physical and imposing sites of the castles of Cape Coast and Elmina and the forts along the coast are claimed by roots tourists as tangible and necessary memorials,” she said. “These are some of the very few places where material evidence of the legacy of slavery still stands before their eyes and is available to be touched, walked through, and experienced with all of their senses and with the movement of their bodies through the space.”

David Chabot, 70, a professor of clinical psychology at Fordham University and a practicing family therapist, was one of 70 Flynn descendants who gathered in Ardford, County Kerry, Ireland in the summer of 2006.

Read More: Spiritual Journeys and Sacred Destinations

“When someone is in the dark about their past they are missing an important reference point to deal more effectively with the present,” he asserted. “Returning to one’s roots involves getting specific facts about the people and the context of their lives to better understand the strengths and limitation that were handed down to you. When you understand and accept them, you can better understand and accept yourself. This allows you to deal better with present. My observation of the people on the reunion was that almost everyone was very aware of the psychological significance of the trip.”

The banks of the Ganges River is a place of sacredness for many in India. Photo:mckaysavage (Flickr)

Hindu Ritual of Shraddha

Sometimes pilgrimages can result in a metaphysical reunion.

Dr. Kam Srikameswaran, 75, of North Vancouver Canada recalled being at Haridwar, India, where the Ganges flows rapidly after its recent descent from the Himalayas. He was there to perform a Hindu ritualistic ceremony known as Shraddha, made on the anniversary of a parent’s death by the eldest son, every year in his home, until his own death.

“At sunset, we walked past crowded rows of colorful merchandise and souvenirs to the main gathering place on the river,” he recalled. “Thousands squatted on its bank and on a small built-up island, meters across the water. I stood at the back of the sitting crowd to watch the Arati, the evening worship with oil lamps. Bells clanged, priests chanted and, to a song in praise of Mother Ganges, thousands of lamps waved in as many hands. Many, adorned with blossoms, were set afloat in the water. Soon, it was a procession of floating lamps lighting up the river accompanied by a song of prayer, joined in chorus by the assemblage.”

“I stared at a particular set of steps on the bank across the water,” he remembered. “I saw the same steel hand rails and security chain and the steps into the water where I took an icy cold dip with my dad seventy years ago. There was an overpopulation of fish there; my father tried to part them for my dip. The sights and sounds of Haridwar that day were the highlights of my pilgrimage.”

Connecting with Self on Pilgrimage

Other pilgrimages involve renewing a relationship with one’s self in order to better connect with others. Ben Drake made 100-mile trek across the English countryside to Embercombe, a 50-acre wellness center in the U.K.’s South Devon. He conducted his pilgrimage on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and faced a few fears in the process.

“I was inspired by the writings and example of Satish Kumar, a great pilgrim who undertook a walk around many of the spiritual places of Britain for his 50th,” Drake explained. “I wanted to mark a turning point in my life, a time when my soul and its wellbeing is the most important thing in my life.”

“I wanted to set myself free,” Drake said. “I hoped to find courage and recapture a desire to live my life without compromise. To step away for a moment or two from an often mundane life as a father, house husband, teacher and partner and rediscover who I am when I am being authentically me and to return to the those that I love with that discovery written all over me.”

“I rediscovered some zest and passion that I had lost in the mundane of life and found more courage to stand up and be me regardless of what others think,” he continued. “The journey is still very much in progress and I love the effect it has had on my life and relationships. There were times that I was deeply challenged while walking and I needed to dig deep–it has been good for me to remember how to do that. There were times that I felt wonderfully at peace with the world–that I am grateful for.”

The experience of humility seems to be a common denominator across all types of pilgrimages.

“The Hajj is much more than just a journey to a ‘sacred site,’ ”said Pitaloka. “It is a physical challenge and at the same time explains the emotional and spiritual essence of Islam–true faith in one God and only God alone. Hajj shows us who we are and why we are here in this life, in this world, and serves as a period to take time off (Editor: about 30–40 days) to reflect on ourselves from the inside and purify our minds, hearts and spirit and establish a strong connection with our Creator.”

Private Mass in the Catacombs of St. Peter’s Cathedral

Henry Kozowyk of the Boston, Massachusetts area, had such a connection in Rome.

While on a trip to Italy’s capital with their parish priest and a small group of fellow communicants, Kozowyk and his wife stayed in a bare, basic guest quarters within a monastery, crossing paths with silent monks-in-training as they came and went.

A senior church official gave Henry and his traveling companions a personal tour of St. Mary Major.

“In welcoming us, he referred to us as the pilgrims we were,” Kozowyk said.

The priest had arranged for them to attend a private mass in the catacombs of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Arriving at 6:30 a.m., when the church was closed to the public, they were able to view the saint’s encased bones through a gate in the chapel, directly below the Pope’s alter in the main cathedral.

Almost four million pilgrims visited the Vatican in 2016. Photo: Presidential Palace (Creative Commons)

“I got to do one of the readings,” recalled Kozowyk with reverence. “I just had this feeling of ‘Wow, here I am.’ Because of my religious faith, it was overwhelming, very humbling. To be in the presence of a saint, go back centuries in history, it made me think I am part of something so much bigger than myself.”

Places of Pilgrimage Inspire Being in Moment

For Hendrik Stagehuis of Jakarta, being fully in the present moment enabled him to achieve a similar connection.

“The highlight of the Hajj was the time spent at the plain of Arafah, where all of us perform ‘Wukuf’,” he said. “This is a process to open up your heart completely to Allah, wish for anything you want to have, do and be in this life, and the hereafter, truly ask for forgiveness in the widest sense of the word, re-establish and create an ever closer relationship with Allah, get rid of all issues, doubts and other “baggage” that I was carrying around from the past.”

“Just purifying my heart by shutting my mind down, shutting up the ever ongoing thinking and voices in the mind that keep me out of the now–where I actually live my life–not in the past or future,” he continued. “And getting the reward by getting clarity about myself, my life, this world, my vision and goals in life. Being worthy of being admitted to Paradise in a place as close to Allah, God Almighty, as possible.”

Places of Pilgrimage Change Your Perspective

Aaron Zucker of the University of Alabama had a revelatory moment upon returning from his pilgrimage.

“When we went to the Western Wall, I placed a note in it like thousands and thousands had done before me,” said Zucker of Alabama. “There were thousands of people there that day. Despite those facts, I still felt alone. Luckily, my fraternity brother gave me a gift that can never be replaced. He took a picture of me talking to the wall when I was by myself.”

Jerusalem's Western or 'Wailing' Wall is considered holy by Jews who believe the First Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BCE. Photo: Maryland (GovPics)

“I had no idea he did until it came up on my Facebook when we got back,” he continued. “I sat down at my computer and just stared at it for literally five minutes. Sometimes when I’m in a weird mood or have a lot of stress, I just get on Facebook, and put that picture up. It makes me become focused and understand that there are bigger things in life than a microeconomics test coming up or that I haven’t planned the next party for my fraternity.”

Eva Michaelson, 50, of Denmark, has made three pilgrimages along Spain’s El Camino route and she too has found each journey but a beginning.

“Most pilgrims agree that there is ‘something,’ which is like a gift, that they bring back home, and which maybe makes them change things in their life,” she said. “The change can start now, and it is never too late. But the inner way makes you look at your life from a new perspective. You can’t walk or run away from yourself. If you are prepared or even if you are not, pilgrimage has for most people an element of ‘it-has-changed-my-life’ in it. It is, of course, the inner journey I am talking about.”

Bob Davies of South Africa recalled a profound moment of his Shikoku pilgrimage.

A fork in the road on a pilgrim's path. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“There is one memory that often ‘flashes back,’ walking along an unknown and unmarked narrow mountain path, deeply and darkly forested, far from any signs of human existence, in the midst of a range of mountains with deep valleys,” he recalled. “Coming into sight ahead of me was a splitting of this walkway I was on, to a large number of divergent tracks, with no indication of or knowing which track then to take, a perfect opportunity for getting lost.”

“I quietly asked for some form of guidance without breaking my determined stride forward,” he continued. “A second or two later, an owl flew over my left shoulder and swerved to the right to fly above one of the multitude of almost indiscernible tracks. I took that track without hesitating and it took me to where I wanted to go. Any other would have led me many hours off into the wrong valleys without any means of acquiring a correction as this large, mountainous area was uninhabited.”

Tom Nowakowski is drawn to the mountains for such experiences of connection.

“The driving force behind all this is that you are much closer to a Presence, it’s palpable,” he declared. “It might be for the first time that our minds are quiet enough to catch a glimpse of an ever present inner voice that has never had a chance to be heard in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.”

“In spite of the fact that we may travel for thousands of miles, it is the inner journey that makes a pilgrimage what it really is,” he said. “Inevitably, on the pilgrimage, all the artificial layers we are used to travelling with through life become less and less important. What do I do for a living? How old am I? What do I look like? How much do I own? All these questions gradually lose their significance.”

“Eventually, what you are left with is simplicity and existential basics,” he concluded. “Who am I? What is my purpose in life?"

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