What is Pilgrimage? Spiritual Seekers Share Experiences

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

What is pilgrimage? Is it a route, a destination, or a state of mind? An obligation or a plea? Is it religious, secular, or both?

The origins of the word “pilgrim” are generally agreed to mean traveler. It is said to come from the Latin perager, meaning “through the fields,” or the French word pelegrin, meaning “foreign.” Pilgrim also has the same root as the English word peregrinate which means to “wander or travel, especially by foot.”

what is pilgrimage garni temple
Garni Temple - Photo: Meg Pier

The “Way of St. James” is an ancient pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain that has been trodden for more than a thousand years. The journey was one of the most important Christian pilgrimage routes in medieval times; tradition holds that the remains of the apostle Saint James were buried there in the town of Galicia, after being carried by boat from Jerusalem. The earliest recorded visit to a shrine in Santiago de Compostela was in the 8th century.

While a pilgrimage of any sort is generally viewed as beginning when one crosses his doorstep, the El Camino routes outlined in the 12th century by Pope Calixtus II are still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks.

Breathing With The Earth on El Camino

The French Way is the most popular of the routes and runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side and then another 780 kilometers onto Santiago de Compostela. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987. A typical walk on the Camino Francés takes at least four weeks.

What is Pilgrimage Alto del Perdon
Photo Credit: JaumeCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Michaelsen of Alken, Denmark, while not a Catholic, is a seeker who has made three pilgrimages along El Camino. “The first time in 1997 I needed a break. In 1998, I needed to walk myself free from a relationship, and I felt I came deeper into the feeling of being a pilgrim. The third time I walked the Camino, in 2006, I had been through a personal crisis and needed to find myself again. I cannot say when or where I will go next time as a pilgrim. I need to hear the call first. It is not something that you just do, like going on holiday. I need to have a reason to go, a question.”

“Walking is very basic and very human,” she continued. “The rhythm of your steps can be considered as a sort of ‘breathing’ with the Earth. When you walk for long distances and for several days it can be like meditation. The rhythmic repetition has a calming effect on your body and soul.”

If Michaelsen’s El Camino experience illustrates that pilgrimage can be considered a route, a destination, and a state of mind, Sari Pitaloka of Jakarta offers insight into what inspires those who undertake what is possibly the world’s best-known pilgrimage.

A Muslim Pilgrim on the Hajj

What is Pilgrimage
Photo Credit: Ali Mansuri / CC BY-SA 2.5, Wiki Commons

Muslims comprise one-fifth of humankind who share a single aspiration, to complete, at least once in a lifetime, the spiritual journey called the Hajj. For 14 centuries, countless millions of Muslims, men, and women from the four corners of the earth, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. In carrying out this obligation, they fulfill one of the five "pillars" of Islam or the central religious duties of the believer.

What is Pilgrimage Hajj Locations
Hajj locations. Photo Credit: AsceticRose / CC BY-SA 2.0Wiki Commons

“Hajj is a direct invitation from Allah to visit his House, the Ka’bah, in Mecca,” said Pitaloka, 46. “It needs a clear intention from the believer himself, though, as it is like a ‘calling.’ Nothing good in this world happens to us if we do not take our responsibility and make a clear intention and commitment. You can see it like this: if your Creator invites you to visit His house, would you refuse? Refusing to do so would be impolite and not really show a clear faith in your Creator, right?”

“Although Hajj is obligatory, there are exceptions, as Allah would never give something to us that we cannot handle, as a human being,” she continued. “Remember, He is our creator, and who knows better than He? If we are financially not capable of making the journey, if we are sick or physically not able to perform Hajj, then there is no sin upon us.”

Hindu Shradda Offers Sustenance to Departed Souls

An obligation is but one of many reasons a devout Hindu might undertake a pilgrimage.

For a Hindu, a pilgrimage could also be a quest for personal enlightenment, a mission for spreading a philosophy as was done by several sages, or it could have a very specific goal, like liberating the spirits of one's ancestors.

A Hindu ritualistic ceremony is known as Shraddha is performed on the anniversary of a parent’s death by the eldest son, every year in his home, until his own death. The Sanskrit word's translation in English is "that done with commitment or devotion."

Read More: Spiritual Journeys and Sacred Destinations

“When a Hindu--or a Buddhist--dies, his or her soul is reborn unless it has evolved to perfection--a state referred to as Moksha in Hinduism, meaning liberation,” Dr. Kam Srikameswaran, 75, of North Vancouver Canada explained. “Each birth is an opportunity to improve the soul’s status by good conduct, fulfillment of one’s responsibilities. During the period between death and rebirth, the soul lives in an interim world of ancestors called Pitrloka. In this interim state, souls need sustenance and this can only be provided by the living descendants of the dead.”

devotions
Pilgrims offer devotions to Mother Ganges. Photo: Dennis Jarvis (Flickr)

To expedite the process, a devout Hindu may make a pilgrimage to the River Ganges at Varanasi and perform the Shraddha on its banks.

Shortcut to Moksha

"A dip in this river at this holy site is the ultimate shortcut to Moksha--liberation from the cycle of births and deaths,” Srikameswaran said. “The waters cleanse him of his sins, relieve his Karmic obligations and hasten his quest for absorption into Brahma, the Universal spirit. By performing the Shraddha, the soul of the departed is also similarly liberated.”

“My father did Shraddha for his parents every year at home as prescribed by Hindu scriptures and once at Varanasi,” Srikameswaran continued. “I did not and do not honor my parents in the same way, because my interpretation of Shraddha is a lot more simplistic. For me, those two days of each year have become days of remembrance, with love and respect.”

While reincarnation provides Buddhists and Hindus with more than one opportunity for enlightenment, other pilgrims seek spiritual rebirth in this lifetime.

Catholic Pilgrimages in France

In 1858, Lourdes, France was a small town of 4,000 inhabitants--today six million people visit annually. Every year about 400,000 pilgrims bathe in its pools -- sick and healthy alike.

Tom Reedy, 55, of Glenview, Illinois made his second pilgrimage to Lourdes in the spring of 2008 with a group of about 400 others, through the Order of Malta’s American Association. The contingent included members of the Order, auxiliary, clergy, and other pilgrims, including 50 invalids and their caregivers.

What is Pilgrimage Mass at Lourdes
Mass at Lourdes. Photo Credit: Lima / CC BY-SA 3.0Wiki Commons

"We as Roman Catholics believe that our Blessed Mother appeared to a French peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, on 18 occasions over a period of months in 1858," he said. "In the visions, Mary requested that people come to Lourdes on a pilgrimage, which they have been doing for more than 150 years now. Part of the Order's mission is to serve the sick and poor, which we do in part with this pilgrimage. The Grotto is also a special place where Our Lady first appeared to Bernadette. The miraculous waters have accounted for healings and are said to be a sign and invitation to spiritual purification. "

What is Pilgrimage St Bernadette Lourdes
St Bernadette. Photo Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

"People think Lourdes is simply about physical healing, someone throwing away their crutches," said Reedy. "While there have been 66 documented miracles at Lourdes, we are all maladies, whether physical or interior. The physical is easy to see, while people's interior struggles are not. I think it is an incredible place, offering a holy spiritual experience, and that pilgrims do come back changed, whether the miracle is simply acceptance. The point of the journey is to come back a better person."

The Shikoku Pilgrimage Of Buddhist Temples in Japan

The power of sacred spaces, both external and internal, was the motivation for Bob Davies’ Shikoku pilgrimage during the Japanese winter of 2005.

What is Pilgrimage | Kokubun Ji Temple
Temple gate, Yakuō-ji. Photo Credit: ReggaemanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a route of 88 temples on the island of Shikoku, Japan, visited by the Buddhist monk Kūkai, who was born in Zentsūji, Shikoku in 774. In addition to the 88 "official" temples of the pilgrimage, there are over 20 bangai -- temples not considered part of the official 88. To complete the pilgrimage, one need not visit the temples in order; in some cases, it is even considered lucky to travel in reverse order. The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, or motorcycles. The walking course is approximately 1,200 kilo­meters long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete.

What is Pilgrimage | Fuji Pilgrim Kusakabe Kimbei
Photo Credit: Kusakabe Kimbei , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The founder and director of the Wu-Shin Chi-Dao Foundation for Self Development in Durban, South Africa, Davies, 65, considers himself neither a Buddhist nor an adherent of any other religion but considers pilgrimage as visitation to a sacred site.

“Shikoku is the last remaining--and fast disappearing--location of the finest and most extensive collection of sacred places available on our planet,” he declared. “I made the journey as an extended, active, inner pilgrimage to experience, identify with, and validate the sacred spaces and potentials within me as a living and evolving human being, the vehicle of my infinitely finite spirituality.”

Professor Dallen Timothy, director of Arizona State University’s Tourism Development and Management department said “Pilgrimage is travel that is undertaken to enhance one’s spiritual self and demonstrate devotion. It doesn’t have to relate necessarily to organized religion, although usually, it does. Some observers see it as all travel that has a very deep and personal meaning at its core, whether religious, ethnic, or patriotic in nature, or even travel that involves achieving a lifelong wish, goal or desire.”

A Journey of Inner Conviction

Prasad Menon of Avon, Connecticut considers pilgrimage a journey of inner conviction, knowing that it could be difficult or even dangerous. He cited a 2008 two-week trip with a dozen other Rotary members to northern Nigeria, where he was involved in vaccinating 8,000 children.

what is pilgrimage polio vaccine
Polio Vaccine be administered - Photo: Rotary International

“I have been associated with the Rotary’s polio eradication program for the last 20 years but my involvement was limited to raising money,” he said. “To convince others about the importance of the Eradication Program, I decided that I needed to feel that pain with these people. There were a lot of risks associated with this journey. People in the area are extremely poor, live in an unhygienic environment, with no medical facilities nearby, and there were kidnappings of foreigners. My family, except my daughter, thought I was totally out of my mind.”

“We were in the slums with open sewers in the middle of the alleys where we walked,” Menon continued. “But, when you look at 8,000 children with bright shining eyes and smiling faces, you forget all those difficulties; you feel like you are in heaven! And when you administer the two drops of a vaccine in their mouth, what you feel is indescribable. Those children don’t have to worry about the crippling disease anymore and we were responsible for that!”

Ancestral Pilgrimages

While fulfilling an inner conviction can sometimes motivate pilgrimages that lack strong familial support, “roots tourism,” or pilgrimage to the land of one’s ancestry, is driven by a need to connect with one’s origins.

“The term ‘roots tourism’ obviously references Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, published in 1976 and produced as the first television miniseries in 1977,” said Cheryl Finley, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Art at Cornell University. Finley visited Ghana in 1999 as part of her dissertation field research.

What is Pilgrimage | Castle Cape Coast Ghana
Cape Coast Castle from Outside, Ghana.

“It was hard to separate the personal from the professional, that is, not to study and interpret different sites and behaviors without checking in with my own emotions,” she recalled. “Overwhelming feelings of sadness engulfed me as I first caught site of the rocky coastline on the way to Cape Coast. I didn’t expect to feel that way, but I was told that I would.”

“Sankofa is an Akan word that means ‘one must return to the past in order to move forward,’ ” she continued. “The word Sankofa came into popular parlance with cultural heritage tourists, as many of them defined their frequent trips to Ghana as symbolic journeys in which they were able to “go back and retrieve” what they had forgotten of their ancestral heritage, to authenticate, reclaim and affirm their historical connection to the past, especially as it helped to make sense of their day-to-day diasporic condition.”

Finley explained that the term diaspora, from the Greek meaning “a scattering or sowing of seeds,” today is used to refer to any people, defined ethnically, racially, religiously or culturally, who are forced or induced to leave their traditional homeland, being dispersed throughout other parts of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture. Originally, the term diaspora was used to refer specifically to the populations of Jews exiled from Judea by the Babylonians, and Jerusalem by the Romans.

Rites of Passage

Aaron Zucker, a student at the University of Alabama, went to Israel in 2008 as part of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Taglit-Birthright Israel seeks to strengthen participants’ Jewish identity and provides the gift of first-time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26.

“Despite not being a very religious Jew, there was a certain indescribable feeling that I felt in certain parts of Israel,” he recalled. “I always felt very Jewish in a cultural way, but not as much spiritually. When I made my pilgrimage, it was about a month after I lost my grandfather, who was an Auschwitz survivor and the most religious person I’ve ever met. Despite me shedding many tears all over the different stops we made, it helped me get through his physical absence and connect with my spiritual presence with him.”

What is Pilgrimage
Prayers at the Wailing Wall. Photo: Aleks Megen

Dr. Justine Digance of Griffith University in Australia points to studies of rites of passage as indicating that certain times in one's life are more conducive to a pilgrimage: loss of employment, death of loved ones, retirement, reaching adulthood, recovering from illness or life-threatening situations, as well as moving from a work/life balance to a life/work balance.

“The quest for meaning is the driver for pilgrimage, whether religious or secular,” she said. “Many individuals may not see themselves being on any type of pilgrimage journey, but in the course of that process, may encounter certain life-changing experiences that are the usual expectation of those who call themselves pilgrims. They may not be consciously searching for meaning in their lives but something unusual occurs in the course of their journey.”

What is Pilgrimage? Changing One's Beliefs

Florence Lanzmann of Paris experienced this shift after a trip to India ten years ago, where she visited Varanasi, a city situated on the banks of the River Ganges, considered the center of the earth in Hindu Cosmology. Many of the city’s ghats, or stairs that access a body of water, are used as cremation sites.

What is Pilgrimage Hindu India Sun Worship Hinduism

“I didn't feel any transformation when I was in Veranasi," she said. "I am not a religious believer and considered death as the end. There I was surprised, shocked, that it was obvious that some people just came to Veranasi to die. They were ill or very old, they were there because it's the city of salvation and they believe to die in this holy place enables to reach another better life in the cycle of re-birth. And strangest to me was that it seemed joyful, like a celebration.”

She continued, “It's only when I came back to my daily life that I felt I had changed, particularly in that I'm still not sure that's there is a life after death, but I'm not sure anymore there isn't. And maybe this trip helped me recently, after the death of my husband, even if I wasn't conscious about it at that moment. It's now hard to conceive that there isn't a hereafter and I often consider that the persons I loved who are dead are still around me.”

A Tourist Versus a Pilgrim

If travelers who did not consider themselves pilgrims while on a journey looked back at their experience differently in hindsight, then what is the distinction between a pilgrim and a tourist?

Hostel beds. Photo: Eva Michaelsen

Michaelsen of Denmark observed “In one of the pilgrim hostels I saw a note on the wall: ‘The tourist is demanding. The pilgrim is grateful.’ There is some truth in it. But I think the pilgrim is more conscious than the tourist about why he is traveling and about how he or she acts and conscious about the spiritual dimension in life. A pilgrim is open to change, whereas a tourist is a consumer. A pilgrim takes risks--walking, a simple life, outside, uncomfortable, alone--where the tourist is very comfortable. But of course, the distinction is very difficult, because sometimes you are a tourist on the Camino.”

Dr. Thomas S. Bremer, department of religious studies, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee suggested “Perhaps the most helpful distinction between pilgrim and tourist came for me in a conversation I had with the eminent historian of the early Christian world Peter Brown of Princeton University. In simple terms, pilgrims try to make themselves worthy of the destination through the ascetic practices of the journey, while tourists expect an experience worthy of their investment in time, money, and effort. Thus, pilgrims make a worthy self through devotion and piety, whereas tourists expect an experience worthy of the self.”

“A tourist is half a pilgrim if a pilgrim is half a tourist,” wrote Victor and Edith Turner, both noted anthropologists.

Sometimes the distinction is in the eye of the beholder, as is the inspiration for each journey.

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.

“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
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.”

“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)
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.”

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

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.

“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.”

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)
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)
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.

“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?"


What is Pilgrimage? Personal and Universal

While people have different reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage, the practice is a cultural universal because humans are hard-wired to seek meaning. For the many people who are called on a quest to find a greater purpose for their lives, that calling involves an outer journey. Ultimately, pilgrimage is about achieving a sense of connection, be it to self, others, or the divine.

Interested in learning about other Spiritual Practices around the world?

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.

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13 thoughts on “What is Pilgrimage? Spiritual Seekers Share Experiences”

    • Thanks so much! I am so pleased that the explanations were useful to you! Pilgrimage is an important dimension of so many beliefs!

      Reply
  1. A pilgrimage is of course the framing story for the Canterbury Tales. What’s interesting is that although the pilgrims are engaging in a devotional exercise, the stories are quite irreverent.

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    • Yes indeed, I think often spiritural seekers are only too aware of their human foiobles and hence the motivation to “connect”!

      Reply
  2. I love this article. It really helps bring me a new perspective to my travel goals. It is helpful
    for me spiritually and, concretely very useful with the Cultural Creators/Stewards listed at the end.

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    • I am pleased you enjoyed this piece and found it helpful! Whatever your beliefs, connecting with the spirituality of a place and its history is meaningful!

      Reply
  3. I found this article to be very meaningful. I do believe that there is something about a connection with one’s spirituality when visiting in a sacred place and hearing about other beliefs. When we were in Hawaii our local guide led us quietly through the grounds of Hindu Temple in his own neighborhood. We were not allowed inside the temple, as they were have services that that time. However, we learned so much about their rituals and their way of life through our guide. Upon leaving, there was a peace and calmness that I had never experienced before. Thank you again for another wonderful article.

    Reply
    • Carol, I am so pleased this resonated with you. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. I, too, enjoy learning about the spiritual beliefs of the destinations I visit. You raise an important point, which is that guides really enhance any tourism experience of a sacred site because they can share the history and context that we can’t know intuitively.

      Reply
  4. Hi,
    I am grieving the recent loss of my husband of 52 years. Unexpectedly, and not fully understanding the why, I have book a trip to Sicily, and especially Palermo, where my husband visited in 1966 while serving in the US Navy. It was one of many ports of call for them. I’d like to hear more about secular pilgrimages as they relate to the passing of loved ones.
    Thank you,
    Linda

    Reply
    • Linda, my condolences on the loss of your husband. 52 years is a very long time and I am sure you are feeling his absence acutely. What a meaningful way to connect with his past by making your trip to Sicily. I myself took a trip to the Dingle Peninsula to scatter my mother’s ashes. It was not a request she made and her people were not from Dingle but further north. But she and I visited there and had a particularly good time with many laughs and nice moments of connection. I was called to do it, and I am so glad I listened to my intuition. I hope your trip is as memorable and moving a mine was!

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