What is Pilgrimage? Spiritual Seekers Share Experiences

Updated on January 21, 2023 by Meg
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What is pilgrimage? Is it a route, a destination, or a state of mind? An obligation or a plea? Is it religious, or 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.”

Photo Credit: Eva Michelsen

The “Way of St. James” is an ancient pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain that has been trod 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 on to 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.

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 holidays. 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.

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

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 central religious duties of the believer.

“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?”

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“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.”

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

Read: Learn about the spiritual journeys pilgrimages may take on their path to enlightenment!

Hindu Shradda Offers Sustenance to Departed Souls

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 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.”

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. "

"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 malades, 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 be simply acceptance. The point of the journey is to come back a better person."

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

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.

“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 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.

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

“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.

“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, where the tourist is a consumer. A pilgrims 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, 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.

Read More: Discover how places of pilgrimage allow people to connect with themselves, others, spirit!

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