I enjoy traveling. I do not get to travel very frequently. In the trips I have taken over past years, though, I have never considered any of them to be an actual pilgrimage.
Yes, there were specific sites I wished to see, about which I had heard/read/was curious. Some/Many of them have been church buildings related to the Christian faith (so much so that, on one group trip many years ago, a participant remarked, “When can we go shopping?1 If I have to look at ONE MORE CHURCH…ugh!”) What can I say? Beyond faith, I’m a fan of old church architecture.
I recently attended the National Geographic sponsored exhibit entitled “Sacred Journeys.” It is based on their episodic series (aired on PBS) of the same name featuring author/host Bruce Feiler’s exploration of people and their personal faith pilgrimages in their particular religion/faith. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pilgrimage in primarily two, similar ways: 1) a journey to a holy place, or 2) a journey to a special or unusual place.
For some the sacred journey/pilgrimage is an obligation of their faith practice. For Muslims, the Hajj to Mecca is mandatory at least once in an adult’s lifetime. Within Judaism, there are/were three annual festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) for which the faithful were expected to journey to the temple in Jerusalem. Pilgrimage is not prescribed in this manner for the Christian.*
Of course, in a very non-faith related way, we may encounter secular talk of making a pilgrimage to a particular sports venue, historical site or landmark.
Fr. James Martin, S.J., author, editor and occasional guest on The Colbert Report shared his experiences in his aptly titled book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” The book is part pilgrimage, part travelogue, part personal spiritual reflection. It is a hefty book, but, in my opinion, very much worth the effort. It is an easy read that really brings some honesty to the topic.
I think the question that lies at the heart of the matter is, “When am I being a tourist vs. when am I engaging a faith journey?” Certainly, we marvel at sunsets, mountain ranges, canyons, etc. as inspiring wonders of God’s creation. But, it seems so subjective. You may not have the same experience as me at any given site, at any given time, even if we were traveling companions.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still consider the impact that taking such a journey may have on our own faith. But, I wrestle with the efficacy of such an expedition for myself. I ponder whether I really need to visit and see specific sites to affirm or solidify the foundation of my faith. Would it alter my faith to stand at the edge of the Sea of Galilee any more than to stand at the edge of Niagara Falls? Would seeing these sites (genuine or not) lend more or less credibility to my study of Scripture? I have heard from colleagues that, indeed, travel to holy places does make a difference.
In some way, I wonder if I simply need to be more attentive to sacred moments and encounters in my everyday travels. Could these not very well be as meaningful, if not more than, joining a mass of people crammed into a space striving to get even the barest glimpse of a site or artifact that may or may not be 100% verifiable. (Fr. Martin encounters and discusses this throughout his own journey)
I will say, it was intriguing and inspiring at the exhibit to see so many experiences of seeking a connection with the divine. If it opens near you, I recommend going and spending a good amount of time taking in the various aspects of faith across such a broad spectrum that may not normally be available.
Where would you define a “holy place?” What would you consider a pilgrimage? Is there a particular place or trip for you that had a lasting impact in your self-understanding, or possibly opened you up to new ways or perspectives to consider things?
*You can learn more about the history of Christian pilgrimage by investigating Origen, Constantine, and his mother Helena.
[Author’s note: As this post will likely be appearing sometime in November, I think it is fitting to note that those we commonly refer to as Pilgrims (and sadly usually identify by their black-and-white clothing, belt-buckle laden clothing and headwear and reliance on native people to survive) are “pilgrims” because of their journey, not necessarily their belief system or any associated obligations. Pilgrims, in a sense, seems a misnomer; more like refugee-immigrants (maybe?).]