As long as humans have found transcendent meaning in earthly places, they have made special journeys to those places. Traditionally, a pilgrimage is an act of religious devotion, but lately the word is used to describe a trip to any place that is especially inspiring to the traveler.
Religious pilgrimage is on the rise, and we have seen our numbers of Christians traveling to Israel and Turkey increase steadily over the last decade. Who can say why?
It’s tempting to blame (or thank??) the awful state of the world, but doubtful that the world is any worse off than it has ever been (except environmentally). Perception is everything though, and with most Americans continuously plugged-in to rolling, scrolling sensational headlines, it might seem more than ever that doomsday is nigh.
During the hard reality of the Great Recession, our pilgrimage bookings held strong and even increased. In difficult times, people are drawn to their source of faith, despite the challenges of getting there. Sometimes challenge and sacrifice is integral to pilgrimage. Some Buddhist pilgrims travel hundreds of miles on foot, prostrating themselves with every few steps, and some Christian pilgrims travel all or part of their pilgrimage on their knees.
Pilgrimage sites typically mark milestones in the lives of spiritual leaders, saints or prophets. Temples or shrines were raised to honor and memorialize these events, but often they were built in sites long sanctified by earlier traditions. Newly dominant or rising traditions built over the remains of old or fading ones. To some degree, at least, this was about expediency and appropriation. Established holy places were used to help transition people from the old to the new.
But maybe there’s more to it than that. As peoples migrate, as empires rise and fall, as cultural and social reforms happen, religious stories change, but, often, the holy places stay the same. Is there a force in the earth or an alignment in the heavens that makes these places inherently special and manifests in spiritual teachers, prophets and miraculous events? Or do the sites take on the intense energy that pilgrims bring to them, and thus attract other significant events and people? hmmm
I am not a Christian, or religious in any traditional sense, but some of my most memorable travel experiences have been at sacred Christian sites. In particular, the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem left an impression that I still feel, physically, years later. Many Christians, especially Roman Catholics, believe this was the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Whether these events actually happened there is debatable; but facts are irrelevant to spiritual inspiration. What I know is that something about that space was unlike anything I have experienced. Now, the atmosphere of the church, like temples of all sorts, is purposefully created to transport those who enter to a more inward focus. There was that, but more than that, almost a presence, almost tangible, almost oppressive. It was very hot, the air thick and dead-still, and there were other people who surely were moved to a degree I couldn’t begin to imagine. So, rather than a power of place, maybe I was affected by the emotional reactions of the true pilgrims around me. Either way, it was something way beyond a regular tourist visit. Analysis of why and how is very much not in the spirit of pilgrimage, so I’ll stop now.
Go in peace.