Pilgrimage: Spiritual Journey or Sacred Destination?

Since antiquity, mankind has felt the call to journey afar in search of meaning. From those of the Abrahamic religions to Zoroastrians, as well as many who subscribe to no particular belief set, a time comes to cross their threshold on what they consider a pilgrimage.

“Evolution of modern transportation systems and the requirement to fit into work schedules have changed pilgrimage,” observed Dr. Justine Digance of Griffith University in Australia. “Few today would entertain a year-round trip from the U.K. to the Holy Land, which was the norm in the Middle Ages—along with all the hardships.”

barefoot pilgrim“Many state that to be a pilgrim, one must encounter suffering,” she noted. “I don’t see that it has a role in today’s discussion of pilgrimage, unless it is offered as part and parcel of the event, such as barefoot climbing of Crough Patrick in August is said to bring merit, as does certain pilgrimages done barefoot in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.”

A resident of Kenmare, Ireland, Des Dempsey, 41, said that people come from all over to climb Crough Patrick, or the Reek, as it is known locally.

“From Balintubber Abbey there is a traditional pilgrimage route across the fields and wild lands to the base of the mountain,” Dempsey said. “Reek Sunday is traditionally the last Sunday in August when thousands come and climb it, though generally not the locals. They will usually beat the crowds and climb it the Friday before.”

“The Reek is a difficult climb, involving some suffering, physically and mentally, often with harsh exposure to the elements and some sacrifice — of time, comfort, requiring endurance and strength, challenging a person physically, mentally and spiritually,” he continued. “When I did the climbs, I was considering the rewards, rather than the cost.”

Wall under Croagh Patrick“To walk such well-trodden pilgrimage routes are journeys worthwhile doing in themselves, but they make the arriving all the more rewarding,” he went on. “You become part of a bigger journey, something bigger than the self. As for climbing barefoot, it makes it a very different journey. You have to be so much more conscious of every step, to be in the moment and the attention you get is great.”

“People have been traveling that route on pilgrimage for generations untold, long before Christianity came to Ireland certainly,” he concluded. “Then they climbed it for Lugh of the Long Arm, the Sun God. When St. Patrick arrived, he climbed it too and declared it for the new Christian God and the Irish, ever accommodating, said “Grand,” and continued climbing. It’s a special place, immediately obvious to me the first time I ever saw it, regardless of in whose name it is climbed.”

Just as mountains have attracted those seeking spiritual heights, the confluences of big rivers are often places of powerful mythology according to Rana P. B. Singh, professor of cultural geography and heritage studies at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi.

“The notion of Pudyadayi or ‘merit-giving’ refers to the inherent ‘spirit of place’ of a particular site, which since ancient times attracted sensitive and spiritual persons to come and get interconnected with the divine spirit as described in ancient texts,” he stated. “In the process of adding more representation from other religious places, and continuous superimposition of such mythic-mystic-sacrosanct images and rituals, the ‘merit-giving’ capacity of these places increased, expanded and attracted more people.”

Gange bathersAccording to Professor Singh, “Along the riverfront Ganga Ghats in Varanasi ‘life’ and ‘death’ both go together in the vision of Shiva’s cosmic dance. Shiva is the supreme and ultimate god of ‘life’ and ‘death’ together, and Varanasi is the resort of Shiva, that is how ‘life’ and ‘death’ are considered as two phases of life. The Ganga, being the liquid energy of Shiva, takes care of both the conditions: birth — life started in water, and death — final mergence is in the river.”

According to Tasoula Manaridis, 42, of Nicosia in Cyprus, it is the vestiges of spiritual leaders that make a locale sacred and beckon those seeking guidance and inspiration.

“In the Greek Orthodox faith a widespread and long-lasting custom is the journey to holy places to kneel in worship,” she said. “From antiquity and until present the conviction has persisted that prayer or the performance of religious duties are more effective in places where saints were born, died, wrought miracles, suffered martyrdom or merely existed; in ones where there were churches, relics of saints or miraculous icons. It is very common in the Orthodox religion that when someone faces a problem such as a serious illness to visit a place of worship, light a candle and pray for the well being of the ill.”

BYZANTINE PERIOD“Kykkos Monastery is one of those places,” she asserted. “The Monastery located in the Troodos Mountains is one of the richest monasteries on the island and it possesses one of the three icons of Virgin Mary ascribed by St Luke. Many pilgrims take day trips to the Monastery to pray and give an offering — it can be a piece of jewelry — to the Icon of Virgin Mary.”

For some pilgrims, the very journey itself is an offering.

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