What is Pilgrimage?

 Way of St. James boot marker

Photo Courtesy of Eva Michaelsen

Is it a routea destination, or a state of mind?  Is it 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.”

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.

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

Photo courtesy of Eva Michaelsen

Eva Michaelsen, 50, 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.

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.

back of arab with headdress“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?”

map hajj“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.”

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2 thoughts on “What is Pilgrimage?”

  1. Meg – I loved this piece!! I think it’s possible to go on a pilgrimage without ever having a change of scenery. I was trying to figure out “what to do for my second act” and in walked Genysys and Strategic Futuring which has been somewhat “life-changing” and transformational. The interesting part is that I wasn’t searching for meaning at the time. My unique sort of pilgrimage has actually been the catalyst for a search for meaning (the other way around).

    Very neat… Thanks for sharing!


  2. Great way to describe a pilgrimage. I completed the Camino de Santiago in October of this year (2012). Many people I spoke to when I came home had never heard of it and didn’t understand why I did it. It is often a very personal questions…and a tough one to answer. I think you summed it up brilliantly….I especially like how you suggested you needed a calling first! I had been contemplating the camino for a few years, but it was only earlier this year when the urge to do it became almost fierce…I had to go! Perhaps the life events of the past year let me to this point. I am so lucky it did.

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