What sets a pilgrimage apart from an ordinary trip? Sometimes it’s intention—people set out on a journey that they hope will draw them closer to spirit. Sometimes it happens without a traveler even being aware of it, and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that it becomes apparent that the journey was in fact a pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage, in short, is a spiritual journey that touches the heart and soul.
The impulse to go on a pilgrimage may come to you in the form of a dream, a chance encounter, or a persistent yearning that refuses to be silenced. On our journey we may be given insights in forms we don’t expect, so that when we return, we find our lives mysteriously enriched.
Pilgrimage is a nearly universal practice in religion, with Muslims journeying to Mecca and Jews to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Christians walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the saints. Hindus travel to the Kumbh Mela, a festival said to be the world’s largest religious gathering, while Buddhists go to Bodhgaya in India where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
The object of a pilgrimage is not rest and relaxation (though that may happen), but rather spiritual growth. It often begins with questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What do I need to hear? What can draw me closer to spirit? What do I need to heal my wounds?
Whether you set out alone on a deserted trail, or travel in the company of like-minded souls, pilgrimage is both an outer and inner journey. Ordinary trips bring a change in scenery; pilgrimages are meant to trigger renewal and rebirth. Travelers exist between worlds and are open to new experiences in ways that don’t happen when we’re in our familiar routines. Lives and hearts can be changed as a result of what we encounter on the road.
I know my own wanderings have helped shape my spiritual life in unexpected ways. Over the years, I’ve increasingly found myself drawn to sacred sites on my journeys. Places like the healing shrine at Chimayo in New Mexico, the Native American holy mountain of Bear Butte in South Dakota, and the Celtic Christian landmarks in Ireland are just a few of the places that have exerted a powerful pull on my soul. Something that I saw reflected in the faces of pilgrims at those shrines made me want to deepen my own spiritual journey.
A pilgrim differs from other kinds of travelers. While those on ordinary journeys typically seek comfort and convenience, pilgrims often endure hardship willingly, for the difficulties can become a way of tempering and strengthening their soul.
They may travel to a site with a religious association such as Rome or Lourdes, to a remote and beautiful natural place, or to a place of personal significance (the small village in Mexico where their family traces its roots, for example, or the battlefield their father fought on in Europe).
Whatever the destination, it is a journey in quest of spiritual insight and greater self-awareness. A pilgrimage is a journey meant to trigger inner transformation. In this act of devotion, souls are healed and lives changed.
The Call to A Spiritual Journey
The impulse to go on pilgrimage can happen in a variety of ways. The decision may emerge from a long period of restless longing, a sudden inspiration, a life change or personal tragedy, or a chance meeting that turns out to have greater significance. Certain books may find their way into your hands. A casual conversation at the bus stop sets you ruminating on something you haven’t thought of in years. The ending of your chemotherapy treatment makes you want to set out on a journey to reflect upon your experiences. A milestone birthday triggers itchy feet and a quest for new meaning in your life.
The natural world may speak to you as well. When the Oglala Sioux visionary Black Elk was ready to go on pilgrimage, even the animals spoke to him. “It is time! It is time!” crows cried as they flew past him, bringing a message that could not be ignored.
Once a traveler is on pilgrimage, it’s important to cultivate a spirit of self-reflection, openness, and attention. Without it, a pilgrimage becomes only a vacation, for a true pilgrimage is as much an inner journey as an outward one. The attitude of mindfulness and of acceptance of whatever the day brings is far more essential than any physical possession a pilgrim carries. Two travelers may go on exactly the same journey, and one will have a profoundly life-changing experience while the other complains that the food is bad and the sightseeing disappointing.
There’s nothing wrong with an ordinary vacation, for sometimes what we most need to do is chill out on a beach with a mystery novel and a gin and tonic. But there are other times—which tend to come after losses and at transition points like graduations, decade birthdays, and retirements—when the road calls to us in a different way.
Even if we think we’re not religious, even if we’re skeptical of any kind of spirituality, there seems to be something in our DNA that draws us to wayfaring. I suspect it’s part of what first drew our ancestors out of the trees on the savannas of Africa and eventually to every corner of the earth.
I think the modern world is in great need of rediscovering the power of pilgrimage. Too much of our religious practice is a stolid, static affair. By seeking wild and lonely places, by walking in the footsteps of holy ones who have gone before us, and by mingling with other travelers not afraid to ask hard questions, we connect with something that is untamed and untapped within ourselves.
We can relearn the ancient wisdom that recognizes that the simple act of walking can soothe our soul and open our hearts. We can connect with other pilgrims on the road, learning from them and teaching in return, and be be reminded that we are part of a much larger story, one that has been going on for thousands of years.
Most of all, we can awaken to the sacredness of the present moment, escaping from the routines and habits that hold us captive.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.