What Is a Spiritual Pilgrimage?

by Nikki Jardin

A spiritual pilgrimage is a physical journey toward a place of sacred or religious significance. It can also be an open-ended undertaking with no specific destination in mind; where the journey itself becomes a quest of personal reflection on your faith, to show devotion to the divine or to make spiritual amends. They can also be used to bring awareness to a social cause. Pilgrimages are more commonly thought of as solo ventures, but they can involve a shared group experience.

History

Men walking toward Fatima Cathedral

People have been making pilgrimage for thousands of years. In medieval times, it was common for Christians to walk hundreds of miles to visit the resting place or icon of a preferred saint. The Camino Santiago, which has routes across Europe ending in northern Spain at the burial site of St. James, has been an active pilgrimage for nearly 2,000 years. Today, thousands of people from many faiths make pilgrimages to a sacred site. Catholics and Christians visit Fatima in Portugal and Lourdes in France. Buddhists will journey to the place of Buddha's enlightenment, the Bodh Gaya in India; and all members of the Islamic faith are encouraged to go to Mecca at least once in their life.

A Different Way

In some cases, the pilgrimage does not focus on one particular destination or religious faith. One example is that of Peace Pilgrim, a woman who walked across the United States for 28 years in an effort to promote peace. She was steadfast in her pilgrimage to "remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter, fasting until given food." She walked more than 25,000 miles before she died in 1981 at the age of 73.

Political Pilgrimage

Native American 2008 Walk

Some pilgrimages have a further political or social justice component to them and are meant to exact change on a larger scale. In 2008, a group of Native Americans walked across the United States to bring awareness to the desecration of sacred sites and environmental degradation taking place on Indian reservations. Collecting information as they walked for 5 months, they presented a "manifesto" to Congress asking for an immediate end to dangerous and destructive practices, such as uranium mining on Native American land. In Japan, there is an annual pilgrimage to the sites of the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Made to honor the victims of the 1945 bombing, it is also a journey to bring awareness to the event and to promote the end of using such weapons in the future.

Modes of Transportation

There is no right way to get to your pilgrimage, although the most common method is to walk. Part of the significance of a pilgrimage is that it involves some physical discomfort to demonstrate devotion or to show earnestness in effort. In the modern world, many people use other methods of transportation as well. Today, some people will fly to their destination, take a bus or a train or ride a bicycle. The method of how you get there is less important than the spiritual intention behind the journey.

The Bigger Picture

A spiritual pilgrimage is meant to be a time of personal reflection. People who have experienced a pilgrimage of any nature speak about a level of transformation that allows them to seek a greater purpose for their life, whether it's on a personal level or on a community or global level. The simple act of putting time and energy aside for purely spiritual reasons can be enlightening in its own right.

About the Author

Nikki Jardin began freelance writing in 2009 and focuses on food and travel articles. She has been a professional cook and caterer for more than 20 years. She holds a degree in environmental science from Humboldt State University.

Photo Credits

  • all photos by Nikki Jardin