The Pilgrimage option

This series of articles was compiled by Johnnie Walker for the Confraternity of St James and with their kind permission they are reproduced here

Where are you going for your holidays this year?  There are so many choices it can be hard to decide: Will you go to beach resort or on an adventure holiday? To somewhere in the UK or abroad?

Many people decide to make a different kind of journey. They decide to separate themselves a little from their day to day world to travel to a destination with special spiritual significance. We call them pilgrims.

Photo by Gareth Thomas

The very word conjures up many pictures – the founding fathers of the United States arriving on the Mayflower in 1620, or a medieval pilgrim with long robe, hat and staff.   But although pilgrimage has its roots deep in history it is an activity which is thriving in modern times and each year sees an increase in the number of people making pilgrimages throughout the world.

In the middle ages pilgrims simply set off from the own front door and carrying few belonging started walking to their destination. The destinations remain the same today: Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Knock in Ireland, Iona in Scotland, St David’s in Wales, Canterbury in England, Rome and of course Jerusalem to mention but a few.

Other religions
The history of pilgrimage has deep roots in many world religions as well as Christianity.  For example it is the aim of all Muslims to make the famous Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Jewish people are drawn to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall.  In India each year many millions of Hindus make their way to the River Ganges to bathe where they believe their sins will be washed away. Those who follow the Sikh religion may travel to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple.

Why become a pilgrim?
They say there are as many reasons why people go on pilgrimage as there are pilgrims! Some people decide to take this time out to mark a special event in their lives, like retirement or after leaving University. Some newly married couples decide to spend quality time together making a spiritual journey. Others seek healing from a physical illness or recovery from a traumatic life event. Many others simply want to do it, to spend time on their own, thinking, reflecting, praying…just being.

Different kinds of pilgrimage
They say that the pilgrimage starts when you make the decision to go. Some people may decide to walk a long distance such as the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Jerusalem, a journey of some 3,500 miles. Others may join a party going by coach to Lourdes or to Walsingham here in England. Depending on the destination the journey may be long or short. There will be differences in the mode of transport. But the common bond is the fact that the pilgrim is setting aside time to make a special journey to a place of tangible holiness.

Photo by Gareth Thomas

What happens?
Usually after a period of preparation –  practicing walking with a rucksack, breaking in hiking boots, or simply booking the trip or buying the coach tickets – the journey begins. For all pilgrims this is exciting. The beginning of a journey into the unknown. Many pilgrims find that it is the journey itself which provides the greatest rewards. Meeting new friends, forming bonds with other pilgrims, having time to pray and reflect. And of course the sense of achievement of reaching the destination.

Can anyone become a pilgrim?
YES! Just look at the amount of people who do become pilgrims: each year some 5 million people journey to Lourdes with many more expected for its 150th anniversary in 2008. A quarter of a million pilgrims walked or rode to Santiago de Compostela in the last Holy Year in 2004.