A pilgrimage is a unique travel experience and the reasons why people take one are varied. You may have heard of people going on a religious pilgrimage, traveling for days to get to a sacred site, many times walking all the way there. Some people embark on a pilgrimage journey seeking healing from a difficult time in their life. Whatever the reason, I think everyone should go on a pilgrimage at least once in their life. From a monastery in France to an abbey on the western coast of Scotland, I’ve been on seven of them myself. I have compiled a list of reasons for why you should go on a pilgrimage.
1. A unique experience
A pilgrimage is not supposed to be a sightseeing trip or a relaxing vacation. It’s a physical, emotional and spiritual journey that forces you to go outside the familiar. It takes you away from your busy life and allows time for quiet reflection.
When I was the Director of Youth Ministries for my church going on a pilgrimage was a key element of our youth program. I sought locations that took my students out of their comfort zone and helped them to focus on the spirituality of the place. For many of my teens, this unique experience was life changing and inspirational.
2. Following in the footsteps of others
People have been going on pilgrimages for centuries. Taking a pilgrimage to a well traveled location alleviates some of the stress in pre-trip planning because your path is already set. It can also generate a sense of accomplishment in completing a journey that many others have sought before you.
When I was planning for the Camino de Santiago through Spain, it helped tremendously to have so much information from others about accommodations, what to expect, how to pack and where to eat. Walking in the footsteps of those who had gone on this journey before me made me feel like I was a part of something way bigger than myself.
3. Seeking answers to faith questions
A pilgrimage always has a destination that can be a sacred sanctuary, some type of worship, sacred grounds or a relic. People journey to these destinations to answer personal questions of faith. Completing a pilgrimage to a holy destination allows you the time and space that you need for discernment about your faith, to be strengthened in this faith and to feel enlightened. For years it has been a belief that at these places of pilgrimage there is a thin veil between this life and the after life. Visiting a thin place is an opportunity to connect with your beliefs on a deeper level.
The Isle of Iona in Scotland is considered one of these thin places because it is where Christianity first came to Scotland. On my pilgrimage to Iona, our group took the six-hour guided walk around the island. During our walk we were asked to spend some time in silence. When I stood in front a Celtic cross, that had been at this location since the year 1200, I could feel the presence of those who had come here before me. As I walked along Iona's Columba Beach, there was a peace that came over me as if the island was revealing something special. Pilgrimage to Iona
Maybe you got a divorce, finished chemotherapy, had some other illness, or are grieving a loss. A pilgrimage is the perfect journey for physical and spiritual healing. Some people believe that coming in close proximity to holy places or relics can bring them good fortune or rub off healing powers back on them.
At most of the locations I have traveled on pilgrimage, there has been lines of people waiting to receive healing or comfort at the foot of an ancient relic or during a communal mass. At the Cathedral de Santiago, pilgrims place their hand on the pillar of St. James and bring their prayers and petitions. In Iona the walking pilgrimage begins with prayers at a Celtic cross, St. Martin’s Cross. People travel many miles to spend the week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in France seeking healing. Cathedral de Santiago
5. Be part of a community, or wanting your group to bond
You will most likely meet some extraordinary people while on pilgrimage. Whether sharing a communal meal, sleeping in group accommodations or while walking to your destination, there are many opportunities to enjoy unique encounters with strangers. Conversations are easily had when you know are traveling with the same desires. Depending on where you are going there may also be a time in each day to share your difficulties and hopes with others in a Bible reflection. If you don’t want to travel solo, a pilgrimage can make you feel less alone and part of something greater than yourself.
If you are traveling in a group, it is the best bonding experience I have ever encountered. The group is forced to rely on each other to make it through the physical demands of carrying everything you need on your back and walking for days. If as a group you set your intentions for your journey, it helps the group have ownership of their experience and find their voice during times set aside for the group's sharing.
I have traveled twice to Taize, an ecumenical Christian monastery in Burgundy France. Our group of students stayed the required full week to take part in one of Taize's youth weeks. Students come together from all over the world to participate in the community life of prayer, singing and silence three times a day, their daily Bible reflection studies and afternoon workshops. When we returned home our students were closer than they had ever been. Today many of them still keep in touch with friends that they met at Taize from France, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. Pilgrimage to Taize
6. An intercultural experience
An Intercultural experience is about more than visiting other countries. A pilgrimage offers more opportunities than most other trips for you to meet people from other cultures. It is truly an intergenerational, multicultural experience where people leave their differences behind them and openly share their stories.
I've enjoyed many intercultural experiences. I love dancing and was thrilled to participate in a Native American dance demonstration at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on my pilgrimage in Alaska. In Taize I helped lead youth discussions and create intercultural activities with students from around the world. In the evenings at Oyak in Taize, the community comes together sharing their music, native dances and stories. I met a man there from Canada who traveled the world playing a saw with a bow. On the Camino, we met a man from France who as a young boy had walked this pilgrimage and left a coin in a crack on the wall near the cathedral. We cried with him as he retrieved his disintegrating coin from the wall.
7. Be physically and emotionally challenged to go outside your comfort zone
Pilgrimages are not easy. They are physically and emotionally challenging. Walking for days on end, carrying everything on your back is not an easy task even for the avid walker. Doing self-reflection and pursuing answers to your spiritual questions is difficult. But struggling and having unexpected experiences are pivotal moments of your journey. In fact, the journey to your locations, itself is the defining element. So, if you want to be physically and emotionally challenged then going on a pilgrimage is for you.
I have to admit that walking 100 km of the Camino was one of the most physically challenging trips I have taken. No matter how much pre preparation I had done, I was not ready. I even got sick, along with a few others in our group. But because of this I had to learn to release control and allow others to help me. Getting overwhelmed by physical challenges brought a spiritual transformation that I wasn’t expecting to have until I had arrived at the cathedral.
8. Learn the history of a place
A pilgrimage is an opportunity to not only look at the spiritual roots of a place, but also its history. Travel on a pilgrimage to Rome and while you are enhancing your spirituality learn about the religious art and intellectual achievements of one of the most important cities in ancient history. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a history lesson on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. You can also take a pilgrimage that is an exhibition about the history of a place or person like the Downpatrick Walking Trail or Hadrian’s Wall Path.
For 300 years Hadrian’s Wall was one of the most significant defensive fortifications constructed by the Roman Empire that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a great pilgrimage to walk if you are on a quest for historical knowledge of a place. While walking Hadrian’s Wall Path I was fascinated with the history of the Roman wall and artifacts that are still being excavated there. It was my first pilgrimage seeking to discover the historical roots of a place. I found this trek into the past, gaining understanding of the preservation of history and discovering my own enlightenment was comparable to a spiritual pilgrimage.
Now that you’ve finished reading our reasons for going on a pilgrimage, it’s time to pack your bags and start your journey.