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“Pilgrimage? Hmm, that sounds like a lot of religious mumbo jumbo to me”
(I’m sure I’ve heard someone, somewhere say this)
It’s true, the idea of a pilgrimage is usually associated with a religious ritual or rite of passage: the pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in Judaism and The Vatican in Catholicism.
But I am going to help myself to a little creative license here and suggest that any journey or travel can be considered a pilgrimage: and a non-religious one at that.
Don’t get too excited. This is not exactly groundbreaking.
It has been discussed before. Most recently at the dinner table in my house amongst a few close friends: an atheist, a Christian and…well, me…who falls somewhere in between.
We very quickly came to the realisation that our ideas of pilgrimage varied significantly. It was even suggested that our entire life journey could be considered a pilgrimage, or series thereof.
So what is a pilgrim?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a pilgrim as such:
- a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.
- a person travelling to a place of particular personal interest: ‘thousands of pilgrims converged in Memphis for the 16th anniversary of Presley’s death’
- (chiefly literary) a person regarded as journeying through life: ‘we should recognize our status as mere pilgrims in this world’
I recently wrote about walking an alternate route, a road less travelled, along the Camino de Santiago and received quite a few interesting comments about the motivation behind embarking on such a journey: in particular, religious motivation.
One of the friends from the dinner table discussion will be my travel companion on my next Camino pilgrimage along the Norte route. (This has now been postponed until next year)
Our motivations and expectations are vastly different.
Mine are simply that I would like to go for a nice long walk, eat some good tapas, hopefully have a few creative epiphanies and preferably cross the finish line with mind, body and spirit intact.
Hers are slightly more complex. And while quite spiritual in nature, they are not at all religious.
Interestingly, even the non-religious who attempt this walk (of whom there are many) openly refer to themselves as pilgrims. And why shouldn’t they?
There are embarking on a journey; they are moving towards something; they have a purpose in mind; they hope to find fulfillment, spiritual or otherwise; and to them, the journey they are making is sacred.
Sounds like a pilgrimage to me.
I have made the pilgrimage to Santiago twice and I don’t feel that my journey was any less sacred because of what I do or don’t believe. And despite the lack of religious motivation, it was still a pilgrimage.
Having said that, the impious can learn great deal about travel and pilgrimage from religion: it is, after all, where the idea of making a journey, or pilgrimage, originated.
Philosopher, Alain de Botton talks on this idea in more depth in this incredibly fascinating TED talk about what modern secular society can learn from religion. I love this guy!
Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago since the 10th century but the pilgrimage has become significantly more accessible since then.
Modern day pilgrims don’t have the same concerns as medieval pilgrims: encountering wolves and bandits and witches is not something most of us need to worry about these days. Blisters, yes. Wild boar, possibly. Wolves, no.
It is said that the more difficult the journey, the more sacred it becomes. I’m not sure I agree with that, but overcoming obstacles certainly contributes to a sense of fulfillment. Regardless, any journey can become sacred if you choose it to be.
So go forth pilgrims: Wave your staff in any direction and start moving towards it.