Why do people go on pilgrimages?

Christian pilgrimages have existed since the disciples first ran to see the empty tomb. St Helena journeyed to Jerusalem in 326 and gathered lots of relics which she brought back with her, and from 385AD we have the first pilgrim’s guide book ‘pereginatio egeria’. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, the heyday of Christian pilgrimage, it was a fundamental part of European Christian Life. It also had a profound impact on roads, borders, trade etc. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, nonetheless, so the reasons for undertaking such a perilous trip were as powerful as they were numerous.


In the footsteps of Christ

A common reason was the echoes it gave of the journey of Christ and his short stay on earth. The pilgrim was reminded of the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt and of their own stay here as ‘strangers and foreigners.’

A sacred place

The destination of the pilgrimage was also important. Each journey was made with a clear destination in mind, usually a shrine of a saint, probably one that contained a relic of the saint. These were held in great veneration as a potentially active source of spiritual energy. By travelling to places where saints had lived or performed miracles, it was felt that a closeness was gained to the saint which perhaps could put one in favour with them .


To ask a favour

Because of this, pilgrimages were often made with special requests in mind. The pilgrim might be asking for something, for success in a business venture perhaps. It is thought that the frequency of Henry VIII’s visits to Walsingham were concerned with his longing for a son. In the Middle Ages historians believe that there was not a single year when the plague was raging in one part or another of Europe. Many a pilgrimage was started to escape the plague, or to ask for safety from it.

Others were made in obedience to an oath taken in moments of extreme danger. Travellers in danger of shipwreck would vow to go on a pilgrimage in the event of their safe arrival in port. Soldiers embarking on the Crusades, themselves seen as a type of pilgrimage, would often journey to a shrine to pray for safety during their adventure

Seeking forgiveness

In parallel with the belief that fervent praying at the shrine of the saint whose particular care was the sufferers of a certain illness might influence the saint to take pity on the poor pilgrim and effect a cure, went the belief that physical illness was a sign of spiritual malady – an illness was caused by the sufferer’s sin or was a punishment by the saint for a certain offence committed by the sinner. Penitence in the form of prayers at the saint’s shrine might result in a cure. Often, if the disease had a psychological cause, this was indeed the case.

By the thirteenth century, the idea of the pilgrimage as penance had developed and taken root in the church as was recognised as a legitimate form of penance. The bishop could impose a penance for a serious ecclesiastical crime and the pilgrimage was a favourite form. Private penances could also be performed by pilgrimage. From this penitential system came the granting of indulgences. The form after committing a sin became sin, confession, absolution, penalty. These penalties were graded and there duration specified in days, weeks and years. However these penances could be reduced by performing a good work such as pilgrimage. The Church took the power to grant pardons or indulgences for sins, saving the recipient from a fixed duration in purgatory. The sale of these indulgences at holy sites and shrines became a major source of income for the Church.

In addition to this, a form of judicial penance existed, whereby a person could be sentenced to carry out a pilgrimage. Thus Henry II travelled on his knees to Canterbury in 1174 for authorising the execution of Thomas a Becket. The Inquistion adopted this procedure as a penalty for heretics in the south of France.

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Escaping the everyday

In addition to these official reasons for pilgrimage there existed several unofficial ones. As well as being the price of crime, the pilgrimage could also be a way of escaping the consequences of one’s crime. As wearer of the pilgrim’s cross the traveller’s safety was assured under the protection of St Peter and the Pope. He became beyond the reach of the law and could not be arrested or taken to civil court. The Merchant Seaman’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tells of escaping one’s debts by undertaking a pilgrimage.

Why go on pilgrimage today?

The reasons for the contemporary pilgrim to undertake such a journey are less immediately obvious.

To arrive at the destination

The destination of the modern pilgrim has declined in importance compared to medieval times. One notable exception is Santiago de Compostela, perhaps now the most famous Christian pilgrim destination. Even with this, however, it is the journey towards this site that is seen to be the key to growth and insight, the shrine being percieved merely a way of signifying the end of that journey. However Christopher Lewis, Dean of Christ Church 2003-2014, spoke clearly and convincingly of the importance of the return home and its place within the pilgrimage. Just as the journey outwards and the destination are opportunities for spiritual growth and understanding, so the return home must offer integration and the putting into practise those insights gained whilst away.

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More often than seeking absolution, the modern pilgrim seeks healing; many thousands of pilgrims flock to Lourdes each year, and the Bureau des Constatations, which records occurrences of healing, states that in the first fifty years of the shrine’s existence, over 4,000 miracles occurred.

Occasionally the modern pilgrim will undertake a journey out of penance – 2021 is a Holy Year for the trail to Santiago de Compostela. Anyone who undertakes this journey will get double the amount of time remitted from purgatory.

And penance

Often a feeling of performing a penance is present in an unspoken way – a pilgrim might journey after a divorce or a death, exploring feelings of regret for past actions, ‘walking out’ feelings of guilt and remorse.

The pains experienced on the journey turn into an opportunity for spiritual penitence and humility. Many healthy people, fit and trained for the event might feel sure of themselves and their abilities at the beginning of a journey. A foot full of blisters can prove an object lesson in humility and an opportunity to accept the help of others.

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An opportunity to re-evaluate

The journey of a pilgrim can offer the chance to reevaluate one’s life. Living on the threshold of normal life brings a new perspective to it. The pilgrimage as a useful spiritual exercise, reminding one of the nature of our journey on this earth and our short stay here. It can be a way of making sense of our physical and spiritual journey. The time and space offered on a physical journey can help an understanding of the corresponding spiritual progress. A pilgrimage puts us in touch with the communion of saints; with all who have travelled that way before and will travel it afterwards.

A desire to escape everyday life, with its restrictions and limitations, can be very powerful, and with this desire, a sense of seeking time and space in which to find meaning and personal transformation. Those whose lives appear to have reached a dead end, or whose life circumstances have taken an unexpected turn, travel to find space, to find a resolution of the past and resolve for the future.

The issue of authenticity

Pilgrimage itself is not value-free. The way of travel carries its own hierarchy. Those who travel by coach or car are not counted. This issue also highlights who is in charge of ‘authenticity’. Obvious influences are the Church and government, but pilgrims have an authority in shaping the authentic.

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Escape and adventure

There are many different reasons that compel people today to undertake teh challenges of pilgrimage. Once on the route, however, the travellers find themselves becoming pilgrims, both through their own expectations and through the culture around them – their identity is ‘socially conferred as well as personally created’. This in turn has an effect on how they see their journey and their own expectations of it.

An opportunity to change

Nancy Frey (Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago) summarises the Camino experience as something that provides ‘opportunities to live, at least temporarily, another reality, and to discover alternative ways of perceiving and acting in the world.’ There are both both superficial and enduring changes, but as she concludes ‘one chooses to be changed’. This ‘choosing to be changed’, which goes in tandem with a recognition of a need for change, and a desire to do so, is perhaps the root and foundation of pilgrimage today.

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