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Pilgrimage Travel in the 21st Century

How Different is it From Centuries Past?

Pilgrimage Travel Mayan Temple
A Sacred Earth Journeys exploration of Mayan history and spirituality begins with the early unfamiliar Comalcalco Pyramid site on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Photo credit: Sacred Earth Journeys.

The word “pilgrim” immediately conjures up images of travel, but it goes far beyond that. Since the word first appeared in the western vocabulary of 14th century Europe, it has been associated with a sense of purpose, a commitment not just to wander through life but to pay attention, to focus, a wake-up call that may lead to positive change. Most of all, it has meant sacrifice, not just of time and money to reach the pilgrimage destination, but hardship to the human body and mental wellbeing. Reaching the destination was seldom easy, requiring weeks, months, even years away from family, community, livelihood …. no jetting across oceans or continents in a matter of hours nor driving comfortably to a pre-booked pilgrim hotel, reservation secured by credit card!

In medieval times, many people committed to pilgrimages because they were ill, or because they had a family member who was ill. Religious orders, even kings and queens, established hospitals along the most popular pilgrimage routes to care for sick or injured pilgrims many of whom never made it to their goal. Even today, illness, mental distress and disability remain important motivations for pilgrimage, though sometimes the pilgrimage comes after a trauma, or even as a challenge to it.

Nearing the end of my own pilgrimage along Spain’s Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James), I met a 66-year-old Canadian businessman hefting a large backpack who told me he had experienced a massive heart attack just six months earlier. It came very close to killing him. In his hospital bed, he had resolved to lose some 100 pounds (he was still over 200), get fitter than he had been for decades, and walk the 470 miles or 750 kilometers from the French/Spanish border to the pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela. For more than a month, he had walked through many elevations and weather systems, slept in hostels, and thought a lot about his life priorities. Though he was Greek Orthodox rather than Catholic, he was ecstatic to walk into this beautiful medieval city next day and wrap his arms around the cathedral’s statue of Saint James in the symbolic giving of thanks for a completed journey. A good pilgrimage easily crosses sectarian lines, as I discovered when I gave Saint James a solid Baptist hug myself after a humble 100 kilometers, the minimum required to receive my certificate as a Camino pilgrim.

Camino de Santiago Passport
Along the route, a pilgrim collects authorized stamps in a Camino passport to prove a walk of at least 100 kilometers.
Photo credit: Alison Gardner.

The Passion Play as Pilgrimage

I would argue that journeying afar to attend religious high drama captures the spirit of pilgrimage. Here are two examples.

Every ten years with 2010 coming up next, the seven-hour Obergammerau Passion Play, www.oberammergau-passion.com, in Bavaria, Germany has been organized and performed by the villagers of Obergammerau since 1634 when they were rescued from the worst effects of the plague. Nowadays, it is performed repeatedly between May and October during each anniversary year.

If you can’t wait ten years, create a vacation around the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, www.canadianpassionplay.com, in Alberta, Canada with six performances in six days each July. Stretching over many dramatic acres, the natural amphitheater with perfect acoustics for music and monologue brings visitors about as close to the raw scenery of the Israeli drylands as is possible without a trip to the Holy Land. In 2008, 10,000 people from around the world attended its 15th year of production involving hundreds of Drumheller residents.

Pilgrimage Travel Today

In the 21st century, the world seems to feel just as strongly about pilgrimage travel as it ever has, but have the motivations changed as much as the style? Wikipedia defines pilgrimage as follows: “In religion and spirituality, a pilgrimage is a long journey or search of great moral significance.” The Free Dictionary mentions “exalted purpose” which also sounds appropriate. Even with deep economic recessions and readily-accessible medical care in most western nations to cure our ailments, pilgrimage travel holds steady among the already-faithful and those who search for meaning and new directions in their lives. When such a world-class tour company as Globus, www.escortedglobustours.com, publishes a 60-page large format tour brochure entitled Religious Travel 2009, it’s got to be a growing market, not a stagnant or declining one!

Partly because the rigors and dangers of pilgrimage travel have been drastically reduced and partly because older people have the time, money, good health and compelling urge to explore the world, men and women age 50 and better make up the vast majority of pilgrim travelers, whether doing so independently or in groups of varying sizes.

With tour operators now putting on their creative one-week to three-week thinking caps, sometimes the goal becomes a well-blended collection of pilgrimage experiences and sightseeing rather than a single destination with a single focus. In fact, it raises the question whether the pilgrimage must have a destination, or is it to be about the journey in equal measure? For example, the British company, Pilgrim Adventure, freespace.virgin.net/pilgrim.adventure/, has been offering inexpensive ecumenical Christian journeys in small informal groups through historic Celtic Britain and Ireland since 1987. Daily hikes of up to five miles, island-hopping and worshipping in out-of-the-way places are all part of a memorable and insightful holiday.

Spiritual Communion on beach
A Pilgrim Adventure tour in Britain may include a simple communion service on the beach.
Photo Credit: Pilgrim Adventure.

Virtually every major religion has its revered places and spiritual festivals, many with deep historical roots and a compelling contemporary vibrancy. For example, almost all of Saudi Arabia’s very considerable tourism is made up of Moslem pilgrims visiting Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. For some travelers interested in pilgrimage as a concept, exploring the faith or spiritual directions of others is no threat to their own; in fact they may well view such explorations as complementary, even inclusionary to their own. Those with no external faith-label at all still make good candidates for pilgrimage travel, possibly looking for the catalyst to self-discovery and life direction using spiritual tools they have never considered.

Helen Tomei, owner of Sacred Earth Journeys, www.sacredearthjourneys.ca, roams the world in search of spiritually significant experiences for her large repeat clientele. Pilgrimage tours to Egypt, India, Mexico and Peru are perennial favorites while other popular destinations have been Japan, Bhutan, England and Ireland. “On tour we normally visit different sacred sites relating to the spiritual meaning and teachings of a particular civilization,” says Helen, “such as the Mayans of Mexico or the Inca of Peru. Connecting to the natural setting, imbued with powerful energies, also allows each individual to experience the traditions and wisdom of the ancients first hand.”

In the U.S., Sedona, Arizona is also known as a primary spiritual center for visitors the world over. The stunning collection of red sandstone formations, changing color as light and shadow play over them, truly sends spirits soaring onto a higher plain of meditation on the meaning of life and nature, even if you are unfamiliar with the concept of a spiritual vortex. With 17 years experience, Sedona Spirit Adventures, spiritravel.com guides clients coming to Sedona for spiritual retreats and personal pilgrimages. Whether it's an overnight experience in a cave, a full day or a three-hour hike to accessible places of great beauty, the encounters are enlightening and memorable.  

I had never been a pilgrimage person, religious or spiritual, until I lived for two years in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, 45 minutes from Medjugorje, visited annually by one million of the Catholic faithful and the curious since 1980. Despite the numbers, particularly in the summer months, the still-small town with no high-rise hotels or fast-food outlets is a cheerful, unhurried, accommodating experience where fellow pilgrims strike up conversations with strangers and spontaneously share a restaurant table or a countryside hike.

Then in 2007, I fell in love with the mountain top pilgrim site of La Salette in the French Alps, lesser-known than Medjugorje with no crowds at all for the very good reason that only a few hundred people can stay in the efficiently-run retreat center, booked well in advance. No town, no shops at the end of a hairpin turn road …. just layer upon layer of mountain ranges, the tinkling bells of sheep, and dozens of ridge-top hiking trails straight out of the opening scenes of The Sound of Music.

Pilgrimmate travel, Lat Salette, France
La Salette in the French Alps above Grenoble provides the perfect natural backdrop for a pilgrim retreat.
Photo credit: Alison Gardner

Going out on a pilgrimage limb, I am predicting a brand new reason to visit Hawaii’s island of Moloka’i. In October 2009, Father Damien, the first non-Hawaiian to serve the infamous Kalaupapa leper colony (1873 to 1889) will be elevated to sainthood 120 years after his own death at 49 years from contracting leprosy. His is a remarkable story of persistence and selflessness, and the Kalaupapa Peninsula today is a surprisingly inspirational setting despite its grim history. Still physically-challenging to access by mule or on foot (though an unchallenging plane flight has recently been introduced), here is just the sort of pilgrimage destination where reflecting on “exalted purpose” and “moral significance” comes very naturally.

Pilgrimmate travel in Hawaii
Father Damien Grave: The gravesite of Father Damien on Hawaii’s island of Moloka’i may become a new pilgrimage destination.
Photo Credit: Ray Mains.

Pilgrimage Tours and Additional Research

Body Mind Spirit Journeys, www.bodymindspiritjourneys.com.

Camino de Santiago small group tour operators:

Dance of the Deer Foundation, www.shamanism.com.

Pilgrim Adventure, freespace.virgin.net/pilgrim.adventure.

Sacred Earth Journeys, www.sacredearthjourneys.ca.

Sedona Spiritual Adventures, www.spiritravel.com.

Pilgrimage-Related Articles

“In Search of Sacred Places” www.travelwithachallenge.com/Sacred-Travel.htm, speaks eloquently to the value of visiting places of power and spirituality and the attitude with which one should approach them.

A collection of five richly-illustrated articles speaks to very different experiences of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, www.travelwithachallenge.com/Spanish_Walking_Tour.htm. 2010 is a Camino holy year (next one is 2022) which will swell pilgrim numbers well past the annual average of 200,000 and create accommodation crunches along the route, but it will also generate additional excitement and activities.

A mule ride into Moloka’i’s Kalaupapa Peninsula focuses on pilgrimage possibilities as well as the natural and historic experience, www.travelwithachallenge.com/Hawaii-Molokai.html.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

Travel with a Challenge: The Site for Senior Travelers