The word ‘pilgrim’, derived from the Latin peregrinum, describes someone on a journey seeking spiritual significance. The Catholic Church has designated many places holy and worthy to visit; some have importance because of the birth, death or spiritual awakening of certain saints. Others are apparition sites for the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as Lourdes in France, and Fatima in Portugal. Some are important cathedrals or basilicas.
Christians make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and other religious sites for various reasons. Some go wanting to increase their faith, while some go for healing or intercession for some other need. Other pilgrims journey to honor God or give thanks for prayers answered. Christian pilgrimages have their roots in the Jewish faith, as Jewish law required all men to visit the temple in Jerusalem at least three times a year. (See Ascending to God below for more info)
Recently my good friend, Maryan Lerch, shared her experience of going on pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. Pilgrims plod through rocky mountains and dusty fields to reach the Cathedral of St. James in the historic town of Santiago de Compostela. The bones of St. James the Greater were miraculously found buried in a field in 811 AD, and a basilica was built over the holy saint. Destroyed by Muslims in 997, a magnificent Romanesque Cathedral was built over the untouched tomb in the 11th century. Between the 11th and 18th centuries the tomb of St. James became the most popular destination for pilgrimages in all of Europe.
Maryan compared her pilgrimage to our spiritual journey to heaven, with the same “challenges, hardships and sufferings, which are opportunities to come to know Jesus more deeply”. She explained there is an etiquette on the Way and you are cautious in asking someone their reasons for making the trek. Only after traveling together for some time is it proper to ask this question, and sometimes the answer might be short and trite, closing off further conversation. Just as everyone’s journey on the Way is personal and to be respected, so everyone’s spiritual journey to God is unique and sacred.
My pilgrim friend stressed the importance of the yellow arrows guiding you in the right direction. Sometimes the arrows were hidden down low to the ground in rocks, and sometimes they were on a wall, so the pilgrim had to watch carefully. Otherwise they would get lost and go in circles, just as sometimes those on their spiritual journey flit from one religion to another, from Zen Buddhism, to Jehovah Witnesses, to Christianity. They take a circuitous route confused about the right path, while others stride confidently toward their goal, surefooted and certain of their path.
Before pilgrims undertake the path of the Way, they appoint a leader to determine the pace and monitor the limitations of each pilgrim. The leader will make sure the group takes regular breaks so they don’t get too exhausted before they reach their daily goal. In our spiritual life we all need a spiritual guide who will point us in the right direction when we get stuck in a valley or wander aimlessly in circles. Whether you have an ‘official’ spiritual director, or whether your friend or spouse gives you guidance, they can help you stay balanced to make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself by becoming over-involved in church ministry, or neglecting your prayer life.
Just as life can be trying with bouts of cancer, financial problems and family tension, so Maryan’s trek was arduous and painful. I simply can’t imagine the agony of their feet as she and her husband plodded eight to ten hours a day on dirt paths filled with potholes, rocks and manure. Maryan described their bone deep weariness at the end of each day, and the sheer relief when her husband rubbed and caressed her cracked and swollen feet with scented lotion. At the end of their almost month long pilgrimage, when they reached the plaza in front of the Cathedral, Maryan described the power of the Holy Spirit that flowed over her like a fountain, filling her with the realization that only through God’s grace and power were they able to complete their strenuous quest.
Hiking the Way helped Maryan to live in the moment and not anticipate possible pitfalls ahead. God calls Himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), not a God of yesterday or tomorrow, but a God of today, because He wants us to fully live each moment and not dwell in regrets over the past or fear of the future. Just as pilgrims on the Way rest regularly, those on their spiritual journey should pray daily and annually attend some kind of retreat to renew and inspire their faith, and refresh their spiritual energy.
Some time ago I was blessed to go on pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, where the Blessed Mother appeared to three children back in 1914 and asked for ‘her children’ to do penance and pray (full message below). It was a profound experience and for the entire two weeks I felt securely wrapped in God’s loving embrace. In the evenings the sick would be brought out on stretchers and wheelchairs, and everyone would light a candle while reciting the rosary. It was a mystical moment when the veil between heaven and earth was opened, and you knew you were in the presence of angels and saints.
As Archbishop Raymond Burke explains, “It is important for the faithful to go on pilgrimage in order to rediscover the extraordinary nature of our ordinary Christian life. Being human, we easily forget the great mystery that is our life in Christ, the mystery that we live every day. When we leave our customary surroundings and make the effort to travel to a holy place, we receive the grace to look anew at our own life in Christ and see more clearly the extraordinary mystery of God’s merciful love in our lives.” (link below)
After we left Fatima we drove by bus to Santiago de Compostella and visited the hallowed shrine. As I gazed at the sacred tomb containing the holy bones of St. James, it felt as though angels were lifting me up and whisking me to the throne of God. Later, as I watched pilgrims wearily complete their journey and enter the Cathedral, I felt incredible bliss and had a beatific vision of God pouring out his spirit and approval on His children. He recognized the physical and emotional cost of their journey and was blessing them in a special way.
Today is a good time to do a spiritual check-up; does God seem distant? Is your prayer time lackluster? Is there an area of sin that you are struggling with? If so, perhaps it is time to expand or change your form of daily prayer; perhaps it is time to attend a conference about your faith or visit your local bookstore for an inspiring book. Maybe you are called to go on pilgrimage to one of the many consecrated sites all over the world. The possibilities are endless; from the fascinating Shroud of Turin in Italy, to historic Mont St. Michel in France, to the fabulous cliffs and beach of Nazare, Portugal. Let’s get started!
Why Go On Pilgrimage
Ascending to God
The Fatima Message
The Grace of Pilgrimage