Most of us have heard of people who have made religious pilgrimages but for those who are not particularly religious or those who know little about the details of a pilgrimage, the idea of what drives a person to walk for days to get to a holy site can be quite mysterious when in our day and age they could get there through modern transportation. Why do people go on pilgrimages?
Reasons for pilgrimage:
The motivation is usually different for each person, but there are some basic common underlying themes behind why people go on pilgrimages:
1.) Pilgrimage as an act of penance for sins
You know how some people say “I’d do anything for you to forgive me!”? Well, pilgrimages are some people’s way of “doing anything” for the sake of forgiveness.
People who are truly sorry for something they’ve done may demonstrate how rependant they are by dedicating time and effort to go on a long pilgrimage which usually includes many hours walking on foot. Although many modern religions no longer promote suffering as a means of repentance, some religions still abide by these ancient customs, seeing the suffering of a person as they go on a gruelling journey as a form of penance for their sins. The idea is that God will see this action as a clear sign that they are sincerely sorry and can then be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is sought in the hope of improving their chances of going to heaven.
2.) Pilgrimage as an act of devotion to God in exchange for a miracle
Those who seek something that seems very difficult or almost impossible to achieve, like receiving a healing from a long-term incurable problem like illness or infertility, or finding success in a field of their life which up until now has evaded them, be it work, romance or anything else, may all look for a miracle from God. In exchange for the miracle, they demonstrate their devotion to God by going on a pilgrimage. Henry VIII is said to have made such a pilgrimage (to Walsingham) when he implored God to give him a male heir.
Many stories of miracles occurring to pilgrims during or after a pilgrimage exist. One source for example, notes that the Catholic Church recognizes 65 miracles to have taken place at the pilgrimage hotspot, Lourdes.
3.) Pilgrimages in order to touch a holy relic which can bring good fortune
Many of the religious sites sought out by pilgrims were made were popular because they housed some religious relic, such as a cloth soaked in the blood of a saint, or a piece of a saint’s skeleton, or a part of Jesus’s cross. Some believed that coming in close proximity to artefacts touched by holy people could rub some luck off on them, especially if the artefact belonged to someone with traits that are desired, such as being famous for great courage or for healing abilities.
4.) To experience the joyous feeling of spiritual connection and being close to God
Some people go on pilgrimages simply because it is an opportunity for them to enjoy the feeling of connection with God and all His creations.
Joy can be experienced in every little thing that is usually taken for granted. The joy of waking up to a fresh day, delighting in the observation of your life-giving breath, experiencing all the wonders around you – the trees, flowers, sky, mountains, the unique aromas in your surroundings, the sounds, the sensation of the soft breeze on your skin.. Pleasure can be felt as you observe yourself, your environment and the people around you, feeling how everything is connected by being one creation of God.
It can make you realise how we are all equal and no-one is superior or inferior to one another. On a pilgrimage, there is a feeling that all are equal in the eyes of God, regardless of their status in the everyday world. This can bring a wonderful sense of “togetherness” and belonging.
All this awareness and appreciation can be tremendously exhilarating and fill you with a delicious feeling of bliss.
5.) Pilgrimages as a form of escapism from distractions to give an opportunity to reflect and to receive God-given guidance
A pilgrimage is an opportunity to have some quiet time away from the demands of daily life, to reflect. In everyday life people are often preoccupied by their relationships, work, leaky roofs and other niggling troubles. As a result many find little time to take a step back and reflect on the most important things in their life. By presenting a break from such worries, a pilgrimage gives a person a much needed chance to clear their head, focus positively and gain a renewed perspective on life.
Devout pilgrims would consider any new insights and solutions gained on a pilgrimage to be God-given. It is generally believed that without the distractions of the mundane it is easier to hear Divine guidance.
6.) Pilgrimages as an adventure
A more modern, non-religious reason for pilgrimages is because it can be seen as a fun adventure. It provides an opportunity to meet people of your faith, have an enjoyable time stretching your legs, exercising those muscles and being out in the great outdoors.