February 13, 2004

What is the Pilgrimage?

To understand the idea behind the pilgrimage it is helpful to keep in mind that the concept of pilgrimage is not exclusively Christian and is present in all the important ancient religions. In all of them there are three basic elements that combine to create the pilgrimage: A pilgrim who travels a road to a sacred place. Within each person is produced, upon arrival or during the travels, an encounter with the mysterious. Some religions place greater importance on the traveling, the road that the pilgrim walks from his home, his surroundings, or his personal situation as well as the inner journey that takes place within the pilgrim. Other religions emphasize the arrival to the sacred place and the ceremonies that accompany the moment which produces the encounter with the sacred.

In either case, the trip and the arrival occur within the pilgrim and are fostered by what the pilgrim experiences along the way, the reality which the pilgrim encounters in passing which symbolizes what the pilgrim is experiencing within himself. All of these religions emphasize the importance of symbols for pilgrimage symbols related to mountains, water, hospitality offered to pilgrims which all takes on a sacred nature, or the specific rites that the pilgrim must perform upon reaching the sacred place.

In the Jewish tradition of the Old Testament, pilgrimage holds a special place, especially that of Abraham who had to leave his land guided by the hope of arriving at God’s promised land. The nomadic character of the life of the people of Israel accentuates the aspects of pilgrimage in the sacred books and is based upon the people of Israel leaving Egypt and their 40 years of pilgrimage through the desert.

This sense is maintained in the New Testament. The Gospel of St. Luke describes a large part of Christ’s life as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Expressions that show Christ walked from town to town appear repeatedly…Christ calls himself “The Way, the Truth, the Life,” pointing out that the goal of all Christian pilgrimage is not a holy site, but rather Christ himself.

With this background, there developed early on in the Christian tradition the custom of making pilgrimages to the tombs of the martyrs and to Jerusalem to experience the places where Jesus lived. In the Middle Ages, especially in the west, the worshipping of relics and the zeal to make pilgrimages to holy places that housed important relics grew significantly. The greatest devotion centered on the places where the relics of the apostles, those closest to Christ, were venerated. This explains the great increase in medieval Europe of pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle Santiago in Compostela following the rediscovery of his remains in the 19th century.

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