Let’s start with a definition of the key term, ‘Pilgrim’, and later we will consider why a pilgrimage may be undertaken, and an overview of some of the great pilgrimages conducted by adherents of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. Furthermore, the five stages of a Pilgrimage will be explored. At the conclusion of this article there will be an examination of some of the deeper elements associated with the pilgrim. There will be a consideration of how the experience of pilgrimage will inevitably change the pilgrim from within and without, and that the five stages of a pilgrimage, assists in such a transformation.

According to Wikipedia, “a pilgrim, from the Latin peregrinus, is a traveller (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. As we will see during the course of this article, there are various reasons why people would embark on one.

 Secular pilgrimages: In modern times, pilgrimages are more secular than religious, the following are but some of the cultural/historical pilgrimages which are made: Graceland, home of Elvis Presley; Auschwitz Concentration Camp; Gettysburg Battlefield; Pyramids in Egypt; Jim Morrison’s (lead singer of 1960s music group ‘The Doors’) grave in Paris; Ground Zero in New York; and the Gallipoli Battlefield in Turkey. Motivations may be some of the following: Understanding of an event; seeking closure of a traumatic event; being physically present at the grave/house location/memorial of a person/event; the attraction of the Power of Place, and perhaps, a desire for life-changing experience.

Religious pilgrimages: Religious motivations may be for some of the following: A period of exile to seek closer communion with God/Divine; A break from the mundane world; Penitence; Petition for a miracle/cure for an aliment; Spiritual rejuvenation /purification/transformation; Lured by apparitions/miracles (Power of Place), and again, the desire for life-changing experience There are many religious traditions which feature a pilgrimage to a place of special, spiritual significance. Usually, the devotee of a particular religious persuasion makes it his goal in life to make the great journey to the site he views as most reverential and sacred.

Islam: Those of the Islamic faith would make travelling to Mecca as a major life goal. ‘Hajj’ is Arabic for pilgrimage, which is considered to be a religious duty to be conducted at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime. The Hajj is made to the birth place of Muhammad. At Mecca in Saudia Arabia is Masjid al- Haram, or the Sacred Mosque. This is the birthplace of Muhammand. The Mosque can accommodate up to 820,000 worshippers during the Hajj period. A number of rituals are performed over a week at the site to symbolise the lives of Ibrahim (Abraham and his wife). One of the rituals involves the Ka’ba. This is as cubical structure which is representational of where Abraham offered his son Ishmael as a sacrifice to God. The Royal Embassy of Saudia Arabia has kept records listing the numbers of pilgrims since 1920. In that year the number of pilgrims totalled 58,584,by 2010 it had grown to over 3 million people per year.

Hinduism: for Hindus, a once in a life time pilgrimage to the Ganges (Ganga) is the objective. The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus. The religious significance of the river takes place in late May or early June when Hindus celebrate the, ‘Avatara’, or the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth. The 10th day of the waxing moon of the Hindu calendar is considered to be the most auspicious day to be in the river. It is believed that for those who bathe in the waters of the Ganges River on this day, that there will be the remission of all sins and the action will bring about the liberation from the cycle of life and death, or plainly, the cessation of reincarnation. The largest pilgrimage in the world is the Hindu pilgrimage held every three years in different cities in India. It is estimated that over 100 million people visited Kumbh Mela in 2013 – the largest peaceful gathering in the world!

Christianity: along with the pilgrimages undertaken by the Christian monks in the third century to the East, by the fourth century in the West under Constantine, Christians began to visit in the footsteps of Jesus Christ:

“…as a form of devotion that engaged the entire being – the body as well as the spirit – the pilgrim was removed from his familiar environment. The person who had decided to endure the difficulties and suffering of the road, wished to be sanctified. Exiled, a stranger to those he met, the pilgrim’s long march was a form of asceticism and penitence, aiming for purification and salvation of the soul, perfected by the contact with the holy places….During the high Middle Ages, the holy places of Jerusalem and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome were the most popular pilgrimage sites of the West. The custom of bringing palm branches back from Jerusalem gave the pilgrims to the Holy Land the name, ‘Palmers’, while those returning from Rome were known by the term, ‘Romieux’, in France…”

After the ‘invention’ from the Latin, meaning ‘to find’, the relics of the apostle James the Greater in Galicia in the 9th century, Santiago de Compostella became one of the three principal Christian pilgrimage sites of the West….to go on a pilgrimage was, above all, to reach a sacred place, sanctified by the passage of Christ, the memory of a saint, or the presence of relics, where divine grace was likely to be manifested more than in any other place, particularly through miracles”. The Roads to Santiago de Compostela. MSM, 1999, France: pp. 52-53 and pp. 52- 53.

For Christians, travelling to various holy sites in Europe, particularly the Vatican in Italy, Lourdes and Notre Dame in France, and in the Holy Land with the various sites such as Via Dolorosa, Sea of Galilee, and the site o f Jesus’ first ministry was the ultimate goal, yet for others it may have been a journey to Santiago de Compostella. With reference to Santiago de Compostella, Compostella means “Field of Stars” and the route retraces a path along the constellation of the Milky Way from the centre of the galaxy to the star Sirius. It is believed that this is the path of transcendence. The road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, one of the great pilgrimages of Europe. In England up until the Middle Ages, the ‘Pilgrims Way’- was the path to the shrine of Thomas A’Becket in Canterbury in Kent. Thomas A’Becket was also known as St. Thomas of Canterbury. There is the famous Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the close of the 14th century, about the personalities and experiences of the pilgrims; of which we have all come to recognise some fairly striking characters! This pilgrimage started from Winchester in Hampshire to the shrine of Thomas A ‘Becket at Canterbury in Kent. Thomas A’ Becket was canonised in 1173. Until 1538, his shrine was the most important in England outside of Rome. Thomas A’Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170 and was considered a
saint and martyr by both Catholics and Anglicans. The historian William Coles Finch has stated that up to 100,000 pilgrims travelled to visit the shrine each year. However, other historians dispute such an estimate as accurate records were not kept to validate this number.

The experience of pilgrimage: Increasingly, much is being researched into the experience of a pilgrimage for both the individual and groups of pilgrims. Researchers have analysed that generally there are five stages of a pilgrimage. Additionally, a transformation occurs for the pilgrim, and in fact, most pilgrims largely undertake a pilgrimage because of the very fact that they wish to be transformed and altered via the experience of it. The five stages of pilgrimage

1. Pilgrim commits to making the journey;

2. Pilgrim is involved with preparatory rites, ritual bathing, altering physical appearance – shaving head, fasting, abstaining from sexual relations;

3. Collecting evidence of the pilgrimage, ie. gaining a part of a religious relic, or verification of journey such as the ‘passport’ which is stamped on the Camino;

4. Arrival at destination, making appropriate preparations to enter site, or sacred

5. Conduct at the sacred site such as praying, chanting, singing, bell-ringing, etc. The transformational nature of the pilgrimage experience ultimately brings about a change for the pilgrim. The pilgrim has a new identify both in relation to society and the cosmos. The ritual of undertaking the journey, undergoing each of the five stages of the pilgrimage, empowers the pilgrim. Such empowerment is incredibly healing. The empowerment alters the pilgrim’s consciousness.

The pilgrimage is a metaphor of life. The pilgrim endures the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, individual and political trials and tribulations of life. The pilgrim has had the unique experience of being removed from familiar surroundings, the distractions of the mundane world and is transformed on every level. This is an unconscious process. It is no different for any of us today, when after returning from an amazing travel experience, views life and home, work and family with a much altered perspective.

It is this alchemical process, where the pilgrim, through the accumulative experiences on the path is changed. It is a mystical and mysterious exercise. It is a deeply moving, life-changing encounter with self, society and the pilgrim’s sense of the divine, his God.

Today with the advent of affordable air travel, more and more people are making their way to the pilgrimage of their choice, whether it be a religious pilgrimage, or a secular pilgrimage, each pilgrim is on a quest for transformation.