Today’s presentation on “Pilgrimages: the mystic journey”, will start with a definition of the key term, ‘pilgrim’. The presentation 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 presentation 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.

Motivation for embarking on a Pilgrimage

As we will see during the course of this presentation, 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 grave inParis and Ground Zero, New York, Gallipoli 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

·        Attracted by the Power of Place

·        Desire for life-changing experience

Religious Pilgrimages

Religious motivationsmay 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)

·        Desire for life-changing experience


Types of pilgrimages

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 viewsas most reverential and sacred.

Islamic faith

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.

Hindu faith

For Hindus, a once in a life time pilgrimage to the Ganges 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 Avatarana or the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth.

The 10th day of the waxing moon of the Hindu calander, is considered to be the most auspious day to be in the river.It is believed that for those who bathe in the waters of the Ganges river on this day, thatthere 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.

Christian faith

Along with the pilgrimages undertaken by the Christian monks in the third century in 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 MiddleAges, 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 (palm), 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”[1]. (pp 52- 53 )

For Christians, travelling to various site of Europe, particularly the Vatican in  Italy, Lourdes and Notre Dame in France and the Holy Land with the various sites such as Via Dolorosa, Sea of Galilee and the site of Jesus’s 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.

 In England up until the Middle Ages, the Pilgrims way- was the path to the shrine of Thomas A’Becket at Canterbury in Kent.

Thomas A’Becket was also known as St. Thomas of Canterbury.

There is the famous Canterbury tales written by Chaucer 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.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.

Five stages of a 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 location

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 airtravel, 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.






[1] The Roads to Santiago de Compostela  MSM 1999 France pp 52-53.