I had never thought of going on a pilgrimage until I read an article in the current National Geographic magazine where the author describes his cultural pilgrimage. What is a Cultural Pilgrimage? How is it different from a religious or sacred pilgrimage? When did the idea of a pilgrimage originate? Who can be called a pilgrim anyway?
Pilgrimages are common in many countries, especially India; and they originated anciently. Some are specifically attached to religious practices; while others are journeys yearning for a life-changing experience. Pilgrimages are historic and ancient traditions, common among the Hebrews, Egyptians, Persians, Indians (of India), China, and Japan. Even the Greeks and Romans made pilgrimages to consult their pagan gods about important matters.
A pilgrimage is both an inward and outward journey. Inward meaning a searching experience for a new perspective on life; outward because it is actually a physical journey – and usually a long one. Such long and arduous journeys of old could be personal or even state sponsored. A pilgrimage, if a religious one, is described as a cultural phenomenon having to do with “religious imagination.” Belief in sacred or religious pilgrimages transcends the dominant cultural aspects of ethnicity, language, gender, class or caste, and geography. A pilgrimage is generally a deep and/or metaphysical experience of intimacy with the self.
What would make people want to go on a pilgrimage today? Our hi-tech world is so filled with multiple responsibilities, interruptions, and distractions that we often find ourselves wondering, “Why am I doing this?” It is easy to become “lost” in our surroundings, having no connection with nature or anything much beyond Facebook, unless we make a concentrated effort.
Cultural anthropologists are challenged when they try to study pilgrimage. When they connect pilgrimage with rites of passage, they believe that pilgrimage is a three-part process: separation (from one’s home or conventional surroundings); the liminal stage, which seeks an intensified sense of the sacred; and the third is an attempt to seek a temporary release from the ordinary. (Turner and Turner 1978).
Cultural pilgrimages, then are different from the ancient ones. They are secular, rather than religious or spiritual. Today’s modern pilgrims visit historical sites that have a significant cultural importance. Several years ago my daughter and I went on a short pilgrimage to Taos, New Mexico, where we visited Georgia O’keeffe’s home and museum. We explored the artist’s work in her own artistic setting. Other destinations for the cultural pilgrim might be the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, or some of the actual concentration camps, such as Auschwitz.
A very high profile cultural pilgrimage route is The Way of St. James in Spain (the picture above this post). Only 40% of this ancient route’s pilgrims today are seeking a spiritual transformation. So the post-modern pilgrim might go on an architectural pilgrimage, visiting famous and well known architectural structures or a Civil War pilgrimage, visiting the battle sites to better understand what happened there. This does not mean that every cultural pilgrimage of today is always secular. Indeed there are many tour companies offering spiritual and religious pilgrimages to India, Russia, China, or Turkey. There are even pilgrimages to Native American sites, to get a sense of heritage and origins of relatives long passed.
Upcoming Cultural Pilgrimage
This coming September 26th and 27th, Pope Francis will be visiting the United States for the first time since he was selected as Pope and steward over the world’s Roman Catholics. On the internet at the following site, it is suggested that this historic visit is an opportunity for a modern-day pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in order to see and hear the Pope. You might need to copy (Control C) and paste (Control V) the link into your browser.
Walking the Way
National Geographic’s Michael George took time for Walking the Way; and his article is intriguing and enticing enough to lure people away from the ordinary to experience the extraordinary. This article is the reason I researched pilgrimages and their meanings. You may have to copy (Control C) and paste (Control V) the link into your browser.
After reading the article, and if you have time, this 30-minute video of three-people’s recent pilgrimage Walking the Way of St. James is quite good. You might want to turn the sound off as the music rather takes away from the ambiance of the film.
Though cultural pilgrimages may be modeled after ancient traditions, by the fourth century it was an embedded practice into Christianity. Jerome and Augustine both endorsed spiritual pilgrimages as a respite from worldly problems. Later medieval pilgrims tried to emulate the monastic life as they traveled on their journeys.
Below is a modern-day interpretation of “A Medieval Pilgrimage.” This surprising artistic depiction of pilgrimage is both secular and cultural. After watching these films, Explore More in Cultural Anthropology. Sign up for a life-long learning experience delving into little-known cultural practices – and it is free!