The origin of the word pilgrimage simply denotes travel but it has taken on a decidedly spiritual meaning, from the initial pilgrimage of Abram (Genesis 12:1) to Bunyan's characterisation of the Christian life in Pilgrim's Progress. The usual sense of the word involves both a physical and a spiritual journey, often with an overtone of hardship. It was taken up by Islam, one of whose Five Pillars is the Haj to Mecca and is prevalent in all the major world religions; but it also has a secular aspect, e.g. 'pilgrimages' to the grave of Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. 

From the construction of Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem became a place of pilgrimage which many Jews visited for major festivals (Luke 2:41; John 2:13), including large numbers from outside Palestine (Acts 2:5-11; 2:20:16). After its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD, Jerusalem almost ceased to be a place of pilgrimage but it came into its own again after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 with the encouragement of St. Jerome. Neither overland nor sea travel was very easy and complications for Western Europeans increased after the end of the Western Roman Empire (476). The Mediaeval Crusades (begun in the late 11th Century) were ostensibly launched against Islamic conquest, to secure the 'Holy Places' such as Jerusalem for pilgrimage but after the effective collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Western European interest shifted radically to its own soil;  the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain, St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury); Chaucer's description of a pilgrimage to the latter shows that it was not all struggle and prayer.

The main purposes of a pilgrim are to strengthen, deepen and enrich our spiritual life, to open new horizons of understanding and in such ways to bring us closer to God. For many, such experiences are not only enriching,  they are also transforming; how can the celebration of Christmas ever be the same after a visit to Bethlehem? It is, therefore, important to put our expectations into perspective by asking ourselves the following questions,  among others:

  1. How much does it matter whether assigned places of pilgrimage exactly correspond to what they commemorate?
  2. Is a pilgrimage historic tourism?
  3. Are contemporary people, problems, conditions a distraction or an integral component?

During a pilgrimage it is vital to strike the right personal balance between the necessarily collective experiences of travel, sight seeing and worship and time to reflect, contemplate and pray alone.

KC v/06