At least, that's what it seems. At least, that's how they're advertised.
One can take a pilgrimage to Rome, Italy or Jerusalem, Israel; Santiago, Spain or Stonehenge, England; Fatima, Portugal or Iona, Scotland; Machu Pichu, Peru or Oberammergau in Bavaria.
All of these places are identified as having something about them which is "holy" or "spiritual".
Some are connected to an event or events with an established a religious story; others are "thin places" where pilgrims have traveled for centuries, drawn by the way the light dances to the charge of electricity in the air and the way their spirit is called to deeper places of thought or creativity while they are there, in that place.
Other people prefer to make a pilgrimage to places where people have been martyred, like the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed; or they walk the route from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, retracing the Civil Rights March on that "Blood Sunday" on March 7, 1965 to Montgomery.
Many Episcopalians take an annual pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, to the storefront where Jonathan Myrick Daniels, then a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School and civil rights worker was martyred while saving the life of 17 year old black civil rights activist, Ruby Sales, on August 20, 1965.
These are some of the many, many varied and different ways people make a pilgrimage which is defined in Wikipedia as "a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone's own beliefs."
Last October, I went on pilgrimage, walking 167 km (103 miles) from San Sebastian to Santiago, the place where the body of St. James (Sant Iago) is interred in the Cathedral build on that site.
That experience changed my life. No joke. It also made me a self-avowed "pilgrimage snob". Or, perhaps it's not as bad as that. Maybe I'm a "pilgrimage elitist".
Nah, "snob" it is.
Which is fine. I'm sure they can actually be spiritually satisfying. Especially for an extrovert.
But, it's not a pilgrimage. Not as I've experienced them. See also: snob.
Well, let me have a run at that again: A few years ago - okay, maybe 15 or 20, actually - I discovered, much to my surprise, that I am an introvert.
I know. Ridiculous. How can an activist and a preacher and a community leader be an introvert?
What I've learned over the years is that I am an activist and a preacher and a community leader because I am an introvert. I draw from the very deep well I am blessed to have. I have a great appreciation for silence and actively seek out opportunities for quiet contemplation and reflection.
It's also why I come home from a day of church or a protest march or a demonstration and find it absolutely necessary to take a full one hour nap. Sometimes, longer.
In order to be a "parson" - a public person - I have to draw deep from my "shadow side", as Jung would put it, which leaves me feeling exhausted and depleted.
What could be perceived by some as a strident stance about pilgrimages, and my need to protect the essential meaning of what it means to be a pilgrim, is probably best understood as coming from being an I/E NF P/J on the Myer's Briggs Scale.
Folks who can flip in and out of their Introvert/Extrovert selves are often perceived at "snobs" or "elitists" or "standoff-ish". I admit, it must be confusing to see someone who appears for all the world as a "bubbly," "enthusiastic," and "engaging" person to suddenly seem quiet and set apart and, as one person angrily described me "all into yourself."
Ah, the church can be such a loving, understanding, accepting, forgiving place. (/sarcasm//).
My first experience of a pilgrimage was actually in Thailand. I was there to visit a friend and to experience something of living in a country which couldn't be more "foreign" to me and my life as I had lived it. I didn't intend to go on pilgrimage. I just suddenly found myself on one.
Let me try to explain.
Makha Bucha Day, which occurs on the full moon day of the third lunar month. The third lunar month is known in the Thai language as Makha. Bucha is also a Thai word meaning "to venerate" or "to honor".
Makha Bucha marks "the four auspicious occurrences", nine months after the Enlightenment of the Buddha at Veḷuvana Bamboo Grove, near Rājagaha in Northern India, which was 2,500 years ago.
On that occasion, 1,250 Arahta - or "Enlightened Ones" (priests) - without so much as a memo, email, text or tweet much less an appointment - suddenly and spontaneously arose together and came to see the Buddha.
That was 1,250 people. Spontaneously. Let that sink in for just a moment.
When they arrived, the Buddha ordained those Arhantas as his priests and gave them principles of Buddhism - known in Thailand as the "Heart of Buddhism". Those principles are:
To cease from all evilOn the full moon day of the third lunar month, devote Buddhists in Thailand make a pilgrimage to their local Wat or Temple. They carry a candle and a bouquet of flowers. They begin with prayers and listen to a "sermon" about the three principles of the Heart of Buddhism.
To do what is good
To cleanse one's mind.
They begin their pilgrimage by walking in silence or very quiet conversation once around the Wat counterclockwise, thinking about ceasing from all evil. Then, again, they walk in the opposite direction, clockwise, meditating on what it is to do good. A final, third time, they walk couterclockwise and end their journey by cleansing their mind.
In between or at the end of each circumambulation, they spend time in the Wat, reverencing the statues of the Buddha and the Arahta whose teachings have helped people in their journey to the Heart of Buddhism.
I suppose one could liken it to a labyrinth walk, except it is much more purposeful and intense. It's also pretty amazing to see hundreds, if not thousands of people - men, women with babes walking in the darkness with their candles and flowers, everyone quietly focused on how to cease evil, how to do what is good and how to cleanse one's mind.
I made this pilgrimage and had an amazing, powerful Spiritual Awakening which I documented here.
Click on the link and read for yourself. It was pretty incredible. Life changing. Transformative.
I think this was the moment I understood in a place deep in my inner understanding the difference between a "spiritual guided tour" and a pilgrimage. When you've experience it, nothing else will do. You become an unrepentant snob.
I think this is especially true if you have any tendencies toward being an introvert.
Likewise, I suspect that an extrovert might find a pilgrimage more than a bit tedious and pointless.
Where you are - the place you find yourself - is not as important as where you've been and where you are going - because that's what makes this historic or holy place important or sacred.
It's not just what happened there but what has happened SINCE and BECAUSE OF what happened there. It's the connection to the story - our connection, my connection - from that deep place of knowing that which is unknowable except through the sharing of stories.
The present is important but its importance is not limited by the significance of the place. You understand, as a pilgrim, that the present is a vehicle through which one can take the lessons of the past to transform and make yourself and the world a better place.
Not perfect. Better. You understand what St. Paul said about: "It is perfected in the doing."
And, that's what makes it "sacred" or "holy".
That's why the travel to and from this place is so important.
But, the bulk of the day - as much as half of it or 12 hours - was spent walking and considering spiritual or ethical or moral questions - or memories that touched joy or sorrow - which arose from walking many kilometers by yourself in a place where you are surrounded by the energy - felt it pulsing up from the very ground on which you walked - of millions of pilgrims who have walked this way before.
I don't know how to explain it - what words to use to describe it - except that it is transformative.
Having felt that, I've not only become a pilgrim snob, I've become a pilgrimage junkie.
I'm totally and completely hooked.
As I write this, I'm preparing for another pilgrimage the end of this month. I leave May 20th for Scotland. I arrive in Glasgow and I've padded the beginning and ending of my pilgrimage with a few days to allow for some visits to Edinborough and the Highlands.
The main pilgrimage will be on the Isle of Iona, where St. Columba reportedly brought Christianity to the island and then onto the rest of Scotland.
Our pilgrimage leader has her doctorate in Sacred Storytelling. The rhythm of the day will be to have breakfast together and then to gather to hear a Sacred Story. We are then free to explore a part of the island on our own or with a small group of friends.
We're on our own for lunch and then we can continue to explore the island on our own or to do whatever it is that nourishes our soul. We gather again for dinner and then community prayer and then it's off to bed - or, whatever it is that brings rest to the mind and the body and the soul.
This, as I have come to know and understand and appreciate it, is the ancient rhythm of a pilgrimage.
A little community with breakfast and the morsel of a story as spiritual food to begin the day.
A solitary walk for miles with, perhaps, by the working of the spirit, an unexpected, unplanned, brief encounter and, perhaps, conversation with an Anamchara - a stranger who becomes a soul friend.
And then, perhaps, the evening of sharing in community: A meal to nourish the body, the stories and laughter of the day to feed the spirit, and the deep thoughts and ideas and revelations learned along the day's path to fuel the imagination with creativity so as to sleep with pleasant dreams.
It's the balance - or the attempt to balance - solitude and community, silence and conversation, sacred and profane, familiar and foreign, present, past and future which makes the journey holy.
It's what makes it a pilgrimage and not just a "sacred guided tour" in another place.
In some ways, no matter where I am, no matter where I go, I'm still on that very first pilgrimage I took in Thailand. I am still working out in my body, mind and spirit, what it means to live a life committed to the three principles at the heart of the Buddha:
To cease from all evil
To do what is good
To cleanse one's mind.
It's the work of Buddha but it's also the work of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, Sarah Mariam and Mary.
It's the work of the apostles and disciples of holy people, teachers, rabbis, priests, prophets, saints and martyrs of every age and place, ancient and modern, knowing and unknowing.
It's the work of every day people everywhere, no matter their race, religion, or creed.
I am not able to do this work with as much satisfaction or efficacy in the normal activities of my daily life. Neither am I strong enough to do this work on a weekend retreat or a "spiritually guided tour" in another land.
I suppose I'm just a pilgrimage snob.
Pray for me.
And, I'll pray for you.
Together, each in our own way, we'll work to cease from all evil, do what is good, and cleanse our minds so that we may be free to hear where the spirit is calling us next.