Christians throughout the ages have undertaken strenuous journeys to shrines far and near. Early pilgrimages focused on the Holy Land, on the sites of Jesus’ life. There are records of such journeys as early as the fourth century. For example, St. Helena famously journeyed to the site of the Crucifixion. In the Middle Ages, Rome and Santiago de Compostela were added to the list of preeminent pilgrim sites. The crowds that flocked to these three were enormous. Historians speculate that in the High Middle Ages around a third of western Europe had been at the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago. In addition, countless smaller shrines became the destinations of regional pilgrimages. In more recent times, the sites of Marian apparitions such as Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima have become popular pilgrim sites. Even Santiago de Compostela has seen a resurgence.
What draws so many people to do this? It is evident that in the case of the pilgrims to the Holy Land, drawing near to the physical locations of Our Lord’s life is a way of drawing nearer to Christ Himself. Similar sentiments of devotion to Mary and the saints apply to other sites. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where He has revealed Himself, where His grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”
But visiting the particular shrine is only part of the experience. The very act of walking to a far-off place can itself be a deep prayer. Spending days or weeks alone, with nothing but a backpack and the pilgrim way ahead, can be a great opportunity to meet God. Moving only at the pace that one’s own two feet can manage reduces a plethora of distractions. One is able to notice things that would otherwise just fly by.
This simplified routine can also lead to prayer. There is ample time for Rosaries, and the Liturgy of the Hours can add a beautiful rhythm to the pilgrimage. The long periods of time spent in silence is a great opportunity to meditate on big questions of life. What does it mean to be a stranger and sojourner (cf. 1 Pet 2:11)? How is this pilgrimage a metaphor for life? What is the significance of the destination?
For millennia, Christians have walked across the world on pilgrimages. Why not take one of your own today?