There is an intriguing and mysterious trend afoot. In recent years, people with or without faith are rediscovering the benefits of pilgrimage. The Camino de Santiago alone has seen an increase in the number of pilgrims receiving their completion certificates from 1801 in 1986 to 327,378 in 2018. Many pilgrims take the journey for spiritual reasons: for retreat, self-growth or to connect more deeply with God. Others undertake it for the physical challenge or for cultural reasons. But regardless of the initial motivation, nearly all will acknowledge that something special happens on the journey.
Pilgrim trails can be found all over Europe and the world, but all have one thing in common: they are believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen, and may happen again. One such miracle can simply be the revivification of faith.
There is something mysterious about pilgrimage that cuts across all faiths. Many report an increased sense of peace, connection or spiritual nourishment. Walking through nature eliminates the usual isolating hardware of modern life – gates, cars, concrete office buildings, earphones – and connects us with the wonders of the natural world. It’s beautifully slow. The rhythm of our own steps helps with reflection. For most of human history we were foot travelers. So pilgrimage is about connecting with our roots, and our planet, and creating a space to contemplate our lives.
Isn’t pilgrimage an antiquated, medieval Catholic practice?
Pilgrimage has been practiced by multiple faiths for millennia. The Greeks traveled to cities like Delphi to consult the divine through the oracle. The Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate major feasts. In fact, pilgrimage was a spiritual discipline established by God in the Old Testament to help his people connect with him. Jesus’ parents went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year and we know that Jesus was with them at age 12 (Luke 2). Similarly, his first followers were in Jerusalem for Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) – one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals ordained by God – when the Holy Spirit was given to them. Pentecost’s first converts included sincere God-seekers on pilgrimage, including many Jewish pilgrims from as far away as Rome. And not long after, an Ethiopian eunuch on pilgrimage to Jerusalem had a divine encounter with Philip on a wilderness road.
The fact that God manifested himself to pilgrims should not be surprising. Throughout history God routinely appeared to people on journeys, especially in the wilderness. After Abraham left the comforts of Ur, God appeared to him multiple times as he roamed Canaan. Jacob received his vision of a heavenly ladder during an escape through the wilderness and years later, while spending the night alone on a riverside, wrestled with a divine visitor. Moses had been hiding in the Midian wilderness for 40 years when he encountered the burning bush. He then led the people of Israel through more wilderness where God repeatedly manifested Himself. Elijah escaped into the wilderness where God sent an angel to care for him and where he received his next assignment through a divine whisper. And Jesus himself was cared for by angels after 40 days of trials in the wilderness.
God often leads his people into a physical or metaphorical wilderness. It is there that we encounter his presence, perspective and provision; it is there that we find living water . . . and the wilderness becomes a place of transformation.
Due to medieval misunderstandings and abuses of pilgrimage, the original God-given intent was distorted. The Reformation further distanced Protestant Christians from the practice in its zeal to emphasize grace over works. But we want to recover the original intent and blessing pilgrimage can be as a life-giving spiritual discipline. It was God’s original idea for us.
Explore the Ancient Ways