Sacred Journeys

What comes to mind when you think of the word "pilgrimage"? Perhaps you imagine a medieval Christian walking across Europe to Jerusalem or Rome. Or a Muslim setting off on a hajj to visit the holy city of Mecca, a Hindu embarking on an ancient journey to the sacred waters of the Ganges, or a Buddhist following the footsteps of the Buddha to the place where he attained Enlightenment.

You might even think of great figures of religious faith who left family and friends to pursue their spiritual quests. The Buddha renounced his privileged background and wandered for years as a mendicant. Jesus walked throughout Palestine with his disciples, spent 40 days in the wilderness, and frequently retreated from others to be alone in prayer. St. Ignatius of Loyola abandoned his privileged status as a Basque nobleman and undertook several pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome before founding the Jesuit order.

We may think of pilgrimage as a practice of spiritual devotion from a bygone era, or an antiquated term used today only in the metaphoric sense. But contemporary pilgrimage, while certainly distinct from its ancient and medieval antecedents in important ways, is thriving and experiencing a kind of renaissance as we enter the new millennium.

Nearly 700 books with "pilgrimage" in their titles sell in bookstores across the country, and articles on the topic have appeared recently in major newspapers including The New York Times. The pope proclaimed 2000 to be the Year of the Pilgrim, during which more than 50 million people are expected to visit Rome—a city that typically hosts only three to four million tourists per year. And 1999 was a Holy Year of St. James, as well as a Jubilee year. In recognition of this occasion, the Spanish government has promoted a pilgrim site called the Camino de Santiago, or "The Way of St. James," as an international tourist destination.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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