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.

Last summer, I walked part of the 1,000-year-old Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that winds for roughly 500 miles through the French Pyrenees and northern Spain. I had learned of the Camino in a newspaper article and through conversation with one of my professors. Something about the Camino resonated within me; I wanted a journey with both spiritual and physical dimensions, I wanted an opportunity to think and reflect as I entered a new phase of my life, and I needed time for introspection, meditation, and prayer.

The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the ending point of the Camino, go back to a rather fantastical story. According to tradition, after St. James was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 C.E., his body was put on a boat by his disciples and guided by angels to northwest Spain in just seven days. Here the disciples buried St. James. In the year 813, a Galician hermit was guided by a star to the site of St. James’ remains in the countryside—hence the Spanish name Compostela, or "star country." The hermit reported the miraculous discovery to the local bishop, who confirmed that the remains of St. James had indeed been discovered. Shortly thereafter, a cathedral was built on the site, and pilgrims began to flock from all over Europe for healing, to do penance, or for spiritual renewal.

I discovered that modern pilgrims walk the Camino for a host of reasons—many to learn more about the culture and history of northern Spain, or the Camino in particular, and others for the physical challenge. And, of course, some travel for religious reasons. What seemed consistent was that my fellow pilgrims were adapting and reinventing the age-old tradition of pilgrimage to fit our contemporary times. But the core experience of pilgrimage remains the same today: pursuing the questions and mysteries that the tradition was originally created to explore.

ON THE EVE OF my first day on the Camino, I met Erhardt, a recently retired engineer who had been riding his bike from his home in Germany. He explained to me in a mixture of German, broken English, and pantomime that he rode his bike as a prayer of thanksgiving to God. "I’ve had a good life," he told me, "and I go to Santiago to give thanks."

There was much to be thankful for on the road to Santiago. Little causes for joy included starting each day with cafT con leche, strong Spanish coffee with milk, and a delicious local pastry, enjoying simple meals of bread, cheese, chorizo (ham), and fruit on the road, and discovering a fountain when my water bottle had run empty. The Camino was not without its challenges, of course, including sore feet, blisters, and intense afternoon sun. At the end of a long day of walking 20 to 30 kilometers, I took great pleasure in unloading my pack, taking off my boots, showering, and enjoying a warm meal with other pilgrims.

Author Nicholas Shrady, in Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail, writes eloquently of some of those blessings. A Catholic who studied philosophy at Georgetown before moving to Spain, where he has been a writer for the past 15 years, Shrady combines engaging prose and journalistic detail on the spiritual and religious significance of the six pilgrimages he has taken, the Camino among them:

"[N]ever had I previously felt so near to the Absolute as when I was bound to a sacred path, not in any church, confessional, or moment of silent prayer. As I progressed toward Santiago, I came to regard the conventional world from which I was at least temporarily removed as chaotic and aimless; the world of the pilgrimage, by contrast, was, despite often precarious conditions, marked by a purity of focus. I found the Way strewn with subtle epiphanies and that, I realized, was miraculous enough."

Through his personal reflections on the spiritual experience of pilgrimage, Shrady shares his own faith perspective as a Catholic with the reader. Because he openly discusses how his religion alternately inspires and troubles him, Shrady’s critique of Christian pilgrimage is honest and insightful. And when he writes about his non-Western pilgrimages, Shrady engages the cultures with curiosity and respect, but does not pretend to "adopt" the local religion.

Author Phil Cousineau offers a different approach to the rich, varied experience of pilgrimage. As a kind of "how-to" introduction to pilgrimage, The Art of the Pilgrimage is divided into seven chapters that chronicle the full range of the pilgrim’s experience: longing, call, departure, pilgrim’s way, labyrinth, arrival, and return. In each chapter, Cousineau discusses the various aspects of the pilgrim’s experience, using an impressive collection of anecdotes and quotations. This approach works well when the author selects anecdotes and quotations that clearly illustrate his point. For example, he refers to S÷ren Kierkegaard to illustrate the powerful meditative qualities of walking: "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts." Further, the rich collection of anecdotes and quotations invite the reader to return to the text often, though they sometimes make the text disjointed.

The daily experience of the Camino was a combination of companionship with fellow pilgrims and moments of solitude, which offered time for introspection, prayer, and meditation. Traveling alone, I was fortunate to achieve a balance of both. When I was alone I often meditated on two themes: blessing and thanksgiving. I reflected on the numerous blessings I was receiving and offered a prayer of thanksgiving in response. When I was with others, we often discussed the spirit of the Camino, and how the experience was affecting us. Elisabeth, a Belgian woman who had walked for two months from Le Puy in France, told me that the Camino had brought her a deep feeling of peace that helped her to think more positively about her life.

Even now, months after I have returned from Santiago, the Camino is part of my life. I think about the extraordinary people who touched my life in brief yet profound ways. I think about what the experience taught me about the value of slowing down and appreciating life’s abundant blessings, and the importance of thanksgiving and prayer as the proper response to blessings received. It taught me about the value of creating a balance between time alone for reflection, and time with others for fellowship. And as JosT, a friend from the Camino, recently reminded me, the Camino teaches that difficulties can be confronted and surmounted, one step at a time.

SAM HERRING is content director at, a software company in Washington state that seeks to expand access to quality educational opportunities via the Internet. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1999.

The Art of the Pilgrimage. Phil Cousineau. Conari Press, 01/01/98.

Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail. Nicholas Shrady. HarperCollins, 01/01/99.

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