To go on pilgrimage is to be part of a long and respectable history almost two thousand years old. Even Jesus himself participated in pilgrimages as a child with his family to Jerusalem for High Holy Days, and Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Psalms of Ascent”, sung by faithful Christians as they made their pilgrimages up to Jerusalem.
The Holy Land
In the medieval era, the Holy Lands were often inaccessible or too dangerous to visit. Many European Christians developed imitation pilgrimage practices in response, such as walking labyrinths on cathedral grounds. Over time, this became a widespread practice with its own rituals and routines.
Early pilgrimages in Europe
After initially preparing, people would journey into the labyrinth and upon reaching the centre; they would spend time in prayer and quiet contemplation. At this point, they would slowly start returning back to the entrance of the labyrinth with a renewed and revived spirit. Many medieval Christians also started to practice walking the Stations of the Cross, with symbols in the church guiding pilgrims to follow the footsteps of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion.
Other sites in Europe became popular during the centuries where it was too dangerous to travel to the Holy Land. St. Peter’s in Rome has traditionally been the most popular pilgrimage destination, due to the presence of the Apostle Peter’s earthly remains.
Santiago de Compostela in Spain has been Europe’s second most popular pilgrimage site, traditionally renowned to house the remains of the Apostle James. Visiting sites such as these helped medieval Christians visit a ‘Sacred Centre’ of their faith.
Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, became England’s best-known pilgrimage destination when he was martyred on the orders of King Henry II in 1170. Pilgrims have journeyed to Becket’s shrine for centuries, and its fame has been immortalised in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1383-1400), where twenty-nine pilgrims tell stories to each other on the way to seek healing and transformation.
The Reformation and recent years
During The Reformation, going on Pilgrimage fell out of favour, as various superstitions were associated with it. Despite this, the fundamental nature of pilgrimage, to make a journey to a religious centre to deepen one’s faith, has remained strong in the spiritual life of Christianity.
More recently, going on pilgrimage has increased in popularity once more. Catholics, Protestants and even Evangelical Christians are all rediscovering the transformative power with journeying to a sacred site.
Leaving the regular world behind and visiting spiritually significant places offers the chance to contemplate and enjoy the wonders of God, before returning, feeling refreshed and renewed.
Many people find pilgrimage attractive as it offers an opportunity to get away from the distractions of everyday life, and to work towards a life in closer communion with God.