Road to Somewhere

For centuries, soul searchers have taken pilgrimages to sites of spiritual significance. Alive Magazine, May 2002

Today, many Australians would not use the word pilgrimage to describe their latest vacation. Yet for some that is exactly what they are doing. They are looking to be revitalised physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. They are hoping it will be a time of re-centering and re-creation of their lives.

There is a big difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist. By definition tourists go on a tour to see things, by contrast pilgrims go on pilgrimage to receive something. One US commentator said, “We don’t visit holy sites just for the ritual; we go to be changed”.

So what is a pilgrimage? A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for a spiritual purpose with a spiritual end. It is normally a very personal endeavour specific to the need of the individual person. For many it is a journey to a sacred place for religious motives, yet the underlying purpose is a renewed spirit, greater devotion or a closer relationship with God. For others it is an intuitive drive, a deep sense that it is something that they must do.

Success is therefore not measured in the amount of souvenirs brought home or the number of places visited, but the personal transformation that has taken place inside.

Since the earliest times, people have taken journeys called pilgrimages. In Christian spirituality it has a long history mainly within the Roman Catholic and Eastern traditions. From early in the second century, Christian pilgrims travelled great distances to the Holy Land to sites where it is assumed Jesus, his mother Mary or one the Apostles had visited. The number of pilgrims increased greatly in the 4th century after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His mother, Helena, was the most influential of pilgrims, and is attributed to the discovery of many sites such as the tomb of Christ. News of these discoveries quickly spread, spurring a pilgrimage movement.

As Rome became the centre of Christianity, it too became a pilgrimage destination, as did Greece and Egypt, where the faithful could follow the footsteps of the Apostles.

In Roman Catholicism, numerous places around the world have become the destinations of pilgrims because of the reported apparitions of Mary. Most famous is that of Lourdes in France that today surpasses both Jerusalem and Rome as the most popular shrine of the Roman Catholic world.

The leaders of the Protestant Reformation associated pilgrimage with the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, which they were protesting against. Pilgrimage was consequently neglected. Yet they did not rule it out and retained sympathy for the idea. They affirmed the need of believers to seek solitude or escape from the cares of life and embraced the idea of life as a pilgrimage, a theme popularised by John Bunyan in the best-selling book, Pilgrim’s Progress. Many Protestants are rediscovering the rewards of pilgrimage without necessarily using that term.

Today many retirees hop into their car towing a caravan and circumnavigate our continent. Others journey to the centre, Uluru, Kata Juta (the Olgas) and King’s Canyon. Still others venture further afield to ANZAC Cove or Changi. Here one has a chance to ‘connect’ with the land, to feel its breadth and to hear its silence. We are moved by the magnificence of creation, whether that be arid desert or misty rainforests. Being ‘out- there’, out of the city, out of the rat-race, out of the routine of life, gives the space for the spirit to rise in our consciousness and be heard.

This illustrates what makes the journey a true pilgrimage—a movement within the heart, where one allows oneself to be emotionally and spiritually moved by the physical. It is a sincere attitude of seeking God, of being open to his presence. The key to pilgrimage is being open to God’s activity in our lives, not only during the journey, but before and after as well. For a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage it must be a transforming experience.

Australian Christians are discovering that this magnificent continent is full of great God-given destinations for pilgrimage. Throughout history, pilgrimages have been a source of inspiration to help people on their own spiritual journey through life. It has transformed lives, families and communities. There is no reason why it can’t be the same for every believer.

Stephen Baxter
Publisher, Alive Magazine

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