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What Is Pilgrimage? And, Should We Do It Today?

We have chosen to include pilgrimage in the 2:52 Challenge and I will explain more about why next time. Right now I will share a little bit of background about pilgrimage as I understand it.

The dictionary describes pilgrimage as "a journey, especially a long one, made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion."

The Beginning of Pilgrimage

You could say that pilgrimage started way back at the beginning of Bible times. There are many stories of long journeys to sacred places or places that have a deep spiritual meaning.

  • They begin with the story of Abraham journeyed from his home to a new land because God promised him a nation's worth of descendants.

  • After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they walked through the wilderness for 40 years in penance for their lack of faith. On this journey they are strangers in the land. They see hardship and God's provision and this is often seen as a requirement for pilgrimage and indeed a reflection of our own Christian lives as we journey through life towards heaven.

  • Then when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem it became a requirement for all male Israelites to make the journey there for Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths. Many years later, we read about Jesus, at only 12 years old, making the long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem (and back again) as an act of pilgrimage to celebrate the passover.

  • Jesus spent 40 days wandering in the wilderness, a time of solitude, a time to wrestle with the enemy and time to prepare for a new part of his life.

  • And of course there was the final journey that Jesus took to Jerusalem and then to the cross and onto the Garden of Gethsemane. This journey was accompanied by incredible suffering and injustice but climaxes with salvation and new life.

It was important for followers to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem because at one time, God lived in the Temple, but when Jesus died the curtain that separated the holiest part of the Temple ripped in two. This effectively meant that God 'moved out' of the Temple. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit rested on each of the disciples, so now, God lives in his followers. If God is available everywhere it was argued that the need for pilgrimage to the Temple or a sacred place is no longer necessary.

It was the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, who was used to pagan practices, who created a 'Holy Land' and a network of shrines and relics for Christians to visit and to touch. This has created controversy ever since because why would you need to travel to encounter God when he is everywhere? This is a great question to think on and perhaps let me know your thoughts in the comments. As I mentioned earlier, Part 2 will be about why we include it as part of the 2:52 Challenge.

A Short Summary Of Pilgrimage In The UK

Over the centuries, pilgrimage in the UK has gone in and out of fashion. From the early Anglo Saxons Christians believed that life was pilgrimage, a journey from birth to death. Many also practised pilgrimage to holy sites in the UK and overseas.

As with so many things in church history, it was the reformation that changed the view of pilgrimage again. The reformation was a time in the 1500s when the Church in the West separated from the Catholic Church and from oversight by the Pope. Around this time it was declared that pilgrimages were wrong and should be stopped. It was thought that as we are not instructed in scripture to go on pilgrimages that we shouldn't go on them. It was thought that pilgrimages gave people an opportunity to sin!

Many English shrines, statues and relics were destroyed or discredited. For protestants (people who are not part of the Catholic Church), journeying to a holy place stopped and instead, people focussed on an inner pilgrimage. This inner journey focussed on life as a pilgrimage and pilgrimage themes began to be seen in various writings. If you have ever heard of John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, that is a good example of this.

Journeys to Rome or Jerusalem continued but focussed far more on a cultural experience than a spiritual one.

Curiosity for travel increased in the 1800s fuelled by archeological discoveries in Egypt and Israel. This was less about pilgrimage and more about tourism. Then in 1869 Thomas Cook took his first tour to the Holy Land and began to popularise modern tourism. By the early 1900s, sacred sites in the UK were again attracting large numbers of visitors. Places like Iona, Canterbury and Walsingham among the most popular. Some cathedrals also revived the notion of issuing pilgrim badges to visiting pilgrims.

Today believers and non-believers alike journey to churches, cathedrals and other holy places for all manner of reasons. Pilgrims and tourists mingle with each other to worship, admire the architecture or simply to experience the atmosphere of holy places.


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