37. Ian Reader, Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction

by breavman99

pilgrimage a very short introduction

If I’m going to write about pilgrimage, or consider my walks to be pilgrimages, I’m going to need a clearer sense of what pilgrimage is, even though I’ve made one recognized pilgrimage: the walk to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. That’s why I turned to Ian Reader’s short book on the subject, part of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series. Reader, a retired professor at Lancaster University and the University of Manchester, is an expect on pilgrimage, and Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction is a useful starting point for my reading on this topic.

According to Reader, “Pilgrimage is a global phenomenon found almost universally across cultures,” and large numbers of pilgrimage places have flourished both historically and in the contemporary world (1). These places of pilgrimage range “from major religious institutions with national and international reputations, to regional shrines and local copies of major pilgrimages,” including Catholic pilgrimage centres such as the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and Lourdes in France; the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia; the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Camino de Santiago; pilgrimages to cities like Hardwar and Varanasi, sacred to Hindus, in India; the trek to the cave-temple of Amaranth, sacred to Shiva, also in India; and the 1,400 kilometre circuit of the island of Shikoku in Japan, which encompasses 88 temples and follows the Buddhist holy man Kōbō Daishi (1-3). Books, movies, and television shows have made some pilgrimages into media phenomena (2). According to Reader, these pilgrimages “are but a small sample of the many pilgrimage sites around the world and across religious traditions that have prominent reputations and are attracting pilgrims in the present day” (4). In fact, there are examples of pilgrimage within virtually every religious tradition, according to Reader (4). Some sites, such as Jerusalem or Sri Padi and Kataragama in Sri Lanka, are sacred to more than one religion, a situation that can generate feelings of mutual harmony, or of tension and conflict “grounded both in differences of faith and because of competing ethnic, religious, and political claims” (6). 

Many pilgrimages, however, are local in nature; there are several hundred local pilgrimages in Japan, for example (7), and local shrines and holy wells in England were available for medieval pilgrims who could not afford to travel to Canterbury (7-8). There are local shrines in India as well that function as pilgrimage sites (8). Local pilgrimages can be replicas of more famous and distant ones; small-scale replicas of temples such as Varanasi’s Sri Vishwanath are found widely in India, often in the courtyards of other temples, to enable those who are far from Varanasi to visit (8). In Japan, there are replicas of the 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage (8). At Walsingham in the UK, a replica of Jesus’s family house in Nazareth was built during the Middle Ages, and it became the centre of a Marian cult that survived suppression during the Reformation and remains a major English pilgrimage site for Catholics and Anglicans (9). Replicas of the Lourdes grotto have been constructed in the US, Japan, and the UK (10). 

Reader notes that “[t]he popularity of pilgrimage is not just a modern phenomenon. Many of the pilgrimages that have been mentioned have long histories of attracting pilgrims,” such as Santiago de Compostela, Ise shrines in Japan, Canterbury Cathedral in the UK, and Lourdes (11). The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela flourished in the Middle Ages, for example, and although it became almost moribund in the nineteenth century, it was revived after the restoration of Spanish democracy in 1975 (11-12, 47-48). And there are 600 historical pilgrimage sites in the Netherlands, of which 250 are still visited (12). 

In addition, there are secular or nonreligious pilgrimage sites as well, “places that have no religious affiliation but whose visitors may refer to themselves as pilgrims and who perform actions that resonate with what goes on at places such as Lourdes, Santiago, and Shikoku,” such as the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, and Graceland in Memphis. In addition, “existing sites may be adopted by newly emergent traditions,” such as Glastonbury in the UK or Sedona in Arizona, both of which have become centres of pilgrimage for New Age devotees (12). 

According to Reader, pilgrimage has become a major industry, promoted not only by religious authorities but also commercial concerns, such as tourist agencies and transportation concerns, which provide infrastructure used by pilgrims (13). Whether it is known as “spiritual tourism,” “religious tourism,” or “pilgrimage tourism,” such travel generates a great deal of economic activity, with some pilgrimage centres, such as Lourdes, dependent on it (13). “This has led to concerns about the apparent commercialization of pilgrimage and its transformation from a seemingly ‘spiritual’ activity into one centred around markets and tourism,” Reader writes. “One should not, however, think that such developments or commercializations are simply products of the modern day any more than one should think that pilgrims were necessarily only interested in spiritual issues in earlier eras” (13-14). In fact, “[c]omplaints about corruption and commercialism, the clusters of souvenir shops around shrines, and the behaviour of visitors, who appear to be little more than tourists, reverberate across history” (14). Part of the reason for such historical complaints is the fact that in earlier times, pilgrimage was often the only way that people could travel; mobility was restricted in feudal societies, and therefore going on pilgrimage was the only legitimate people could give for travelling (15). So, while pilgrimage has always had a devotional element, it also contained tourist elements from the outset (15). In addition, the need for services, such as food and accommodation, has always generated economic activity that resembles tourism (15-16).

“Pilgrimage practices may differ across religious traditions and countries, and be enacted by people speaking different languages, expressing different faith perspectives, and even at times appearing to be less interested in formal religious orientations than in devotion to a deceased rock star,” Reader writes, “yet, at the same time, there is a readily discernible coherence and commonality across traditions” (16-17). For example, pilgrims often wear particular items of dress to identify themselves as pilgrims. In addition, pilgrimage shrines often require specific forms of activity. Reader suggests “that there is enough common ground across the spectrum for us to talk of pilgrimage in universal terms, as a common human phenomenon spanning cultures, religions, and continents” (17). He concludes that pilgrimage is “a global phenomenon that nowadays is attracting large numbers of people who manifest many feelings and attitudes in common” (18).

Pilgrimage predates Christianity; there are sites in ancient Greece, China, and India (20). “Thus,” Reader suggests,

pilgrimage as a concept and practice incorporated themes of people leaving home, going to and performing acts of veneration at places where holy figures from their tradition had been, where significant events associated with them had occurred, and where their spiritual presence could, it was believed, still be felt. From early on, too, it contained a sense of performing spiritual exercises to bring the pilgrim closer to the divine. This did not, however, mean that pilgrims saw their journeys solely or even primarily through such a lens. Many, perhaps the vast majority, viewed their pilgrimages as a means through which to gain graces and merits that would benefit them both in life and, through the eradication of sins, after death, while praying for all manner of worldly benefits, particularly miraculous cures from maladies. They were also inspired by the idea that being in places that were marked out as specially sacred because of their links to saints and other holy figures, enabled them to directly encounter those figures and receive their grace. Other themes that accrued to the idea of pilgrimage included that of penance; by the 6th century CE, Christian ecclesiastical and other courts began to sentence wrongdoers to perform penitential pilgrimages in order to expiate their sins. (20)

There is a commonality in pilgrimage practices across history, according to Reader, and many of the themes he sees in ancient pilgrimages are still prevalent today.

The English word “pilgrimage” derives from the French pèlerinage and the Latin words peregrinus, meaning “foreign,” and per ager, meaning “going through the fields” (20). Thus, Reader notes, “it indicates the idea of journeys, travelling, leaving the comforts of home, and being a stranger in the lands through which one journeys” (20). He also examines words in different languages that translate into English as “pilgrimage,” and concludes that pilgrimage and related terms, such as junrei in Japanese and tirthyatra in Sanskrit, 

contain notions of crossing, sacred geographies, movement between states of being, the integral nature of travel and worship, and of journeys to get to and be in places that are considered holy. They further indicate that pilgrimage involves both the places themselves and the practices engaged in on the way to them. They also point to a tension that often exists in pilgrimage between movement and place, and about whether the essence of pilgrimage is located in travel to a sacred place or primarily in the actions engaged in when there. (22-23)

For example, those who walk to Santiago de Compostela tend to emphasize the journey, while those who travel by train or plane tend to emphasize the activities they perform at the cathedral, a division that exists in other pilgrimage traditions as well. “In essence,” he continues, “both journey and place can be key elements in pilgrimage. However, different pilgrims, depending on how they do their pilgrimages, may emphasize different aspects of it (23-24). In addition, some sites, like Lourdes and Mecca and Hardwar, lend themselves to an emphasis on the destination rather than the journey there (particularly in a contemporary context) (24). This question is one that interests me very much. While I was moved by my arrival in Santiago de Compostela when I walked the Camino Francés, that experience was nothing compared to the long walk to the cathedral. Moreover, at the moment I am particularly interested in whether walking pilgrimages can make the space through which one travels into place.

According to Reader, “[t]he themes of itineracy,” of movement, “and being in foreign lands relate also to basic human conditions of being restless and wishing to seek new horizons and see new places” (24). Such themes, he continues,

express feelings that impel many travellers and pilgrims: that one’s everyday circumstances, routines, and social contexts are restrictive, that one needs to escape from them in order to find new meanings and change one’s life, that the truth is “out there” somewhere, and that one needs to break away from one’s normal life in order to find it. Pilgrimage has long provided a prime mechanism through which people have striven to deal with such feelings. Indeed, in many religious contexts it has been interpreted symbolically as an externalized enactment of a spiritual journey through life, perhaps as a journey to God or to enlightenment. (24)

These suggestions are very true; in my own pilgrimages in Spain and in Canada, I have experienced both a desire to see new places (or to re-experience in a different way places I already know), and to find new meanings. However, as Reader also points out, “[b]eing a pilgrim also offers people the opportunity to temporarily cast off their normal mundane status and become akin not just to the sacred figures, in whose footsteps they walk, but also to religious specialists” (24). This theme is powerful in Buddhist pilgrimage, where pilgrims temporarily become like monks or nuns (24). Pilgrims may also be, symbolically, “temporarily dead to the everyday world. The pilgrimage clothing worn by Japanese pilgrims in Shikoku, for example, is redolent with the symbolism of death” (24-25). Such death symbolism, Reader continues, “is also suffused with images of rebirth and renewal, in which the pilgrim, on completing the pilgrimage, is spiritually reborn and returns, reinvigorated, to the mundane world” (25).

“While pilgrimage reflects the human condition of restlessness,” Reader writes, “it is not aimless: there is somewhere specific to go, a goal and destination, often (as with the Santiago Camino or the Shikoku pilgrimage) a route to follow along with ritual actions to be performed” (27). In abstract terms, that goal “may be associated with spiritual union or enlightenment,” but in practical terms, 

it invariably means going to and being at specific places that have particular resonances for the pilgrim and his/her faith, where, it is believed, spiritual forces and deities can be encountered and venerated, where their powers and the worldly benefits that flow from them can be assimilated, and/or where pilgrims can stand in the place where their spiritual leaders stood. (27)

Places associated with the origins of a faith and the figures at the faith’s core often become places of pilgrimage, such as the Holy Land, Mecca and Medina, and Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Sites are also commonly associated with apparitions from another realm, such as Lourdes and other Marian shrines (31). Relics and tombs are also important (31-33). “Places of pilgrimage do not rely on just a striking physical location, story, or narrative linking them to saints, apparitions, or the like,” Reader argues. “Almost invariably they also develop a built environment that enshrines the central facet of their spiritual alure” (34). That aspect was missing from my pilgrimage to Wood Mountain last summer in honour of poet Andrew Suknaski; when I arrived in the village, there was little there, and certainly no tangible evidence that Suknaski was from there.

Along with themes of devotion or encountering the divine or seeking spiritual advancement, however, pilgrimage has always included elements of entertainment and tourism, Reader argues. “Particularly as pilgrimages have been popularized and as sites have become more accessible, the facilities to cater to pilgrim needs and wishes have also grown,” he writes. “As they have done so, they have increasingly offered scope for more than austere behaviour” (36). Pilgrimages involve elements of play such as eating and drinking. In addition—and this is something that was missing from my pilgrimage to Wood Mountain, and my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario—pilgrimage is a social affair, performed in groups, in which participants develop “a sense of common belonging” (36-37). One drawback of inventing one’s own pilgrimages—in my experience, anyway—is that they tend (or have tended) to be solo affairs, without the overarching meaning (the sense of connection to other pilgrims traveling the same path in the past and present) or sociality that are typical of conventional pilgrimages. 

“In essence pilgrimage incorporates three main elements: travel and movement, veneration in some form, and a special place or places considered to have some deep significance (often associated with sacred figures or founders) that makes them stand out from the world around them,” Reader contends. “Similarly,” he continues,

those who perform pilgrimages—pilgrims—are people who travel to and perform acts of meaningful significance such as praying and performing rituals at and on the route to such special places. These may be built places (churches, temples, shrines, tombs) as well as natural features (such as mountains, caves, and river-crossing places), although usually such locations, too, are marked out by physical buildings that have been built there. (40-41)

“What remains constant,” he continues,

is the notion of people making their way to and seeking to be in such places, in the ambit of the special figures associated with them. The journey can have both real and symbolic meanings: a movement to a physical place and a metaphorical journeying to a spiritual destination. Pilgrimage thus can be universal in meanings as well as highly localized. Within this framework pilgrimage can provide the setting for expressions of individual development and self-awareness along with group-related senses of togetherness and belonging, and yet also provide potential for contest and conflict. In such ways pilgrimage encompasses a wide variety of themes and meanings, frequently dependent on individual interpretations and volition, that are sometimes (for instance, in simultaneously offering pilgrims scope for a sense of communal harmony and a means of expressing difference) contradictory. (41)

“It is this complex richness of potentialities and scope that is so central to its appeal,” Reader concludes, “and to the seemingly simple act of leaving one’s normal life and, and the Latin term expresses it, ‘going through the fields’” (41).

Along with tales of miracles and apparitions and associations with religious leaders, pilgrimage sites need to be accessible; the development of Lourdes, for example, was assisted by train travel (43-45), and Camino routes to Santiago were developed in the Middle Ages (45-47). Regarding the Camino de Santiago, however, Reader notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). Contemporary pilgrims, he writes, “may well eschew any overt associations with faith and religion and see their pilgrimages more through the lenses of personalized spiritual search, the challenge of hiking and issues of cultural identity” (49). “Everyone has their own Camino” is a saying I heard often among pilgrims in northern Spain, and everyone has their own reasons for making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela—or other pilgrimages, for that matter. I would argue that those who demand some kind of uniformity in the motivations of pilgrims are unlikely ever to be satisfied, and that, as Reader’s book suggests, multiple motivations and experiences have always characterized those who engage in pilgrimages (70):

While it is thus difficult to express all the reasons while people become pilgrims, studies of pilgrims in numerous settings have produced very similar results, showing that generally they express multiple reasons for so doing, and that a number of fairly common themes can be found cross-culturally. In some cases it may be the appeal of communal worship, of being together with and forming a bond with fellow-believers. . . . Returning to a centre of one’s religion or to sites associated with its holy figures provides and intensification, reaffirmation, and reinvigoration of faith. (70-71)

At the same time, “[t]he symbolic notion of pilgrimage as a metaphor for life and as a journey to enlightenment or spiritual transcendence may be significant for some pilgrims, although it is more common for them to express more pragmatic reasons for their journeys, linked either with making things better in this life or the hereafter” (71). Making pilgrimages for the benefit (or in honour of) deceased family members is a common motivation (71); I met many people walking the Camino for that reason. In addition, some pilgrims “are motivated by the wish to leave their personal problems behind by escaping from their ordinary existence and going on the road, where they may then confront their problems on their travels” (72-73). Others seek emotional or physical healing (72-73). Some are looking for assistance with daily concerns (75-76), and others are experiencing anxieties about mortality (77-78). 

The conclusion of a pilgrimage, for many pilgrims, may also be a starting point for the rest of their lives (77). However, many seek to repeat the experience (77-81), something Reader describes as almost an addiction (80). “The recurrence with which people perform pilgrimages, sometimes becoming permanent pilgrims on the road, treating pilgrimage places as second homes to return to again and again, or becoming residents of sites they have journeyed to,” Reader suggests, “shows that pilgrimage need not be an exceptional activity that happens rarely or perhaps just once in a lifetime” (81). The compulsion to repeat the experience of pilgrimage suggests something of its power, I would suggest. I would love to return to Spain and walk a different Camino route, for example, and I hope that someday the opportunity to do that presents itself.

Pilgrimages, Reader suggests, are not only spiritual experiences: “Relaxation, celebration, and entertainment are often woven into pilgrimage structures, with pilgrims who may have been abstemious while on pilgrimage subsequently ‘letting off steam’ at the end of the journeys or on the way home” (83-84). Souvenirs are important, and complaints about their tackiness miss the point, because their significance is not aesthetic but rather resides in the meanings they carry for pilgrims (95). Souvenirs “contain and represent the spiritual presence and essence of the site or deities visited,” Reader writes (95), which makes me wonder how pilgrimage souvenirs are any different from other mementoes of travel. For many participants, pilgrimage is not “a hermetically sealed activity separate from pleasure,” but rather is “intertwined with (and in many respects thus inseparable from) tourism” (97). “As such,” Reader contends,

it is difficult to clearly separate pilgrimage and tourism, especially when the same people stop their buses to pray earnestly at a shrine and then drop by at a scenic place or beach to take photographs or bathe. Such is the significance of sightseeing that tourism and cultural heritage have become a central marketing theme in many contemporary pilgrimage contexts. (98)

That certainly reflects my experience on the Camino de Santiago; the separation between pilgrimage and tourism in that pilgrimage, I would argue, lay in the mode of transportation, walking. However, as Reader pointed out earlier, “complaints or contrasts between walkers and others are unreasonable, as are notions of who is or is not an ‘authentic’ pilgrim” (67). My sense that walking somehow guaranteed my experience of the Camino as a pilgrimage, then, may be untenable.

Most of Reader’s book discusses religious pilgrimages, but he notes that, in modern contexts, pilgrimage has also

become widely associated with places that have no specific religious affiliations or links to formal religious traditions. Many of the themes associated with pilgrimage may be visible in a variety of settings that include visits to the graves and homes of deceased celebrities, war memorials, places associated with seminal political figures, and itineraries relating to the search for cultural roots, identity, and heritage. Moreover, those who participate in such visits may refer to their activities as pilgrimages and to themselves as pilgrims. (100)

This is the kind of pilgrimage that interests me; the pilgrimages I have made, at least since I walked the Camino Francés, have been secular in nature.  According to Reader, such pilgrimages are

especially, and perhaps increasingly, prevalent in the modern day, and particularly in Western contexts, where the term “pilgrimage” is nowadays widely used by the mass media to describe such practices. Academics, too, have applied the term ‘pilgrimage’ to activities that occur outside of formal religious contexts but that incorporate modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to more traditional forms of pilgrimage. Frequently, too, the terms “secular pilgrimage” and “nonreligious pilgrimage” have become widely used in such contexts. (100)

Reader notes that people make pilgrimages to Graceland (102); the graves or death sites of talented and charismatic figures are often “memorialized and visited in ways similar to those of pilgrims to the tombs of saints” (103). War graves and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial are also pilgrimage sites (103-05), as are Robben Island in South Africa (105-06), Lenin’s Tomb (106-07), and Mao’s mausoleum (107-08). In addition, journeying to places “associated with one’s ancestral roots is frequently seen as a modern form of pilgrimage associated with issues of quest, personal search, and identity. Such ‘roots pilgrimages’ are particularly poignant and important for those who are aware that their ancestors were immigrants” (108). Many African Americans, for instance, make pilgrimages to Africa (although it is incorrect to refer to enslaved Africans as immigrants). Fan culture also occasions journeys that can be considered pilgrimages, such as trips to Liverpool to visit sites associated with the Beatles (109). Hiking trails can also be pilgrimages. The obvious example is the Camino de Santiago, but St. Olav’s Way in Norway and St. Patrick’s Way in Ireland can also be considered to be hiking trails that function as pilgrimages. That suggestion, however, suggests that those who walk those pilgrimage paths are without any religious devotion or spiritual engagement—a claim that would be difficult to support.

Reader also discusses the New Age pilgrimages to Sedona and Glastonbury as examples of contemporary pilgrimages that are outside of traditional religious structures. He cites Phil Cousineau’s book on pilgrimage, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, as an example of a New Age approach to pilgrimage, because Cousineau presents pilgrimage as a “spirit-renewing ritual” and suggests ways of transforming ordinary journeys into sacred ones (112). I’m not interested in New Age spirituality, but I do like Cousineau’s book, because it suggests ways that the notion of pilgrimage can be broadened, and that by approaching journeys with a spirit of gratitude (he suggests that travellers keep a journal in which they express gratitude for the things they encounter, something I practiced on the Camino) their meaning and significance can be deepened. For Reader, these examples “indicate that pilgrimage need not be just about formal religious traditions” (117). The themes he locates in religious pilgrimage—“landscapes and places imbued with deep meanings and as sources of special powers and graces for those who visit or walk through them, of associations with special and emotionally significant figures, and of travel to and through such places”—are, he notes, 

also present in secular contexts and at places with no formal religious connections. So are practices commonly associated with pilgrimage to religious sites, such as memorializing and paying reverence to a special figure, communing with the dead, making physical journeys that are spiritually symbolic, seeking emotional healing and searching for inspiration and personal meaning. (117-18)

“What is certainly recurrent and seemingly unchanging,” Reader concludes,

is the desire of people to get away, even if temporarily, from their everyday circumstances, to look for new meanings and reaffirmations of personal identities, and to go to places that they feel can help them in such quests. So, too, are their hopes that this will enrich their lives, offering them spiritual and other benefits, and enabling them to encounter and commune with figures and powers that they believe reside and can be accessed in the places they go to. Pilgrimage offers such opportunities, which is why so many places have developed and been sought out by pilgrims and promoted by religious and other authorities over the ages. It is why new places of pilgrimage are continually being created, and why communities that move across cultures and environments . . . feel the need to recreate their traditional pilgrimage sites in their new homelands. (119-20)

Pilgrimage, then, “has been a recurrent theme in religious contexts, and nowadays increasingly in more clearly nonreligious ones, that offers scope for self-development, escape, faith, and hope, as well as play and entertainment” (120).

Reader’s book does its job; it is a useful introduction to the concept of pilgrimage, and the chapter on secular or nonreligious pilgrimage is important for my research. I wonder, though, whether it is possible, in Reader’s opinion, to develop one’s own pilgrimages, or if the collective or communal nature of pilgrimage requires following examples that have been already established. At the same time, someone must have been the first to consider a journey to Sedona or Glastonbury or Robben Island a pilgrimage. Perhaps I ought to return to Cousineau’s book, although it’s not particularly scholarly, as I recall, for examples of journeys that become pilgrimages through the attitudes, purposes, and motivations of the travellers involved. I would argue that many of the walks I’ve made since returning home from Santiago de Compostela have been pilgrimages, from the 35 kilometre walk to the town where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived to my walks through the Haldimand Tract and to Wood Mountain. What I hope to get from my reading over the next couple of weeks will be a firmer sense that it’s appropriate to consider such journeys as pilgrimages. Reader’s book is a step in that direction.

Works Cited

Cousineau, Phil. The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred. Conari, 2012.

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2015.