Ever wondered what is meant when someone is talking about pilgrimage? Although the term is becoming ever more present, pilgrimage as a practice remains a rather vague concept for many.

Is it a spiritual journey, a self-growth voyage, or just a big hike? Today’s article will be an exploration of the concept of pilgrimage. We will look at pilgrimage as an ancient practice, different ways to interpret it and, finally, take a look at the definition of the term.

all things pilgrimage

You might have noticed by now that when a wayfarer is all about pilgrimage.

As a Master’s graduate in Religious Studies, I have been fascinated by pilgrimage ever since I first started reading about the subject. It has become my main focus, and all time favourite topics to research, write about, and explore in everyday life. Even more so after my Camino de Santiago.

Although the term pilgrimage seems to be used more and more in current day society, the practice of pilgrimage itself isn’t new. It has been a common practice in many world religions.

So since when, and why did people go on pilgrimages?

pilgrimage: an ancient practice

As I stated before, the practice of pilgrimage is an ancient one. Many world religions know places of great religious or spiritual importance. These are locations where – for example – a miracle has happened, something of great significance has happened, or where one can notice a strong connection to the divine.

Way back, people started travelling to these places for many different reasons: to give a votive offering, to do penance, to contemplate, or because it was an important ritual practice specific to their religion.

A few examples:

  • Lourdes is a major Catholic pilgrimage site, a place where Mary is said to have appeared to Bernadette – a local woman.
  • The Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, is mandatory for all those who are financially and physically able to make the journey.
  • Bodh Gaya is one of the most important Buddhist places of pilgrimage, as it regarded as the place where Gautama Buddha reached enlightenment.
  • And, of course, we cannot omit Santiago de Compostela from this tiny list, the pilgrimage site where St. James is supposedly buried.

outer and inner pilgrimage

The examples above mainly revolve around physical locations, however, the physical or outer journey is not the only form of pilgrimage.

Many religions and spiritual traditions, distinguish the physical or outer journey from the inner pilgrimage. The inner pilgrimage is the journey we often undertake at the same time at the physical one, but it could also be a journey on it’s own.

The inner pilgrimage is an explorative adventure. It’s a quest within, guiding us to that which we find important, to our blocks and barriers, to our limits. It requires us to be honest, open, and courageous.

Similar to the outer one, when we’re embarking on an inner pilgrimage, we’re travelling to a place of great significance – to a sacred, or meaningful place.

definition of pilgrimage

So what does the term pilgrimage, then, mean?

When searching for a definition of the word pilgrimage, you’ll find a myriad of answers. It might be “a long journey to a sacred place”, “a journey of spiritual significance”, or “a special journey”.

The first thing that all these definitions have in common is defining pilgrimage as a prolonged journey – it’s an exploration, an adventure. It’s a period of time when one is travelling, going somewhere.

Second, most definitions emphasise that this journey is leading towards a place that holds great significance. A place deeply meaningful to the person undertaking the journey, whether this is for religious, spiritual or secular reasons.

It is a journey to someplace meaningful.

In my understanding, when we are journeying to a place with great significance, the journey itself becomes meaningful, or sacred as well. That’s why I would describe pilgrimage – as a meaningful, or sacred journey.


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