Personal meaning

“Pilgrimage” explores journeys of personal meaning

“Pilgrimage is a word that should be used with care, not tossed lightly in glossy travel brochures,” says British author and journalist Peter Stanford. In his captivating new book “Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning” he invites the reader to explore 12 ancient sites that call the modern pilgrim to a journey beyond travel, a purpose beyond pleasure.

From destinations like the Camino de Santiago in Spain to Shikoku in Japan, these trips blend with history and myth, and do not require today’s pilgrim to be part of a religious tradition. Instead, these sites speak of an age of freedom and curiosity, awakening those who want – and hope – to be affected by a power outside of them.

The most eclectic of these routes is the Camino, as it is called, which straddles the border between the French Pyrenees and northern Spain. Legends abound, but official history explains that in the 9th century, the remains of James, the fisherman’s disciple of Jesus, were transported to the original cathedral in Santiago. Nowadays, travelers no longer wear long tunics or carry sticks with metal spikes to repel animals. But the sight of Saint-Jacques Cathedral and the sound of its bells in the distance always encourage the pilgrims of this “penultimate stint to make a last effort to reach the end of the journey”, writes the author.

Islam’s holiest city, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570. Muslims go on the 5-day hajj – which they must take once in a lifetime journey. they can – all wearing a wrapper called ihram. A reminder, says Stanford, “that all carriers are equal… and that they are, when they are in Mecca, somewhere between this world and the next.” Here, their faith resonates, underpinning the fraternity and fraternity that they strive to live on a daily basis. Since the 7th century the site has been reserved for Muslims, so those who are not Muslims should appreciate its sacred traditions of pilgrimage from afar.

Ethiopia’s Lalibela region has attracted Orthodox Christians for centuries (and is now attracting interest in the West). Many people believe that King Lalibela had a vision of a holy city in a dream. The journey takes pilgrims through a labyrinth of caves and grottoes, to a complex of 11 ancient rock-cut churches. Dating from the 12th and 13th centuries (some say much earlier), these structures have “no ambition to rise to the heavens,” Stanford writes. There is no explanation as to who built these intricately carved buildings, nor how or why. Tradition has it that while the ancient workers slept, angels descended from heaven to continue the work at a speed far greater than that of mortals. Archaeologists today express doubts – but so far they haven’t provided better answers.

Mystical elements weave in all of the sites featured in the book, especially Shikoku in Japan and its 88 Buddhist temples, which attract thousands of pilgrims each year. Standing out from linear paths, Shikoku is circular, weaving through four provinces. The symbolism is an integral part: the pilgrims end up where they left, closing the circle. “It opens up the possibility,” writes the author, “of a version of the continuous and endless journey to enlightenment.”

If there is one criticism to be made about this book, it is that of a missed opportunity. The story, while completely captivating, could have been enriched by the experiences of real travelers telling their stories. Readers wonder why they have ventured on these roads and what wisdom or self-knowledge they have acquired.

A pilgrimage offers an experience which, at its core, allows participants, as Stanford notes, “to turn their backs for a moment on the logic of the modern world”. As the pandemic subsides in some areas and people start making plans again, the question of purpose mingling with fun is more pressing than ever. And after reading “Pilgrimage”, the question might even be asked when stepping out of the door for a daily walk.


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