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  • Tim Mathis

Going on a pilgrimage is not a strange thing to do.

Updated: May 7

This is an excerpt from the guidebook, "The Camino for the Rest of Us." Here's where you can buy it, if you'd like.


The Camino for the Rest of Us: Coming May 6th
The Camino for the Rest of Us: Coming May 6th

Going on a pilgrimage may seem like a strange thing to do, but really we're the strange ones.


Regular, modern people in the English-speaking world have a funny relationship with pilgrimage these days. For most of us, it’s familiar, but also foreign. Pilgrimage is like developing film in a dark room or weaving a sweater on a loom. We know it happens, but it’s not exactly our thing.


The idea of pilgrimage is common enough. It’s climbing the mountain to get to the sage at the top. It’s Luke Skywalker going to Dagobah to train with Yoda. It’s Frodo carrying the ring to Mordor. It’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


You almost definitely have a vague sense of what I mean, right? 


If pressed, you could probably even give a basic definition of pilgrimage, something like what Wikipedia says: pilgrimage is “a long journey towards a specific physical place, undertaken with some type of spiritual or moral purpose.” 


That seems right, doesn’t it? It’s like a long trip you take to try to achieve enlightenment or something?


Pilgrimage is still a familiar cultural concept.


But also, you might not have much personal experience with pilgrimage. That wouldn’t be surprising. “Going on pilgrimage” isn’t a normal thing to do nowadays. “Long journeys undertaken with spiritual or moral purposes” aren’t a standard feature of modern life - at least for people who are likely to be reading this book.


That’s all true. 


We should recognize though, that this does not mean that pilgrimage is weird. 

And actually, we’re the weird ones for not understanding that pilgrimage is normal.


Outside of the secular, English-speaking world, pilgrimage is still a hugely popular reason to travel. In fact, it’s a central feature of life for billions of modern people. 10 million people travel to the Buddhist temple at Nanputuo in Xiamen, China every year. 2000 people a day make the pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in India. All Muslims are expected to complete the Hajj to Mecca at some point in life, and a million people do so annually. For a whole lot of people, pilgrimage is a very common experience.


Even in the English-speaking world, until relatively recently, pilgrimage was very popular - the primary impetus for travel even. In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell said “The medieval pilgrimage routes, in which Christians walked from church to church to commune with the innards of saints, are the beginnings of the modern tourism industry.” 


It was one of the few good excuses to leave home and go on a long trip in the days before paid vacation time. 


Pilgrimage is, and always has been, normal. It’s only our own peculiar history that’s made pilgrimage seem like an unusual experience. 


You might wonder why this is. For a gross oversimplification, it’s because the same forces that weakened the Camino after the Reformation - Protestantism and politics - killed pilgrimage culture in the English-speaking world. 


European pilgrimage practices grew up as part of Catholic tradition during the Middle Ages. During the Reformation, however, Protestantism replaced Catholicism as the dominant form of religion in much of Northern Europe. When it did, the Protestants attacked pilgrimage as a corrupt practice, and a means of earning God’s favor through works outside of faith. They hated that sort of thing. Broadly speaking, Protestant reformers treated pilgrimage as a religious affront, rather than a virtuous spiritual undertaking. The early Protestants could be real killjoys. 


These religious attacks, alongside the political upheaval that accompanied the Reformation, dried up and cut off old pilgrimage routes through Europe from the 16th century onwards. During the same period, Protestants colonized much of the world, and pilgrimage never developed as a common practice as those colonies grew into modern nations.


In a later historical double whammy, after the World Wars, much of Europe developed into something like a post-religious society. While religious identity is a complex thing to track, and many Europeans would still identify as Christians, church attendance and active religious practice collapsed after World War II through most of Northern and Western Europe. Because the traditional impetus for pilgrimage in Europe was religious, for a time traditional European pilgrimage routes stopped making sense. 


All of these factors still shape attitudes towards pilgrimage today. These days, your priest probably won’t prescribe pilgrimage as a spiritual intervention, because you probably don’t have a priest. And, you probably won’t join your billions of inter-religious neighbors on their pilgrimages for roughly the same set of reasons that you probably won’t turn up at their places of worship this weekend. 


Nowadays, pilgrimage seems foreign to us because we live in a strange, small historical bubble where it’s not a common practice.


But the Camino’s resurgence - and the fact that we’re here thinking about it - is a positive sign that pilgrimage is making a comeback in our part of the world. I think it’s part of a trend, alongside the popularization of thru-hiking long trails in the United States, and the Gap Year overseas experience in the Commonwealth countries. I know I keep mentioning those travel experiences, but it’s justified. Read the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed and you’ll find the story of a pilgrimage on the Pacific Crest Trail. Read The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz and you’ll find a guidebook to pilgrimage through international wandering. Long trips to important places are moving back to the center of English-speaking culture. 


It makes sense. If everyone else is doing it, why can’t we?


Regardless though, welcome back to the world of pilgrimage. You’re not weird for being here.



Going on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago


Going on a pilgrimage is not weird. It’s cool.


Whether you know it or not, by doing the Camino you’re stepping back into that rich, fragrant, international world of pilgrimage. You’re stepping alongside Buddhists circling Shikoku on the 88 Temples pilgrimage in Japan. You’re bathing in the Ganges alongside Hindu believers in India. You’re walking with thousands of modern Taoists carrying a statue of the sea goddess Mazu on a circuit through western Taiwan. You’re traveling with new-age hippies and old-school Catholics to wash in the healing waters at Lourdes, France. 


Maybe that’s weird. 


Or, maybe it’s awesome. 


It can indeed be hard to identify with guys dressed up like Jesus, walking on their knees, dragging crosses to cathedrals on Good Friday. And what have druids got to do with me, walking from Glastonbury to Stonehenge to worship pagan gods on the solstice? 


But if billions of people across time and culture have done this sort of thing, there’s got to be something to it, right? 


Just the culture itself is something to see. Pilgrimage practices are colorful and diverse, and the Camino’s ancient monasteries, ornate cathedrals, crumbling ruins, unique vocabulary, and confusing religious rituals are an experience in themselves. Walking the Camino means being welcomed into a thousand years of history and tradition.


Beyond that, it’s participating in a universal experience alongside billions of our friends and neighbors, reclaiming a practice that we never should have given up in the first place.


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