Spiritual Pilgrimages

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The subject of pilgrimages came up yesterday as I was watching the new PBS show called Sacred Journeys. The show follows Bruce Feiler as he travels the world on six historic pilgrimages: Lourdes, Shikoku, Jerusalem, The Hajj, Kumbh Mela, Osun-Osogbo. I watched the first two yesterday and was really fascinated. You should check them out.

I really got into researching the Camino Santiago pilgrimage a few months ago, even going so far as to read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino, about her experience. There’s a terrific documentary about it (the pilgrimage, not the book) here. The Camino (also known as the Way of St. James) is an 800+ mile journey from Northern France, across Spain, and all the way to the Atlantic.

[It is the route] to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote the book “The Diary of a Magus (Magician)” or “The Pilgrimage” based on his own experience along this way.

The Shikoku pilgrimage is also very interesting; seemingly just a grueling as the Camino, some 700+ miles in total. The idea is that one is to walk the entire perimeter of the island of Shikoku, Japan, which links 88 Buddhist and Shinto temples. In the eighth century, the island was home to Kōbō-Daishi, the man who is credited with bringing Buddhism to the masses in Japan.

What interests me specifically about these journeys is not the magical or mystical properties of the temples or churches or grottos, but rather the symbolism. Pilgrims talk about the initial physical pain (to me, a symbol of our human suffering), and then after a week or so, they say that you accept the pain and mentally move past it (surrendering to life as it is). And then the mind shifts focus inside (which is when the real “journey” begins).

People talk about the pilgrimages being really unique and individual and personal. In the Shikoku episode, Bruce asks one of the guides what message he’d like the pilgrims to take away from their experience. And so wisely, the guide responds that he’d like the pilgrims to hold on to the memories, thoughts, and feelings they each had on the journey.

Beautiful, I thought.

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