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Pilgrimage: A sacred journey in search of God

The practice of pilgrimage is the journey of believers to places of special holiness. Such holy sites are generally associated with divine manifestations, special places or tombs associated with holy men and women, or the locations of great visions or miracles. Pilgrimage can be found in most religions of the world, from prehistoric times to the present.

Pilgrimages are undertaken for a number of different reasons. Many see pilgrimage as a spiritual metaphor. Just as the pilgrim undertakes a great and difficult journey in search of a hallowed shrine, so each individual must undertake a pursuit for the divine in each of us. Pilgrimage is thus a metaphor for the great spiritual quest of life — the search for the sacred center in which pilgrims will find their true selves reflected in the image of the divine.

Many see pilgrimage as a search for God's intervention in their lives. Most commonly this takes the form of seeking miraculous cures at healing shrines. Many pilgrimage sites are visited almost exclusively in search of such cures, whether the healing of the soul or the body. From a broader perspective, prayer for God's intercession in one's life is a fundamental characteristic of nearly all pilgrimages. Sometimes pilgrimages are undertaken in fulfillment of vows and in thanksgiving for God's blessings. Other times, people go on pilgrimage as a penance in an attempt to abandon former wickedness and obtain forgiveness for sins.

Pilgrimage is frequently associated with certain holy days — Christian Easter, Jewish Passover, the Muslim Hajj or the Hindu Kumbh Mela. These holy days often focus on the founding events of a religion. Pilgrims may ritually reenact the sacred events of past times. These rituals assist pilgrims in remembering the sacred foundations of their community.

Pilgrim shrines are sometimes built around the relics of a saint. A building where a holy person lived, his clothing and other personal artifacts are often displayed at many pilgrimage centers. Likewise, tombs of holy people often become centers of pilgrimage, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of Christ at Jerusalem. Some pilgrimage festivals were intentionally initiated by founders; Muhammad himself organized the rituals of the Muslim Hajj. In other cases, the practices of pilgrimage developed long after the death of the founder they celebrate.

Some religions have one special location which is considered supremely holy — Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Jews and Christians, or Benares for Hindus. Pious pilgrims walk hundreds of miles through mountainous terrain to visit the sacred Jokhang temple in Lhasa, where Buddhism was first preached in Tibet. In addition to a few dozen sites of global pilgrimage, there are also thousands of smaller local shrines where the pilgrim's journey may be a matter of only a day's travel.

Pilgrims frequently journey in groups, developing strong bonds of fellowship and community. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales offer a fascinating glimpse of medieval English pilgrims on the road to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket, and the sometimes risqué stories they told to to entertain each another. The pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) can include over two million Muslims, all dressed in white and performing united ceremonies of worship. Frequently those who have gone on pilgrimage are granted a special status of sanctity in their home communities.

Most pilgrimage is associated with special rituals and ceremonies. Pilgrims are often required to don sacred robes and undergo spiritual exercises such as prayer, reading scriptures or meditation. Many pilgrims abstain from ordinary activities of life by fasting, sleepless vigils or sexual abstinence. Sacrifice or offerings are often required of the pilgrim, even if it is only placing of a flower or rock in a special place. In return many pilgrims obtain tokens of their pilgrimages — special clothing, jewelry, books, medallions or relics — which they proudly wear or display as symbolic of their spiritual status as pilgrims.

Today the role of pilgrimage has been supplanted in the lives of many by its secularized mirror image: tourism. Travel to holy shrines has been replaced by the tourist's frantic pursuit of entertainment, thrills and souvenirs. Nonetheless, for millions pilgrimage remains a fundamental part of their spiritual lives — a sacred journey in search of God.