Pilgrimages: Why?

A few years ago, I started walking the St. Jacques de Compostelle pilrimage route across northern Spain.  I began by hiking the last 70 miles, and the next year I hiked the first 100 miles.  Now all I have to accomplish are the middle miles.  For my personality, not doing the walk linearly seems appropriate.  I’m not very good at orderly sequences.   Perhaps I should even consider walking the route from end to beginning, after all the pilgrims had to return . . . or did they?

Pilgrimages were one of the great features of the Middle Ages, and the most popular was the route to St. Jacques.  In many ways, these mass movements of people helped destroy the structure of medieval society by helping to free the serfs from their land.  They led to a growing mobility that helped give birth to a freer European society.

Today, recreating these pilgrimages has been made easy.  Along the St. Jacques route there are hostels, and restaurants with reasonably priced food.  The trail is well marked and the scenery can be spectacular.  I’m not totally sure why I’m crossing Spain on foot, but I think it is largely for the exercise.  I’ve also enjoyed the solitude, as most of the time I’m walking alone.

In the Winter 2010 issue of Dialogue, Barry Laga discusses pilgrimages as they relate to Mormonism:

As a missionary in France and Belgium, I frequently encountered devout Catholics who would describe their journeys to Lourdes or Fatima.  “Ah, Oui!  J’ai vu la grotte, la grotte ou la Vierge s’est apparue a Bernadette!  J’etais la!”  While these humble women, dressed in robin-egg-blue housecoats, could not bring home a piece of the cross, they could show me their holy water, rosary beads, or skinned knees, emblems of their devotion and commitment.  Their pilgrimage was no trite tourist trip.  They didn’t watch the spectacle with ironic detachment, rolling their eyes at the commodification of sacred space. Non!  They walked on holy ground.  I nodded and smiled.  But I confess that the stories amused me.  Holy water indeed.

Those fanciful narratives were a counterpoint to the dull sermons I heard preached in off-white cinder-block chapels as a child.  Speakers would often disparage such pilgrimages, emphaizing the holiness that is available to all of us here and now.  What these sermons expressed, with an almost uncanny echo of nineteenth-century nationalism, was the core American myth.  Emerson himself would have nodded in agreement, the the advice I heard as I sat on my oak pew merely echoed the Trancendentalist’s observation that “the soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home.”  . . . I eventually realized that these sermons were earnest attempts to create identity by emphasizing difference.  Like the seventeenth-century Puritans, Mormons like to separate themselves from Catholics and their “Popish rituals.”

Ironically, this particular difference has dwindled in recent years as the LDS Church pours money into historical site that serve as Mormon pilgrimage destinations.  The development of these places encourages families to visit, take guided tours, serve missions, and read about these sites in the Ensign, the New Era, and the Friend.  Perhaps those Catholics were on to something.

At a sacrament meeting several years ago, our bishop led a special report on the experience of some of the Ward kids and adults in reliving for a couple of days the Mormon handcart journey across southwestern Wyoming.  The Bishop was very emotional during his talk, frequently being overcome with tears.  Mormons are now going on pilgrimages to Nauvoo, Palmyra, Kirtland, the Hill Cumorah, and even the Holy Land.  Mormons now have both feet firmly planted in the pilgrimage business.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I guess individual members will have to decide.  But it does narrow the distance between the LDS Church and other religions.  Or looking at it another way, it proves that we can learn from the experiences of other churches, both Christian and non-Christian.  For all major religions have their pilgrimage sites.

I wonder if a trip to Branson, Missouri, to see the Osmonds would qualify as a Mormon pilgrimage?  Or the NYTs mentions that “some liberal Mormons are making pilgrimages to New York to see (‘The Book of Mormon’ musical).

This entry was posted in catholicism, mormonism, pilgrimage, Religion, Travel, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Pilgrimages: Why?

  1. Dennis Agle says:

    Hi, Roger. Enjoyed your post and have featured it today on http://mormondaddyblogs.com. I hope you don’t mind. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of that pilgrimage!



  2. rogerdhansen says:

    As part of a graduate medieval history class at BYU, I wrote the following:

    “A pilgrimage . . . meant the possibility of winning grace and getting into contact with the great mysteries of his religion. Medievalists have suggested many reasons for the popularity of pilgrimages including: to fulfill a penace or a vow, to seek a miraculous cure, to find relief from the routine of daily life, and to escape the status quo. However, one cause which has been only hinted at up until now is that they went to fulfill a primitive nomadic instrinct. “One would think,” says one social historian, “that with some of them nomadism represented a profound need (a resurgence to the customs of prehistoric time?) . . . “

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