Exploring pilgrimage

Many of us are familiar with pilgrimage as meaning a special journey to a special place with a special meaning. It is a concept shared by most faiths, but it’s not just linked to religion. For example, you could make a pilgrimage to the place where you grew up or somewhere linked to a personal passion like a football stadium, music venue or special event like the Chelsea Flower Show, Glastonbury, or the Edinburgh Festival. You could also choose to visit somewhere with obvious spiritual links, such as a great cathedral or other holy site.

A wooden signpost marks directions on a pilgrimage route.
A signpost on St Michael's Way in Cornwall, UK.

The idea of pilgrimage has become very popular again in recent  decades. It is estimated that 200-300 million people around the world take part in religious pilgrimage every year. Others travel for a multitude of reasons. Pilgrims often embark on journeys to a significant place, not just to reach their destination but to be changed as they travel. Many see it as a rare opportunity to leave behind the busyness and stress of everyday life and discover refreshment and spiritual renewal. Some travel with a desire to grow in their belief and trust through walking in the footsteps of others. Others have a practical aim such as seeking prayer for illness.

‘I felt connected to pilgrims visiting here over centuries.’

A footpath leads through a green landscape towards cloudy mountains.

A journey through life

Pilgrimage also has a broader meaning. The idea of pilgrimage is often used to describe our journey through the twists and turns of life. It suggests that there can be purpose and movement towards a destination, even when life feels difficult and confusing.

‘Pilgrimage goes on forever throughout life... that's the excitement of Christian pilgrimage for me, that there's an exciting journey into God, into eternity.’

Pilgrimage suggests travel of some kind, but that is not always the case. For Christians, it can also be a spiritual or inner journey of discovering more about God and his love for us shown through Jesus Christ. This kind of pilgrimage can happen through prayer, meditation or using music, art or the written word to stimulate our senses.

Christian pilgrimage – an ancient practice enjoying a revival

Since the fourth century, Christians have made special journeys to significant places, large and small. These have included Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, Iona, and Holy Island (Lindisfarne). Pilgrimages were central to the growth of many cathedrals.

Youth pilgrims stand in front of a cathedral holding banners.
A youth pilgrimage in front of Canterbury Cathedral.

There are many pilgrim routes, old and new, to be explored today all over the UK, across Europe, and beyond. The pilgrim pathways to Santiago de Compostela have become very popular, with thousands of people using various routes to converge on the ancient paths across northern Spain to the shrine of St James. For many it offers 'time out'; for others it is a special opportunity to learn more about God and to seek his help and encouragement.

But Christianity teaches that it is not necessary to go on a special trip to discover God and experience his love, care and forgiveness. As we pray and learn to listen to him, he can be found anywhere – in our homes, at work, at school, or wherever we are.