Like ripened apples bobbing to the surface of my consciousness, it is with only minimal effort that I can resurrect vibrant, searing memories gathered from a lifetime of travel of witnessing the devotional practice of the faithful:
- the angled, late afternoon light in Durham Cathedral causing a spontaneous outburst of carol singing from a group of angelic-voiced schoolboys
- the bloodied feet of those slogging up the sharp scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, shoes draped defiantly around their necks as proud talismans of their pain
- the robed priest mouthing a prayer into the howling wind as he looks out over the landscape from the summit of the wounded mountain of La Verna, site of Saint Francis’ stigmata
- those queuing up in silent reverence to visit the tomb of recently deceased Pope John Paul II in the Vatican
- the happy villagers decorating a Derbyshire holy well with flowers, repeating an ancient ritual of thanksgiving
- the shocked silence of those standing in front of the martyrdom site in Canterbury Cathedral
- those crying and crossing themselves when seeing the collection of miraculously unneeded crutches and leg-braces leaning against the walls of the Basilica Saint Anne de Beaupré outside Quebec City
- the loving gazes and delicate caresses bestowed by the aesthetically enraptured upon the magnificent carved capitals in the cloisters of Mossaic and Santillana del Mar along pilgrimage routes to Compostela
- the Bible-totting faithful slowly making their way along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem or singing on the presumed site of the Sermon on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee, shimmering in the distant heat
- those shivering after emerging from the pool at Holywell, hopeful of being healed
- the pained yet ecstatic expressions of those ascending the steps to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal on their knees
- the hundreds of the white-robed believers gathering silently in the early morning darkness in the town of Axum to await the arrival of the Arc of the Covenant
- Etc., etc., etc.
And those are just the Christian sites. In my mental rolodex reside an equal number of similarly powerful memories garnered from watching pilgrims at Buddhist, Shinto, Islamic, and Jewish sacred sites, not to mention the humbled and awestruck whom I’ve witnessed visiting many sacred landscapes around the world. And then there are those famous pilgrimages which I have only seen on a television screen: the millions who do the Hajj to Mecca each year, the largest annually recurring pilgrimage, and the tens of millions who venture into the Ganges during the various Kumbh Mela pilgrimages taking place every six to one hundred and forty-four years in what have become the largest gatherings in all of human history.
One would not be wrong to imagine that at times it seems as if pilgrimage has taken over the entire world. Indeed, it has even been stated that the planet is itself but a pilgrim moving on its celestial way through the cosmos… the Milky Way, itself a sometimes moniker for the Way to Santiago de Compostela, otherwise known as the Camino Francés.