Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pilgrimage - a challenge to everyday life.


Pilgrim History
The ancient notion of pilgrimage, present in almost all the world's religions, reflects a human desire for fulfilment. Throughout history, the pilgrimage has been a religious phenomenon that set people on a physical journey in order to yield spiritual results. All of the world religions have some sense of pilgrimage. Jews and Christians visit Jerusalem, Muslims travel to Mecca or visit the tombs of Sunni saints, Buddhists journey to Tibet and Hindus go to Benares.
Catholicism has a rich history of pilgrimage, dating back to the medieval period when pilgrims travelled to major churches or visited sites where saints had lived or died - Assisi and Santiago de Compostela being good examples. During the 12th and 13th centuries the religion of the time encouraged people to think that by just visiting a shrine or relic some of the holiness would rub off on them. As a result Europe saw of frenzy of Cathedrals and churches being built around these relics - in fact if all the splinters of the True Cross were gathered together, there would be enough timber to build Noah’s Ark.
Christian pilgrims have travelled across Europe since medieval times and for a variety of reasons. The majority would have been heading for three main sites of devotion, mostly on foot, covering anything up to 20 or 30 kilometres a day and usually carrying one of the three pilgrimage emblems: a cockle shell for Santiago de Compostela in Spain, keys for Saint Peter in Rome and a cross or palm leaf for Jerusalem. For some the motivation would have been entirely religious, but for many others it was far more basic and earthly. The sick hoped St James would cure their bodily ills. Criminals chose the long haul in preference to a prison sentence imposed by a court of law, while a large percentage of the other pilgrims would have been aiming to enhance their credibility and social status back home by displaying the St James cockle shell as proof of their grit and devotion.
The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, dates back to the Prophet Abraham and is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation bringing together Muslims of all races and tongues between the eighth and the 13th days of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
Until the 19th century, travelling to Mecca usually meant being part of a caravan following one of three main routes out of either Egypt, Iraq or Syria. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over 70 nations arrive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year.
The earliest centres of Buddhist pilgrimages were the places associated with the life and Teachings of the great Master. These four places are Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kusinara. Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. The others are in India: Bodh Gaya was the place, under the pipal or Bo tree, where the Buddha was enlightened after practising meditation for several years. Sarnath was the scene of His first teaching and Kusinara was the place of His death or final Nirvana.
After the death of the Buddha, the relics of His body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed to the claimants and stupas and burial mounds, were erected on the relics. The practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism probably started with visits to these places, the purpose of which was to achieve personal advantage such as rebirth in a good location, as well as to honour the great master. Thus the custom of pilgrimage has been widespread among Buddhist for many centuries and is common to both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.
Darsan means seeing in Hindu religion and when people go to a temple, they say they do not go to worship but to see the image of the deity. The deity is believed to actually be within the image and beholding the deity image is a form of worship where through the eyes one gains blessings. The pinnacle act of Hindu worship is to stand in the presence of the deity and to look upon the image with their eyes, because darsan is believed by Hindus to be far greater and significant than that which can be granted and given by holy men - sadhus.
Pilgrimage Today
Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is a journey, which meets a deep spiritual and emotional need and is made out of the recognition that there is more to life than just the humdrum daily grind of existing.
Deacon Trevor Jones, Pilgrimage Director

As recent statistics show, the pilgrimage experience is experiencing a renaissance. In 1986, just 2,491 pilgrims collected their Compostela certificate in Santiago, but by 2006 these figures had passed the 100,000 mark - an increase of 6453 from 2005. Of these 250 were over 75 and 40% of the total were women.

I did not set out on a Spiritual or religious journey - but it ended being that way - accident? I don't know... maybe that is just the Camino de Santiago at work.
From a Pilgrim blog.

Today's pilgrims also travel for a variety of reasons other than the strictly devout. Some view it as a trial of manhood, others want to get rid of extra kilos and meet some interesting people in the process, while for many it will be a far more fundamental opportunity to achieve personal goals or pause before making a major life decision. But ultimately, whatever the original motivation, everyone will find themselves changed by the experience, including the people living along the route who will profit from a cross-cultural exchange and of course the pilgrim trade.

We don't know which memories we are to cherish, which ones we are to etch with deeper lines so they will stay fresh when we call them time and time again. Now we pause during a run or a walk and ask, Do you remember...?
From a Pilgrim blog.

Travelling as a Pilgrim can only ever be at the speed your own body and mental attitude will allow, which may initially seem like a restriction, though even the most cynical and reluctant newcomer will quickly realize that this is in fact a first step on the road to freedom. Clearly there will be days when you wonder why the hell you are there, but rest assured, this is only a temporary condition and you will find the answer in the people you meet and the memories you take away.

Today, just as at the height of its popularity in the 1300's, travelling on the St. James Way can be a commercial affair. Pilgrims bring much needed revenue and the route is sometimes diverted to maximise these opportunities, but the flip-side is that in return they enjoy facilities that make the difference between unacceptable hardship and an enjoyable challenge. The only, all too obvious, disadvantage of this popularity is that some sections of the St James Way are being ruined by pilgrim detritus: plastic bottles, bags, tissues, sanitary towels, toilet paper … an unsightly mess that is also extremely damaging for the environment. How to safeguard the physical integrity of the St. James way, and other pilgrim routes that will become increasingly popular, is an ongoing problem and an issue beneficiaries must be prepared to tackle - but that's another story.

To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.
Phil Cousineau - the Art of Pilgrimage

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