Seeing Is (Not Always) Believing: Reflections From Pilgrimage

The Oxford Living Dictionaries list three meanings for ‘pilgrimage’. I would like to share some musings on what pilgrimage means to me and the lessons I have learnt from my pilgrim travels.

I have made many pilgrimages (using the second definition linked above) to important Christian sites, including: Walsingham and Canterbury (England); Lourdes (France); Madhu and Matara (Sri Lanka), and the Holy Land (Israel and Jordan). Other holy places not usually considered pilgrimage destinations that I have visited include: Aylesford Priory, and the Shrine of St Jude – both in Kent, Worth Abbey in West Sussex (England); the Shrine of St Jude in Indigolla, the Queen of Angels church in Moratuwa (Sri Lanka), and Mont St Michel (France).

The places I have been to are famous for different reasons. Some of them (Walsingham; Aylesford; Lourdes; the Queen of Angels church) are renowned for Marian apparitions that are said to have happened there. Others (Canterbury and Mont St Michel) are associated with particular saints (St Thomas Beckett and St Michael the Archangel respectively). Worth and Madhu have long-standing histories as places of worship, whilst Matara has a “miraculous” statue that keeps disappearing and yet somehow always ends up back at its home church in the very south of Sri Lanka. Some shrines have saintly relics, e.g. the Shrine of St Jude in Faversham, whilst the other aforementioned St Jude’s shrine has well-known healing services. The Holy Land, I hope, goes without explanation!

So, what can be derived and learnt from the experiences I have been privileged enough to have had so far?

Firstly, if we think of pilgrimage as life’s journey, I realised we do not have to travel far and wide to go on a pilgrimage. For me, the Roman Catholic Mass is in itself a pilgrimage, as we travel to meet Jesus in the Eucharist. Even for churches that don’t uphold a belief in transubstantiation, meeting and gathering with fellow Christians and travelling on your individual and collective journeys is a true spiritual pilgrimage of unparalleled value.

Secondly, I realised what a Doubting Thomas I am at times! I have always been full of doubts and questions but going to Israel made me seriously sceptical. How could they possibly know the precise spot of Jesus’ birth? His crucifixion? The exact tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus? It seemed incredulous to me.

Thirdly, and not to be underestimated or overstated, is the richness and length of our collective Church history. Fractured into denominations as we may be as a worldwide Church, when put together, Christianity has existed in one form or another for nearly 2000 years. Places like the holy sites in Israel (particularly those of Jerusalem and Bethlehem) have welcomed pilgrims from across the world for over 1000 years. Even if today’s sites aren’t the exact spots on which Jesus was born or crucified, the fact that so many people have worshipped at these very spots for such a long-standing period, is special in itself and worth visiting.

Shanika is a Roman Catholic part-time music PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London