Why Would Anyone Want to Go on a Pilgrimage?

In the Middle Ages, being a pilgrim was a big deal. It was what we all are, the medievals thought—pilgrims on the pilgrimage of life, leaving our home at birth and traveling through time until we reach the spiritual goal of death; along the way, feeling “other” to what we see around us. To make a physical pilgrimage was to make that metaphor real.

The thing about a pilgrimage is, that there is no way to experience it except to do it. In that way it is very like life. No armchair reading, no movies, slideshows or virtual photo albums can substitute.

Pilgriming isn’t like backpacking. Most pilgrims, even today, don’t carry backpacks; instead, they stay in hostels, no-star hotels, and even in monasteries where monks and nuns still practice the virtue of pilgrim hospitality. At the end of each day’s fifteen or so miles, you do not have to put up a tent and cook Ramen; you can have hot showers, good wine, and French meals. But it isn’t like day hiking either, because one walks not just through nature but through history. So nothing goes by too quickly; the pilgrim is not a tourist but an actor in a landscape made to the measure of his or her footsteps. The scenery changes at the pace of walking, and just when you are ready for a village, there a village is, or a river, or a tree with plums.