Pilgrimage in the Western World

Pilgrimage is the act of journeying to a location of religious or personal importance in the search for spiritual or moral fulfilment. It usually involves embarking on a journey, either alone or as a group, reaching the destination, encountering special objects or phenomenon, delighting in the experiences, and returning home. Many cultures and religions that participate in pilgrimage often link different locations to a spiritual significance. These locations can be places like shrines, remarkable geographical features, locations of birth or death of prominent figures, places of spiritual awakening, or even places where deities are believed to have lived. Over the course of history, the concept of pilgrimage has constantly evolved into a more inclusive term that integrates the connection between religious, secular, and personal causes. This is as opposed to the past where the term was exclusively applied in religious contexts. Today, Pilgrimage is characterized by pluralism, individualism, and a shift of practices, and its classification depends on the nature of the journey, the motivations behind it, and the objects encountered along the way. Modern-day pilgrims are therefore likely to be either moderately religious or not explicitly religious whatsoever. Why do they then submit themselves to this ancient ceremonial? How do they achieve their ambitions? This paper assesses three expressions of meaningful journeys that were encountered in the past decade in order to answer these questions and explore more on the contemporary portrayal of pilgrimage, as well as how the featured journeys compare to each other with regard to the spiritual significance.

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             The first case of pilgrimage involves Stanley Vollant, a doctor from Quebec, who embarked on a 3200-Km journey across the eastern regions of Canada on a personal mission to inspire and impassion the young people of the First Nations. His journey began at Havre-Saint-Pierre on Quebec’s North Shore on October 19, 2010, and cut across Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec regions of eastern Canada (CBC NEWS). In the beginning, the 45-year-old claimed that his mission was to encourage young people from the aboriginal communities which he had descended from. He planned to accomplish this by sharing the story of how he had endured poverty but managed to become Quebec’s first surgeon without losing his identity as an aboriginal Canadian. He would also recount his interests and roles as a father, marathon runner, and university tutor at the University of Montreal. However, rather than being inclined towards success, Vollant’s journey was impelled by the desire to share the potential of attaining victory by enduring common problems that the aboriginal youth encounter in everyday life. For instance, he focused on issues concerning isolation, privation, and other obstacles of life that inhibit the achievement of success by many natives. In addition to this, Vollant also hoped to use his trek as a way of relieving stress, connecting with the land, and realizing his dreams as an aboriginal.

            The second event involves a Michif artist by the name Christi Belcourt, who collected 600 beaded moccasin vamps from different volunteers across the world in honor and remembrance of 600 women and their unfinished lives. According to the statement that she gave at the initiation of the project, she conceived the idea in June 2012 and proceeded to put up a social media page on Facebook where the number of interested participants grew to almost 8000. She then proceeded by organizing a tour at the University of Alberta, which she named The National Tour of Walking With Our Sisters, set for September 20, 2013 (Nahwegahbow). The event would showcase the prepared vamps, and visitors would be coerced to remove their shoes in order to walk alongside them. To her, the 600 beaded moccasin vamps were not art pieces but rather a unified piece that represented a unified voice to pay homage to the lives of the women and to acknowledge that families were still grieving in remembrance. Volunteers of Belcourt’s project came from as far as Scotland, Bulgaria, Germany, and even the United States.

            The last pilgrimage affair entails a group of 38 horse riders from different parts of North America who embarked on a 330-mile journey to commemorate the lives of the 38 people who passed away on December 36, 1862, during one of the biggest mass executions in the history of the United States. The event kicked off when the men departed from Lower Brule on December 22, 2012, just after Jim Miller experienced a vision of the men in the original story.   Since the aboriginal Dakota tribes were the center of the interest in the event, there were many symbolic meanings in each of the elements that were embedded in the journey. For example, the importance of the horse was its representation of the directions used in the ceremonies of the aboriginal Dakota tribes. A horse’s ears pointed towards the heavens and the tail toward the Earth to embody the necessities of life (ICMN Staff). The front legs symbolized the North and the West while the other two represented the South and the East. The men also had to endure the challenges that came along their way, including the adversities of the journey and the memory of the deceased men. Finally, the event ended on December 26, 2012, when the riders arrived in Mankato. All the happenings of this excursion were recorded and compiled into a documentary which would also serve as another means of participating in the pilgrimage for other interested audiences.

            The three pilgrimage episodes presented are composed of different characteristics in terms of movement, place, meaning, transformation, and embodiment. However, they are all bound together by the same elements when it comes to the structural elements of pilgrimage. It is important to note that pilgrimage activities are traditionally connected to long-distance journeys, and this is apparent in the three events that have been mentioned. While Stanley Vollant chooses 3200 km as the length of his journey, the Dakota riders opt for 330 miles. Conversely, Christi Belcourt decides to use a collaborative art project in place of the journey. All the incidents involve a lot of personal sacrifices and commitment and can epitomize a powerful journey in the case of each pilgrim. They are also inspired commonly by the spiritual motives of commemoration and tribute to the souls of the departed.  

The universal connotation of pilgrimage for many pilgrims is related to deep beliefs, the search for spiritually meaningful experiences, and transformation. With regard to this, Stanley Vollant was ambitious to use his position in life to inspire his fellow tribesmen and other people for personal fulfilment. Christi Belcourt and the 38 riders were also determined to honor the souls of departed individuals, even though their bereavement had interfered with their dreams. Overall, each event is illustrative of the modern meaning of pilgrimage and the elements that constitute it.

A scrutiny of the three journeys that are featured in this paper reveals that pilgrimage is now beyond religious definitions. This can be attributed to the varied motives and evolution of the embodiments, sites, and routes of the tours. Initially, pilgrimage involved many participants, who were often members of a common religious group or culture. As far as one can tell, Vollant’s 3,200-km trek, Belcourt’s project, and the Dakota 38 journey are not emblematic of traditional pilgrimage. Rather, they are indicative of a shift from the customary characterization toward a more inclusive definition. This is evident when one examines the motives, meanings, and underlying elements of the pilgrimage itself. In particular, Belcourt’s project illustrates that it is indeed possible to remove one of the elements of pilgrimage but retain its deep-rooted meaning. Thus, this paper concludes that modern-day pilgrimage as a journey that is undertaken by an individual or a group to a particular destination where the participants encounter objects, rituals, and architecture, and enjoy specific benefits and experiences in order to achieve personal growth and fulfilment, or to symbolize a journey through life. Regarding the scope of the journey, the distance of travel varies with the participant’s choice and their motives. As seen, the journey may not imply an actual trip but an act that symbolizes such a voyage.

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