On the website Thinking Faith, Emma Holland has an interesting piece on the resurgence of popularlity of pilgrimage. I’ve blogged a lot here about Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace” a book which is particularly good on the messy human reality of pilgrimage. Indeed, it is good to recall the messy human reality of all sorts of monastic, mystical and otherwise otherworldly enterprises.
Bearing this in mind, as Holland points out, the Camino de Santiago in particular has had a massive surge in popularity:
The statistics about the number of people walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in 1986 point only to the sparseness of a forgotten trail. A low pilgrim population in the 80s turned an ancient path into more of a medieval legend. Rather than a well-known travel destination, the ancient ‘Way of St James’ was then little more than a dusty relic of Christian, and pagan, history. However, 21 years later, statistics show that 301,036 pilgrims received their Compostela certificates in 2017.  The powerful resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage, particularly of the Way of St James, is undeniable. Is pilgrimage providing the perfect nourishment for the ritualistic needs of a spiritually hungry generation?
The concept of ‘going on pilgrimage’ has traditionally evoked many ideas: undertaking a journey to serve a personal purpose; giving expression to a difficult situation through bodily action, in the hope of securing an outcome; following in the footsteps of many who have walked the same path before; fulfilling a religious obligation. The idea of pilgrimage has over time evolved to meet the expectations of a 21st century world and yet still, whether the hope is for healing, miracles, peace, or even weight loss, people choose to walk the gruelling 500 miles of the Camino, with the bare minimum of possessions, more than a thousand years after the first pilgrims.
I didn’t realise that in the 80s the numbers were so starkly low. one of the topics Adam DeVille touched on in his blog post which I cited the other day was the faslity of the lazy use of the term secular:
Fong’s book is worth it if only for this central insight, which comes almost exactly half-way through: “there is perhaps no more confused assertion, for a critical theorist, than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly ‘secular’.” Why churchmen and others insist on using this term or its even more fatuous variants (“secular humanism”) has never made sense to me–except, of course, to flog their hideous books.
(he’s talking about Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option)
Holland goes on to consider various frameworks for thinking about this:
Biblical and anthropological insights could shed some light on why this might be. The God of the Old Testament provided the people of Israel with ritual instruction, intending to show them how properly to praise their creator and provider. Rituals were the intended outlet for the heart, reinforced with a physical action. One such example is fasting. As Karen Eliasen describes: ‘Fasting as a ritual act is not merely a symbol or a metaphor for some other-worldly activity. It is an experience of concrete, this-worldly changes.’ Eliasen continues to say that these physical changes are part of a communication and dialogue between God and the people. In a similar way, pilgrimage is a way of physically enacting and embodying a conversation with God. It encompasses all manner of the human being: it is spatial, physical and it speaks to the inner emotional and spiritual dynamics of a person. To provide an example of this in another cultural context, anthropologist Catherine Allerton studied the padong journeys undertaken by the brides of Manggarai of Eastern Indonesia, whereby brides would walk long distances from their kin towards their spouse’s family, wailing on the way as a fully embodied image of the journey the heart is also taking. Such pilgrimage rituals witness to an important inner journey and to the importance of documenting emotions through physical manifestations.
However, it is the anthropological theory of ‘liminality’ developed by Victor Turner that might be the most important lens through which to study the contemporary allure of pilgrimage. Liminality can be described as the ‘in-between’ place whereby one has crossed a threshold but has not yet arrived at a final place, communitas, a place of completion. Turner suggests that ‘pilgrimage provides a carefully structured, highly valued route to a liminal world where the ideal is felt to be real, where the tainted social persona may be cleansed and renewed’. In other words, it is a place to forget socially-structured life before the pilgrimage and move towards the place of communitas. In a society seemingly more polarised than ever, the idea of being somewhere outside of the socio-political realm where one is equal with fellow pilgrims could be a highly appealing prospect. Pilgrimage almost has the ability to create a microcosmic utopian society, in which one bonds along the way with all those who are on the same inner and outer journeys.