Not Such A Long Journey
Transforming pilgrimages into experiences that are more about pleasure than pain
For millennia, the devout have made pilgrimages from their homes to important religious sites. Whether Mecca or Lourdes, Rome or Lhasa, the long and difficult journeys across inhospitable terrain and sea are as much a symbol of the pilgrims’ devotion as the elaborate rituals they undertook upon arrival.
These days, advances in transportation have reduced journeys that once would have taken months to a matter of hours, whilst a corresponding drop in general piety has turned most ancient holy destinations into social media hot spots.
Which is not to say that pilgrimages no longer take place. Far from it. Every year during Holy Week, over two million pilgrims slowly wend their way along a 117-km stretch through Mexico’s Jalisco mountain range. And one only needs to look at the waves that arrive each year at Mecca for the haj, or the huge bus-loads that disgorge devout Catholics at Lourdes, to realise that the tradition of the faith-based pilgrimage is still very much alive.
It’s just that many of these journeys are now carried out in comfort, with a guide and all manner of extras, for reasons that have more to do with secular needs than with the salvation of one’s tormented soul.
Pilgrimages Gone Plush
The Camino de Santiago, for instance, once an arduous trek across Europe to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, can now be “roughed out” in a plush five-day, four-night journey aboard the Al Andalus, a luxury train dressed in Belle Epoque furnishings.
Similarly, the British Pilgrimage Trust is on a quest “to revive the British pilgrimage tradition of making journeys on foot to holy places”. At the same time, somewhat counterintuitively, its motto is “bring your own beliefs”. Which means that the Christians who complete the 21-day, 121-mile trek from Winchester to Canterbury might well be outnumbered by history buffs, or people who just want to tick off a life experience on their bucket list or simply have an unusual holiday with like-minded friends and family.
As the Trust’s co-founder Guy Hayward told the UK’s Spectator, the universality of pilgrimages is that they connect the pilgrim to the world and other people. “You’re walking in the land, in nature, you’re talking to people. It’s not complicated, but at the same time, it’s very tangible.”
A Recipe For Relief
Their fingers ever on the essential oil-scented pulse, wellness resorts and retreats are responding with less physically taxing experiences. At the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie, the JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa’s concierge curates itineraries that incorporate historic, spiritual sites including Tibetan Buddhist temples, Happy Valley (where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed during his visit in 1929), and Gun Hill, home to the Himalaya’s oldest Christian church.
Sedona in Arizona, meanwhile, is believed to be flooded with energy vortexes—swirling energy forces that promote spiritual growth—and for deep-pocketed believers, the conveniently located L’Auberge de Sedona resort is the site of a forest bathing programme in which guests are guided through the natural setting while communing and meditating.
“Many people suffer from the effects of the stress and pressure of our time,” says Tananya Gallagher, a sound-healing guide at L’Auberge. “Spiritual journeys are more important now than ever because the spiritual awareness is what gives people their sense of purpose. Many guests are sharing feelings of confusion and emptiness, a recognition that they’ve spent years cultivating a successful career life and even personal life, but ignored their spiritual life.”
There is, however, something to be said for doing a pilgrimage the old-fashioned ambulatory way, says traveller Chiqui Lara, who did a section of the Camino de Santiago walk with 10 friends. “I have so many memories. Sometimes, I walked alone along paths laden with tall eucalyptus trees where the only sound I heard was the chirping of birds. Every night we slept in a different town, in a different kind of lodging, each serving different food—from very simple and modest to sumptuous meals. If I were younger, I would attempt the full Camino.”
Still, any quest for emotional, spiritual and physical succour is surely as valid as one which involves a devotional, even holy, imperative. For while it is not ordained from any pulpit, it nevertheless comes from a place of want. Even if at the end of a day’s trekking on the Camino route organised by Authentic Journeys, that want can be satisfied by a foot massage delivered by a masseur who travels with you, and someone else, literally, takes care of your luggage while you walk entirely, and without any sense of irony, unencumbered.
As the saying goes, whatever gets you there.
By Daven Wu