"Our guide was a Maronite Christian priest from Jerusalem. He would take us to a place and tell the story of the place, and then he would pause, and with a little smile he would say, 'If this is not the place [where the story happened] then it is another place. Let us go.' "
-- Rev. Herbert O'Driscoll , on pilgrimage in the Holy Land
Michael Begg describes himself as a spiritual midwife to those who come on week-long pilgrimages to the sacred Celtic valley of Glendalough, a half-hour's drive south of Dublin.
The trim, whitewashed retreat house called Avelin that he and his wife, Andrea, operate accommodates just seven people, and a few times a year -- far fewer than the number of requests he gets -- Begg guides his little band of pilgrims to the surrounding "thin places" of Celtic spirituality.
Thin places are doorways between the everyday world and the world of the spirit. They touch what the soul points to. They are places made sacred and holy by the centuries of reiterated prayers of those who have come to them: The Holy Well of St. Bridget, the Celtic high crosses and pre-Celtic ancient stone circles, the sixth-century monastery of St. Kevin, the ruins of the monastery's Women's Church with its poignant graveyard of unbaptized babies.
Begg, 64, a Methodist minister and psychotherapist, carefully structures the week as an outer and inner journey. He uses each successive visit to a thin place to open, a little further, a door into the minds and hearts of those he guides. He blends in ancient Celtic observances, such as leading his pilgrims seven times around St. Kevin's Well, and celebrates Eucharist for them at the Women's Church. He leaves time at the end of each day for silent reflection. He makes himself available to those who want to speak privately to him.
The harried and the troubled and the searchers of the 21st century have made their way to Avelin. Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and nuns have come. People with hurts and losses. People who feel the dry, dusty taste of their lives in their mouths. People who, Begg says, no longer feel that the language of institutional religion expresses their faith or beliefs.
"The week is about their life's journey. Something usually has happened in their lives which has shaken the foundations a bit, and they're trying to find themselves. So they look up words on the Internet like 'retreat,' 'spirituality,' 'Celtic,' 'pilgrimage,' and they read the essay on my website, and then they call -- from Africa, from Australia, from America and Canada."
Pilgrimage is big in the 21st century. In an era when churches and temples are emptying in the West, the World Tourism Organization's statistics indicate an explosive increase over the past three decades in religious travel -- a significant portion of it originating from the West.
Hundreds of thousands flock annually to the Christian shrines of Europe and North America. Seventy-five thousand alone walk, cycle and horseback-ride each year through northern Spain along the Way of St. James, the medieval pilgrimage route of Camino de Santiago. The pilgrim buses are zipping again through the Bible's geography in muscular numbers, with Israelis and Palestinians co-operating on Holy Land tourism for the first time in five years and Canadian and U.S. evangelical Christians jetting into Israel in what may be unprecedented numbers.
Millions of followers of Islam, the world's most pilgrimage-oriented religion, do the hajj and umrah to Mecca. Scores of thousands from around the world descend on the sacred sites of Asia, such as the ruins of Hinduism's Angkor Temple in India, Nepal's birthplace of the Buddha at Lumbini, and Buddhism's exquisite "reawakening temples" of Putuo Mountain in China.
They arrive by boat (Prince Charles, twice a year, among them) at the sacred Greek island of Mount Athos, head off to the Inca cities of South America, travel to the eternal pyramids and temples of Egypt.
They are journeying not as tourists -- been there, seen that -- but as searchers after meaning. It is this personal questing that is becoming more and more the contemporary phenomenon of pilgrimage, a new face to the traditional journeys of religious obligation, penance and desire, characterized by Canadian Anglican theologian Herbert O'Driscoll as acts of "going to a place to discover more firmly what you already took for granted and believed."
O'Driscoll, who conducts regular pilgrimages to Celtic and Ionian Christian sites in Ireland and Britain, says: "The modern pilgrimage is more tentative . . . it doesn't have that certainty. It comes from Jung, it comes from Freud, it comes from the whole psychologizing of our culture [in which]we no longer understand our lives to be static and formed."
Placing this new dimension of spiritual journeying in a Christian context, he says: "More and more implicit in exercises like this is the way in which the Christian faith is held by thoughtful people -- in that they realize the Christian system, the theology system, is largely shattered, but what is immensely rich is the Christian search."
Pilgrimage, indeed, is common to every major religion and is older than humanity's recorded history. U.S. Jungian scholars Jean and Wallace Clift, in their book The Archetype of Pilgrimage, argue that it is a fundamental act of existence, mirroring and ritualizing life's journey from birth to death.
Toronto software engineer Imran Yousuf, 27, followed 1,400 years of tradition when, in 2002, he went to Mecca for hajj, the world's biggest pilgrimage, in fact the world's biggest gathering of humanity in one place.
The hajj, one of the Five Pillars of Faith, is compulsory for Muslims who are physically and financially capable, and only Muslims can do it. It begins with emulating the Prophet in remembering great personages of the faith and celebrating God. It ends with ritual cleansing.
Yet standing in the Saudi Arabian desert with 2½ million pilgrims around him, Yousuf felt a sense of personal quest. It came after he had changed into his pilgrim's ihram, the white garments worn around the shoulders and the waist. "You realize then you're going for it," he says. "You're no longer the person who landed at the airport. You begin to be a lot more conscious of your behaviour."
It came -- the sense of personal quest -- after he had prayed at the Great Mosque and circled seven times around the Kaaba, and left Mecca for the tent city at Mina, where he would sleep for the remainder of his pilgrimage. It came when he walked to the Plain of Arafat, where the Prophet delivered his last sermon, and Yousuf stood in the hot sun praying for God's forgiveness and contemplating the direction of his life.
"It was the first time in my life that I cried while making my prayers."
Then he threw pebbles at stone pillars representing the devil. And he threw pebbles for others not strong enough to throw. "That," he says, "was a very emotional, spiritual high." Then he had his head shaved, returned to Mecca and circled the Kaaba again. "I felt quite privileged to have done it."
For Susan Rogers and Regina Santos, there was no pilgrim's template like hajj. Instead, they travelled with Vancouver-based Sacred Earth Journeys to Peru on a trip called Inca Mysteries and Magic. Rogers, a park planner, says she wanted to find connections in Inca shamanism to the spiritualism of her own Nisga'a culture. Santos, an office worker, felt attracted to Inca religious rites by what she had read. She was searching for answers both to what the next life holds for her and to the isolation she still feels in Canadian culture after emigrating seven years ago from South Asia.
A native shaman travelled with their group, teaching them the meaning of the sites they saw and leading them through spiritual rituals. The trip's highlight, a night visit with the guide to Machu Picchu, Rogers says, left her humbled and awed by her surroundings.
Santos, who drank the shaman's offering of wachuma -- a muddy glob of sacred (and mind-altering) cactus -- felt the walls of isolation dissolve around her under the undulled stars and experienced a powerful sense of connectedness with her surroundings. "When I came back, I felt I was ready for the world." As Herbert O'Driscoll says of the expectations of the pilgrims he guides, "I think what the person hopes for -- and is immensely grateful for -- is a greater capacity to wrestle with contemporary reality."
For today's incipient pilgrim, of course, there is a challenge: how to separate the wheat from the chaff in planning the journey.
Type "pilgrimage" and "spiritual" into Google and in 0.25 seconds you'll get 465,000 returns: an ocean's offering of New Age treks to Earth-energy sites, whiz-past visits to desert monasteries and their hermit caves, vogue trips to the locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code, single-day bus tours to Lourdes and -- from a U.S. sociologist at a New England university -- a virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land: photographs of real pilgrims gathering at the airport, eating breakfast in their hotel and sitting beside one another on their air-conditioned bus, plus their blogs on what they saw along the way.
Muslims have it comparatively easy: Only travel agencies approved and regulated by the Saudi Arabian government and religious authorities can arrange their pilgrimages to Mecca.
For everyone else, there is no easy route to finding a fulfilling spiritual quest. It takes homework on the Internet -- which increasingly is how people research their travel anyway -- and patience, especially if pilgrimage-slick or pilgrimage-flaky is not what you're after.
Jesuit priest Geoffrey Williams, of Toronto, who has been spiritual director to many retreatants, suggests studying the Ten Bulls or Ten Ox-Herding Pictures of Zen Buddhism before setting off. "They describe the stages of a pilgrimage brilliantly."
Michael Begg's website is more informative than most, but what captures the man and what he is about is a long-distance call to Ireland. O'Driscoll, who prepares his sojourners several months in advance with suggested readings on the sites he will lead them to, doesn't advertise. People learn of his pilgrimages only by word of mouth.
A retreat can be arranged at the centuries-old Coptic Christian monastery of St. Anthony deep in the Red Sea mountains of Egypt, but only with written permission from the abbot, which is about as difficult to get as it sounds. Arranging a stay at one of the 20 Orthodox monasteries on Mount Athos is bureaucratically time-consuming -- and possible only for men.
To join one of Rev. Lauren Artress's small-group, twice-yearly journeys to the labyrinth in the magnificent medieval Chartres cathedral, one needs to discover first the name of her organization -- Veriditas -- and then discover the meaning of the labyrinth and the richness that Artress, a San Francisco therapist and ordained minister, invests in her pilgrimages.
She asks people to leave their cellphones and e-mail at home, to prepare themselves by keeping a journal to examine where they are in their lives and reflect on what they seek. She structures the time in Chartres, an hour by train southwest of Paris, with lectures on medieval spirituality, meditation in the cathedral, solitary contemplation and candlelit nighttime walks around the labyrinth after the cathedral closes to visitors.
"What I want to do [is]stoke the imagination," Artress says. "I want to have this person load up on the inner world, on symbols."
Tom Harpur's book The Pagan Christ, rooting Christianity in the religion of ancient Egypt, triggered Dan Hamilton's decision to arrange an Egyptian trip last month through Sacred Earth Journeys. He went on his own -- as so many pilgrims do -- with his wife's blessing.
Hamilton, vice-president of an Ottawa marketing firm, said he wanted to step outside the routine of his life, get more in touch with himself. He wanted to experience, not merely visit, a sacred place; to connect to powerful symbolism of the past, to confront and to explore ancient wisdom in the company of like-minded people.
On the tour were four writers as expert guides, one of them an engineer with whose theories on the purpose of the pyramids' construction Hamilton was familiar. He found structures of such beauty and permanence that they gave him "a different perspective on the impermanent nature of our society today." He was fascinated by the interior acoustics. "They used sound to help them reach higher levels of consciousness. They knew things we're only just rediscovering."
And while Hamilton, like most Canadians, hesitates to talk about personal spirituality, he says of his trip: "The impact on me will continue to affect me for many years. It helped me get in touch with some of the energies of these ancient sites . . . maybe it was a way -- how can I put this? -- of searching for things that can achieve the right balance and harmony."
The essence of a Christian Holy Land pilgrimage is not a regimented quick-march through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- it is to see the land through the lenses of Jesus, says Thomas Rosica, a Roman Catholic priest who taught for several years in Jerusalem and now heads Canada's Salt + Light Catholic television channel.
It means, he says, experiencing the desert in stillness and travelling on foot through Galilee. It means touching, smelling, absorbing the biblical thin places and entering into what the French Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described as the nous, the envelope of thought, meditation and prayer of all those who have journeyed there before.
Rosica recommends the pilgrimage guide published by the U.S. Catholic National Directory.
And the last word goes to O'Driscoll, musing on the nature of pilgrimage. He recalls, not word for word but close enough, a line from the Christian essayist and novelist C.S. Lewis:
"Years ago, he said, 'There is all the difference in the world between looking at a map of the coastline and going down to the beach and being drenched by the spray of a great wave.' In other words, information about God is no longer satisfying. What is being sought is an experience of God."
Pack your bags
You can walk the Camino de Santiago and back before getting through all that the Internet offers on pilgrimages. Here are a few references to help to get you going:
The Pilgrimage of Islam:
International School of Toulouse (European Medieval Pilgrimage Project): http://www.intst.net/humanities/vs/pilgrims/journey.htm.
Places of Peace and Power:
http://www.sacredsites.com. U.S. photographer Martin Gray is deeply involved in pilgrimages and sacred sites. He has several references on the Internet, including this website.
Hajj in photographs:
Mount Athos: abacus.bates.edu/~rallison/friends.
Avelin Celtic Journeys and Pilgrim Walks: Avelin, Ireland; 353 (45) 864 524; http://www.avelin.hitsplc.com. Michael Begg's site. Six-day Celtic retreats cost about $800 a person. So far, there are five dates in 2005.
Sacred Earth Journeys: Vancouver; (604) 874-7922 or 1-877-874-7922; http://www.sacredearthjourneys.ca. Offers a series of Sacred journeys from the Holy Grail & Black Madonna Pilgrimage in France (May 12-21, $3,580 a person, land only) to Inca Mysteries and Magic in Peru (June 10-19, $3,082 a person, land only).
Veriditas: San Francisco; (415) 561-2921; http://www.veriditas.net. The next pilgrimage to the Chartres cathedral labyrinth with Rev. Lauren Artress will be held May 30 to June 3. The tour costs from $1,702 (early registration by Dec. 31) to $2,073.
Glendalough Hermitage: Glendalough, Ireland; 353 (404) 45777; http://www.hermitage.dublindiocese.ie. Hermitage huts for stressed-out business executives in an Irish monastery. Open fire and turf provided. Daily rates range from $74 to $107.
Order of St. Helena: http://www.osh.org.
Ten Ox-Herding Pictures: http://www.cs.sfu.ca/people