I think God likes a good walk.
It seems like lots of biblical characters had some revolutionary spiritual experiences while on the move: Paul on his way to Damascus, Jacob’s getaway to Haran (during which he dreamed of a stairway to heaven); Moses’ 40 years of wandering. Even Jesus spent much of his time walking around Palestine. And when I think about my own religious experiences, many of the best came while I was on my feet—walking or running or hiking.
I think that there is—or, maybe more fairly, there can be—something innately spiritual about travel. The notion of pilgrimage has always fascinated me. And as such, I was pretty excited to learn that the television/web show Global Spirit had dedicated an episode to the topic.
Global Spirit, a Link TV series hosted by author Phil Cousineau, takes on the daunting task of exploring spirituality worldwide—what people believe and how that belief manifests itself. It is not specifically a Christian program, of course: It delves in all sorts of faith traditions, offering a scholarly but respectful examination of faith. And in Global Spirit’s June 28 episode, “Sacred Travel: The Pilgrimage Experience,” viewers vicariously go on a handful of spiritual journeys themselves.
In the episode, travel writer Pico Iyer suggests that, during a pilgrimage, we “step out of time and into eternity,” and that is borne out in the treks we see. In one, a young woman travels to the holy city of Varanasi, India, where Hindus burn their dead and scatter their ashes into the sacred Ganges river. Cousineau travels to the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, where Gautama Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment, and where scads of pilgrims travel in search of their own insights. The show takes us to the Andes in South America as well, where thousands of people walk 85 miles up treacherous mountain passes to travel to the Qoylloriti church, where centuries before Jesus was said to have appeared.
As a former religion writer, I have a strong appreciation of other religious traditions. And while I obviously can’t appreciate a trip to the Ganges as a devout Hindu might, I was struck by how these pilgrims sought what Celtic Christians called (and what Cousineau referenced as) Thin Places—areas where the membrane between man and God feels a bit more diaphanous. I found it interesting that these pilgrimages were inherently communal in nature—that pilgrimage is an experience best shared, something an introvert like me hadn’t really considered before. And I was fascinated that just the process of walking was, in some way, a movement that took pilgrims into a better spiritual mindset. Iyer suggested that walking can help move us out of the frenetic world of “the machine” and into a more natural rhythm for us to better think and seek God.
“As Saint Augustine said, ‘It is solved by walking,’” Cousineau told me via e-mail. “In other words, people think differently, spiritually, soulfully, when they get outdoors, when they move the soles of their feet, they move their souls. So there is more to worship than sitting in a church or kneeling there. There is the solving of spiritual problems, which has been the motivation for pilgrimage in the Christian tradition since Abraham heard the voice of God to walk from Ur to the tombs of the prophets in Jerusalem.”
Cousineau believes that pilgrimages have been around as long as mankind has been—extending even back to the “walkabouts” of the Aboriginal Australians. “No culture on record has not done this,” Cousinseau says. “There is something holy and sacred about honoring God or the gods, heroes and heroines, history and art by going to the places where they all began.”
But in my experience, the idea of pilgrimage is not as strong in the religious tradition I call home, American Protestantism and evangelicalism. Granted, a great many evangelicals have traveled to Israel to see the sacred sites there, and Cousineau says that such journeys—and many, many others—can be spiritual pilgrimages. But to me, those sorts of experiences feel different than these long sacred walks, filled with sacrifice and ceremony: pilgrimages such as the Camino de Santiago (a journey across northern Spain to the Shrine of St. James in Galicia that’s been traced by Christians since at least the 9th Century) or the walk to Qoylloriti chronicled in the show. Cousineau says there’s a reason for why those sorts of journeys haven’t typically been taken by Protestants.
“It goes back to Martin Luther himself who was disgusted with the Church’s abuse of the pilgrimage tradition of gaining indulgences by walking to Rome or Jerusalem, and other sacred sites,” he says. “Luther came to believe that pilgrimage had become rote and routine and even spurious. So he discouraged it.
“Unfortunately, it then deprived millions of people over the last many generations of an actual experience of the sacred,” he adds. “As our guest Pico Iyer says, one of the powers of travel (especially pilgrimage) is that it ‘saves us from a life of abstraction.’ And that is one of the shadows of traditional religious belief—it becomes coldly abstract. The practice of pilgrimage invites an experience of God, of the sacred, of the holy, which trumps theory every time.”
You can watch Global Spirit’s “Sacred Travel: The Pilgrimage Experience” at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time this Sunday, June 28, on Link TV—DirecTV 375 and DISH 9410, or by clicking the link here. And If you’d like to learn a little bit more about the show beforehand, go to https://www.linktv.org/programs/global-spirit-sacred-travel-the-pilgrimage-experience.