Plague Year Pilgrims: Let’s Keep Walking

A way marker on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.

Throughout our long Covid crisis, our daily walk offered precious respite from the tedium of being perpetually housebound and viewing the outer world through electronic screens. Walking brought us exercise and fresh air. It cleared our heads, lifted our mood, and even gave us the rare opportunity to have socially distanced conversations with other humans, face to face.

As we come out of this pandemic year, let’s keep walking. What if we turned our daily walk into a pilgrimage? If we reframed each walk as a daily leg of a journey that will eventually lead us into a post-pandemic future? A pilgrimage in place, as it were.

A pilgrimage is a journey, traditionally taken on foot, to a sacred destination, Mecca, Jerusalem, and Rome being some of the most famous examples.

Before Covid, an estimated 300,000 pilgrims walked to the shrine of Chimayó, New Mexico each year in the week before Easter. Some pilgrims even carried heavy homemade crosses to participate in Christ’s journey to Calvary. During my visit to Chimayó some years ago, I witnessed the faithful arriving in the simple adobe church and kneeling before a round pit in the floor to take handfuls of the tierra bendita, the blessed earth, believed to have healing properties.

Jasmin Perez, 17, of Espanola, New Mexico, carries a cross on a pilgrimage to the small adobe church in Chimayo, New Mexico, on Friday, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Pilgrims’ eyes perceived the sacred as manifest in what would mundanely be viewed as dirt. To be a pilgrim is to step into a realm of wonder and grace, where anything might happen. The Church itself won’t comment on any purported miracles, yet pilgrims leave abandoned crutches behind in the sanctuary as testimony of their experience.

Perhaps this revelation of the holy in the commonplace means that we can also be pilgrims without even leaving our neighborhood.

You don’t have to be an observant practitioner of any particular faith—not every pilgrim is religious or even spiritual. Some people walk the path to try to figure out what their spirituality even is.

When I walked the Camino, the iconic pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, I encountered people of diverse backgrounds making the pilgrimage for a variety of reasons. Some were taking a break from the stresses of their career to experience a simpler existence—sleeping in hostels and sharing communal meals with strangers. Others were walking to heal trauma and grief. I met grim-faced ex-military guys marching so fast that they wouldn’t deign to respond to other pilgrims’ cheerful greetings of, “Buen Camino!”

Each pilgrim was walking their personal Camino. There is no false reason to go on pilgrimage. Aren’t we all searching for something—some deeper meaning and sense of purpose? In a world so fractured by divisiveness and hatred, sharing the Camino with these vastly different people was an incredible experience of hospitality and spiritual homecoming that I will never forget. The pilgrim’s path is big enough to include us all.

So, what’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a walk? Your intention and your attention, which make all the difference. To have the richest possible experience, we need to be present in our physical bodies, here and now. Not staring at our smart phones or curating our experience on Instagram. Pilgrimage is a time out, a refuge from the news cycle and social media feed.

Pilgrimage doesn’t need to cover a lot of physical distance. It doesn’t even need to be linear. It can be circular. When visiting Nepal, I observed Buddhists circling for hours around the great Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. All the while, they chanted mantras and fingered their mala beads. For one afternoon, I joined them, if only because I was too intimidated to walk elsewhere with the crazy traffic and air pollution. The shrine seemed like the safest and most peaceful place in the city.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal

This kind of Circling the Center can be practiced anywhere and gives a whole new perspective to walking round the block or your local park.

If you feel so inspired, you could even draw a labyrinth in chalk on your driveway and practice the ancient and meditative art of labyrinth walking.

Pilgrimage isn’t about the external destination as much as the journey, the inner process. The ultimate pilgrimage brings us to the shrine of loving presence within our hearts.

There are many ways to be a pilgrim, but there are still some rules to be respected. The most important is practicing open-hearted hospitality for those you meet on your way, maybe stopping to chat with lonely neighbors.

Likewise, we need to be compassionate and welcoming to all the shadowy parts of ourselves that don’t feel the least bit spiritual—all our fear and rage and despair concerning this pandemic.

We come to our pilgrimage as we are and meet ourselves with radical acceptance.

Let us embrace the street where we live as our personal Camino. The sacred is present all around us and, indeed, within us, if we only look through pilgrims’ eyes and pay attention.

Buen Camino!


Mary Sharratt 
is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel 
Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.



Categories: General, Pilgrimage

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. Wow, you’ve walked just about everywhere! Gone on pilgrimage in many places. My walking is down and back up the eighteen steps from the ground to my second-floor apartment. Down, perhaps around the building, a few steps (so to speak) around the neighborhood, back up the stairs.

    It’s useful to learn the difference between intention and attention. Many thanks and bright blessings. Maybe we can all get out more now that the pandemic is theoretically finished? (I’m not sure it ever will be gone. Too many variants, too many people refusing to get vaccinated.) Let’s get out and have conversations with other people and be kind to other people. You’re giving us all a good example. Brava!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. you nailed it: “So, what’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a walk? Your intention and your attention, which make all the difference. To have the richest possible experience, we need to be present in our physical bodies, here and now.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post! In my small town neighborhood, people definitely began walking with more intention and attention during the pandemic, especially at the beginning when everything was closed and going out walking was the only way to be in community with people. My family and I would go walking everyday on local trails and I noticed that no one was looking at their phones and everyone was saying hello and getting to know other walkers. It’s less so now, and I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, but now I do. I think we were all on pilgrimage to that place we knew the pandemic was taking us even if we didn’t know where that was or what we would experience on the way.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That was one of the most encouraging experiences in the troubled early pandemic days for me, too. I was still living in the UK, in a town where I’d lived for 20 years, but suddenly when I went for my walks, people were interested in talking to you.

      Like

  4. Thank you Mary for this post. I have walked around my neighborhood pre-Covid, and will continue to walk for the simple love if it. I do not travel easily, despite aspirations. My body does not adapt easily to new places, but I do walk. I have often wondered how my walking can become a pilgrimage. Intention and attention. Creativity-I love the idea of using chalk on a sidewalk to draw a labyrinth, and even the simplicity of walking around the oval shaped park near my house is inspiring. Walking, and dare i even say, pacing, is an embodied spiritual practice always as close as the next step. Thank you! PS. I am loving your book, Illuminations!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Its been on my bucket list for the longest of times to do this walk or at least part of it. I have found other ways to “walk” while I am awaiting that opportunity in my life. (Including a portable labyrinth – have labyrinth will travel – LOL). Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I walk in the woods behind my house. I can’t go far because of health issues, but I do enjoy my walk and feeding the squirrels and chipmunks and birds at a little meditation spot where I’ve put a chair. I never thought of my walk as a pilgrimage, though, so thank you so much for the idea. You have inspired me! I also recently finished your book “Revelations” and I loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

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