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.
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.
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.
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 Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.