By Anthony MacIsaac
During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.
It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.
In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.
The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God.