Pilgrimages are one of my absolute favorite spiritual practices. Whether it’s a trip to a shrine on another continent, or a thirty-minute drive to visit St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, I absolutely adore them. There’s just something about engaging in a purely tangible Catholic experience that appeals to me.
Some version of pilgrimage exists in most religions. I believe this is because we are hardwired to view faith as a journey, making travel a natural companion to at least some form of our religious expression. In the Catholic Faith, we have the added example of Christ and Our Lady. Immediately after the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin left to visit her cousin Elizabeth. In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem. I’d like to go on, but this would be a very long blog post if I mentioned every pilgrimage in the Bible. Trust me. There are loads.
On top of that, we also have examples throughout Church history of saints making pilgrimages. St. Augustine wrote a whole piece on pilgrimage in The City of God, but the idea gained popularity in the Middle Ages, as anyone who has read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will know.
(And a quick side note: After the dissolution of the monasteries in England in the 1500s, the newly created Anglican church condemned pilgrimages for being “too Catholic“, which strikes me as a great reason to endorse them.)
Pilgrimages are still happening today. We have our own sites in North America like Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin, and there are many more scattered across the globe. If you are able to participate in one, I recommend doing the following:
1. Bring intentions with you.
Just as we offer Rosaries and Masses for others’ intentions, we can offer our pilgrimages. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Catholics used to go on pilgrimage to bring about change of some kind and as an act of penance. Today, it’s common for pilgrims to post onto their social media accounts something like “I’m going on pilgrimage to Knock tomorrow. How can I pray for you while I’m there?”
The idea is that you either write down the intentions in a notebook or take time each day of your pilgrimage to pray for all or part of the people on your list. Gathering these intentions and beginning to pray for them has the added bonus of helping you to prepare for your trip.
2. Learn about saints you might be near.
Many pilgrimages involve visits to relics, and it’s more interesting to venerate a relic when you know about the saint it belongs to. In fact, the whole point of the relic is to provide a tangible connection to that saint. So do some research!
This also works well on regular vacations to new places. A few years ago I was at the airport preparing to fly to Colombia for a wedding. I decided to see if there were any saints who had lived in the town I was visiting. Turns out St. Peter Claver did all of his ministry there! I wound up getting the opportunity to spend the entire day at the Jesuit house where he lived. I even got to pray a Rosary in front of his crucifix!
3. Make time for your preferred means of prayer.
A pilgrimage is an allegory for our journey to heaven. That means we should invite heaven into it. If you’re doing a planned pilgrimage, there will likely be many religious experiences built into it (i.e., praying through the Seven Sorrows at Kibeho or bathing in the waters at Lourdes).
You should still make time for the ways that you, personally, are drawn to pray, as much as your accommodations will allow. For me, this means making time to meditate on Scripture. For others, it can mean journaling, praise and worship, spiritual reading—whatever works for you.
And regardless of all this, make sure to make time for the sacraments! Confession and Mass are always good choices, but they can be quite palpably beautiful on a pilgrimage.
4. Be flexible.
I have been on five international pilgrimages and several domestic. I have had more go wrong on pilgrimages than in any of my other travels. In fact, the only two flights I’ve ever missed were connecting flights for pilgrimages. I’ve had travel companions faint, develop weird allergies, inexplicable issues with our tech. Name a problem, it has happened on a pilgrimage. But that’s OK.
Pilgrimages are a good thing, but you don’t always feel like they’re a good thing. If you’re completely caught up in frustration over things not going as planned, then you are guaranteed not to notice the graces.
My day in Lisieux was a train wreck—it rained icy buckets the whole time we were there, the hours for most of the sites didn’t match my research, and my shoes disintegrated shortly after arrival. But it wound up being a beautiful, prayerful experience. To date, that day in Lisieux is one of my happiest travel memories because it was showered in grace.
5. Remember: God has a reason for your pilgrimage.
One of my pilgrimages was rough. I was trying to be flexible and still wound up crying most days due to a combination of illness, hurtful people, and miscommunications. I’m still glad I went.
I saw holy places that energized our Church for millennia. I offered my sufferings for others on the trip. But most importantly, Jesus had it rough (to put it mildly) during his time on earth. I might not have been happy at the end of that pilgrimage, but I knew him a little better, which equipped me to love him better. I call that a success.
No one gets to go on a pilgrimage by accident, or completely by their own design. I had to keep reminding myself of that fact. You don’t get to go because you’re super holy, or rich, or good at karaoke, or any other reason. You go on a pilgrimage because he has something to show you. It’s a gift.
May God bless you on your pilgrimage, wherever you may go!
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About Melissa Keating
Melissa is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis, Missouri. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. She then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.
Featured photo of Lisieux basilica from Wikimedia Commons