In 2019, 347,578 people walked the requisite 100 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago to receive their pilgrim’s certificate. In the same year, 2.5 million Muslims completed the Islamic rite of Hajj with a trip to Mecca, while on the banks of the Ganges, a staggering 120 million people joined in ritual bathing as part of Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela. In short, pilgrimages are booming. Yet, globally, religious affiliation continues its free-fall. It’s that contradiction into which Peter Stanford delves for his latest book, which navigates the blurring lines between tourism and pilgrimage to explore the pull of ancient sites.
Through footways as diverse as Japan’s Shikoku Buddhist trail, the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way and pathways to Ethiopia’s underground chapels, Stanford builds a rounded index of celebrated pilgrimages, providing a basic understanding of their histories, traditions and current popularity. Don’t read this expecting a definition of a pilgrim, however: Stanford evades prescribed edicts. These travellers can be pious, curious, even surprisingly secular and they seek everything from absolution to elusive ‘mindfulness’.
A practising Catholic and former editor of the Catholic Herald, Stanford’s interpretations of papal pilgrimages, as expected, are precise, but the rigour of his research and analysis transcends creed. His kindness to the spiritually secure and those at the more eclectic end of worship is revitalising, given our current proclivity to banish tales of saints and miracles to the ditch of conspiracies and cranks. Considering the New Age allures of Machu Picchu and the youthfulness of North America’s Mormon Trail, a judgement-free narrative helps to reveal these otherwise intangible spiritual rites. Stanford wonders if these pilgrimages ‘speak to an older variety of truth’, carried by past pilgrims who were able to ‘hold on to two sorts of truth simultaneously, the physical and the metaphysical’.
There are few concrete answers here as to why pilgrimage continues to entice, but perhaps this is a topic that shouldn’t offer absolutism. For Stanford, pilgrimage remains relevant precisely because it offers a road parallel to the certainties of life – it’s a journey that seeks to find something greater than our norm.