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From the virtuous to the virtual

06 January 2017

Pilgrimage is more popular than ever before. At Epiphany, James Harpur traces its journey from the Magi to modern virtual tours


Pilgrims then and now: an oil painting of Journey of the Magi by James Tissot, 1894

Pilgrims then and now: an oil painting of Journey of the Magi by James Tissot, 1894

ALL those of us who made a journey home for Christmas — enduring traffic jams, or airport queues — were, in a way, replicating a pattern of Christian pilgrimage which started with the Magi.

Pilgrimage es­­sentially involves a transformative journey that takes us from one mode of being into another, from the mun­dane to the spiritual. The glowing shrine of the family home, the ceremonial lunch, gift-giving, carol-singing — these elements make us view the world differently; they kindle compassion and gen­erosity. Making a journey, a temporary removal from everyday concerns, and the experience of heightened spirituality are all central to pilgrim­age, too.

The Magi made their way home at the first Christmas. Bethlehem was their spiritual home, a place they reached by trekking hundreds of miles with a star as their guide, to pay homage to the “one who has been born king of the Jews”. Their story contains classic elements of pilgrimage. First and foremost, it involved long-distance travel, a journey that probably started from Iran, since, as Herodotus informs us, “Magi” was the name of the priestly caste of the Medes, a people living within the Persian Empire who were renowned as soothsayers and astrologers.

Also, like subsequent Christian pilgrims, the Magi were eager to ex­­perience and honour a source — for Christians, the source — of sacred awe: their journey was clearly in­­tended to be a transformative one (an idea beautifully rendered by T. S. Eliot in his poem “Journey of the Magi”). Having arrived at the holy shrine of the humble stable, they paid due reverence by leaving be­hind symbolic gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh.

These gifts prefigure the “ex-voto” offerings (symbolic tokens of the physical ailments from which suf­ferers hope to be delivered, or have been delivered) that pilgrims have left at shrines down the ages. At Exeter Cathedral, for example, a collection of medieval ex-votos was found in 1943, when, during an air raid, the masonry above the tomb of a 15th-century bishop, Edmund Lacy, was damaged, revealing min­i­ature wax models of arms, legs, feet, and torsos.

The practice still continues, as can seen by the plethora of em­­bossed metal images at Orthodox shrines, or by the large collection of wooden crutches at the shrine at Lourdes, or at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, in Quebec.


WHAT distinguished the Magi from most later Christian pilgrims was that they went to see a living being, not the relics of someone who had died. But their instinct was the same: the desire for contact with a source of holiness. This has always been the first prerequisite for pil­grims: to seek out a place that has been imbued with spiritual virtue, typically because of the presence of holy relics.

The traditional rationale for relics is that the godliness of certain in­div­iduals can be transmitted through their material remains. This pre­supposes the idea which objects can store and conduct divine power, a type of magical thinking that sits uneasily in our post-Enlightenment society.

But it has sound gospel author­ity. In Matthew 9.20–22, a woman suffering from a blood disorder touches Jesus’s clothing, thinking to herself “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” And, when Paul was residing in Ephesus (Acts 19.12), “God did extraordinary miracles” through him, so that “even hand­kerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

In medieval times, relics were big business. An effective relic could draw enough pilgrim crowds to ensure the survival of a shrine or monastery, and people resorted to skulduggery to obtain one. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, for example, is said to have visited the monastery of Fécamp, in Normandy, where he was shown the alleged arm of St Mary Magdalene. Wishing to take part of it back home to England, Hugh snatched it up and bit off one of the fingers, much to the horror of the monks, who compared him to a dog with a bone.

Elsewhere in France, the author­ities of the abbey of Conques sent an undercover monk to Agen to steal the relics of Sainte-Foy (a fourth-century female martyr). He succe­eded in his task, and duly turned Conques into a pilgrimage centre on the route to Santiago de Compostela.


RELICS and shrines still draw Christian pilgrims — but also part-believers and non-believers, too. Many of the thous­ands who now walk the Camino to Santiago de Compostela every year do so purely for the pleasure of recreation, exercise, and to meet like-minded travellers. The relics of St James at the end of the journey provide a springboard for their venture rather than a raison d’être.

This naturally raises a question about the idea of secular pilgrimage: can non-believers on a religious pilgrimage be called true pilgrims? And are they pilgrims who make a solemn journey to a secular monu­ment, such as a world-war cemetery? If two of the core ingre­dients of pilgrimage are journey and transformation, then the concept of “secular pilgrimage” must be ac­­cepted, at the very least.

Indeed, the boundary between the sacred and secular can shift during a pilgrimage journey. The “atheist pilgrim” might experience a moment of spiritual wonder when gazing at the sun-struck Atlantic from the slopes of the holiest mount­­ain in Ireland, Croagh Patrick. And the committed Chris­tian, enjoying the companionship or even revelries of the road, might question his or her spiritual mot­ivation, or at some point have deeper doubts of faith.


JOURNEY has always been central to pilgrimage, but, in modern times, the speed of travel and the internet have challenged the idea that it should be long and Bunyanesque. In the Middle Ages, an English pilgrim needed several months to travel from London to Rome. Today, it is possible to pray in Westminster Abbey at breakfast time, and gaze at Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s the same afternoon.

Furthermore, there is now the phenomenon of “virtual pil­grim­age”. Via Google maps, it is now possible to “drive” from, say, Lisbon airport to the shrine of Fatima. On arrival, you can, with a mouse-click, tune in to a webcam positioned in the Chapel of Apparitions, and gaze at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in real time.

Virtual pilgrimage may work as a spiritual aid, but it is essentially mediated pilgrimage: the virtual pilgrim participates through a filter of someone else’s making. Further­more, unlike physical pilgrimage, which involves time in which to reflect, virtual pilgrimage is pre­dic­ated on the instantaneity of mouse-clicks.

The 12th-century Pope Alexander III referred to pilgrims’ journeying so that “in the sweat of their brow and labour of the road, they may avoid the wrath of the heavenly Judge and earn his mercy.” He would have given short shrift to trek­king to Rome on an iPad. As, indeed, would Margery Kempe, the doughty 15th-century housewife from King’s Lynn, who, after giving birth to 14 children, spent much of the rest of her life braving pilgrim tracks in search of spiritual con­solation.

And yet, when all is said and done, whether backpacking to Iona or flying to Jerusalem, pilgrims of every era are bonded by shared experiences and ideals: physical endeavours, rituals, and prayers, besides hopes and doubts. All of these connect us with our medieval forebears, and will, in turn, provide a link with our descen­­­dants.


PILGRIMAGE is as popular as it has ever been, and is likely to continue to thrive, if only because its sym­bolism is rooted in the journey of life itself.

Christians are com­mitted to fol­lowing a path that they hope will lead to God, to seeing life as a pilgrim­age of the soul towards the divine. The Letter to the Hebrews refers to “strangers” and “pilgrims” on earth who long for a “heavenly” country. And St Augustine of Hippo wrote that people were like “travel­lers” moving away from God, and that to return to the true homeland — heaven — they must “use this world, not enjoy it”.

Pilgrimage, in short, has a deep symbolic and spiritual resonance. Making a journey to a sacred centre represents the journey of the soul through the travails of mortal life to heaven.


When the Magi crossed mountains and deserts to reach Bethlehem, and experienced the epiphany of the incarnate Christ, they were embodying this arche­typal pattern of the soul’s journey. In doing so, they have fed the imaginations of subsequent Chris­tians, and given Christian pilgrim­age an inspiring model that has helped it to endure for two mil­lennia, with no signs of abating.


James Harpur is the author of The Pilgrim Journey (Lion Hudson, 2016).

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