Modern pilgrims: More people are traveling for spirituality

How pilgrimage is undergoing a renaissance

By Lori Erickson,

Pilgrim at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — Photo courtesy of Lori Erickson

Holy sites are hot these days – and not just desert destinations like Jerusalem.

In one sense, pilgrimage has never gone out of fashion (in fact, it’s the oldest form of tourism). But its popularity in the West has waxed and waned over the years, reaching a zenith in the Middle Ages and declining in subsequent centuries. Today, there seems to be a renaissance of interest, fueled in part by spiritual seekers who are dissatisfied with institutional religion.

In three decades of visiting holy sites around the world, I’ve had many chances to reflect on the power of pilgrimage. In fact, I just wrote an entire book that traces the inner transformations triggered in me by a dozen of these trips.

It describes my search for miracles in Lourdes, my many visits to the Native American holy site of Bear Butte in South Dakota, and my chats with Trappist monks, Tibetan Rinpoches and Benedictine nuns. These journeys changed me in ways I never could have predicted when I first started my career as a travel writer specializing in spiritual journeys.

Buddha statue in Japan — Photo courtesy of Lori Erickson

I’m far from alone in my fascination for holy sites. According to the National Tour Association, faith-based travel is a $100 billion worldwide industry, with religious attractions hosting nearly 330 million visitors each year. From Bodh Gaya in India (the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment) and Mecca in Saudi Arabia to the healing shrine of Chimayo in New Mexico, religious sites welcome the devout, the curious and the I’m-not-sure-there’s-much-to-this-spiritual-stuff-but-you-never-know types.

While some holy sites require a plane ticket, nearly every corner of the U.S. has a spiritual retreat center of some sort. Many are booked months in advance and most welcome visitors of all faiths. And if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your home, you can travel via books and movies such as Wild and Eat, Pray, Love, modern-day pilgrimages that have captured the imagination of millions.

On my journeys, I’ve come to believe that the old-fashioned term "pilgrim" is worth reclaiming. The word conveys a seriousness of purpose and intensity that "tourist" doesn’t. The wounded and sorrowful are often ripe for a pilgrimage, as are those who’ve recently escaped the bonds of college, a failed marriage, or the demands of raising children.

I’ve come to recognize true pilgrims on my trips – they’re the ones who linger longest while touring cathedrals, looking upwards at the soaring architecture with wistful expressions on their faces, or who take off on the loneliest stretches of hiking trails with a determined air.

Pilgrimages can sneak up on us, too. Sometimes it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we realize we’ve been pilgrims – a trip to re-trace your family’s roots, for example, can mean you return home a different person than when you left for the airport. You don’t have to bring along a prayer book to go on a pilgrimage; all that it takes is a heart open to transformation.

Lourdes, France — Photo courtesy of Lori Erickson

Today, we travel far more easily than pilgrims have done in the past (few are interested in riding donkeys to Canterbury, as Chaucer’s pilgrims did in the 14th century). But we can still test our mettle by doing zazen for a week at a Buddhist monastery or walking the Way of St. Francis in Italy. While such trips require far more effort than sipping gin and tonics on a beach, the potential rewards are far greater as well.

It’s ironic – but not surprising – that spiritual tourism is increasing as commitment to institutional religion is declining. I know I’ve met many a mystic on a walking trail, and relatively few sitting in a pew. That’s not to say we should choose one experience over the other. I think we need both in our spiritual lives, but pilgrimage has taught me things about myself that I never learned in my years as member of a variety of faith communities.

On the road, with the endless distractions of our digital world muted, we have time to think, reflect, pray and meditate. We meet other seekers on similar journeys, people who can sometimes give us essential missing pieces of our own interior puzzle. The farther and longer we go, the more we have to rely on our wits and on divine providence. We may be miserable at times, but we almost always learn something valuable.

I’m delighted that faith-based travel, an ancient and valuable practice, is growing in popularity. I hope these new pilgrims will come home with some of the same gifts I’ve found in my travels: a broadened view of the world, a deepened commitment to their spiritual life and a sense of being changed, somehow, because of time on the road.

Read more of Lori Erickson's experiences in her new book, Holy Rover: Journeys of Mystery, Miracles, and God, out September 1.