When most people think of a pilgrimage, they generally think of an unforgettable trip to the Holy Land or a once-in-a-lifetime trek to Mecca. For some, the term triggers a vision of biblical or medieval times and seems out of place in modern day 2017, but for others, a pilgrimage is an integral part of their present-day faith.
Merriam-Webster defines a pilgrimage as “a journey of a pilgrim; especially one to a shrine or a sacred place,” and dictionary.com defines it as “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.”
Many Catholics might make a pilgrimage to the Vatican and additional sites in Rome, while other Christian denominations would most likely go to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Muslims who are financially able are required to plan a hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime, and Hindus take part in Kumbha Mela, a pilgrimage in which millions travel to designated locations to bathe in sacred rivers.
But these well-known spiritual journeys for followers of the major world religions do not fully define what a pilgrimage can be. According to religious travel writer Lori Erickson, a pilgrimage can still have significant meaning even if it is much more simple and closer to home.
Erickson’s recently published book, “Holy Rover – Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God,” chronicles her travels on 12 diverse pilgrimages, and she shares the lessons she learns from them. Although she does travel to some of the more well-known spots—Jerusalem, the Holy Land and the Martin Luther sites in Germany—Erickson also journeys to places in the United States that some might not characterize as pilgrimages at first glance.
A trip to Indiana to practice Buddhism? She says that’s a pilgrimage. Spending time at an abbey in Kentucky with a group of silent Trappist monks? Also a pilgrimage. What about a solitary stroll around Walden Pond, just like author Henry David Thoreau used to do in the 19th century? Is that a pilgrimage? Indeed it is!
Here is a look at those options, as well as a fourth site in the U.S., that she discusses in “Holy Rover.”
Walden Pond (Concord, Massachusetts)
Henry David Thoreau, American author of “Walden,” lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 until September 1847 in a rustic, one-room cabin that he built. He embraced the simple, solitary life on the pond and was inspired by nature. Many believe that Thoreau and “Walden” began the conservation movement in the United States.
Today visitors can see a replica of Thoreau’s cabin, enjoy the scenery, take a stroll and even swim during warm weather. The pond and the 2,700 undeveloped woods surrounding it are part of the National Historic Landmark composing Walden Pond State Reservation. Groups can go on guided tours year-round, as well as visit a gift shop, a bookstore and an art gallery.
Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Bardstown, Kentucky)
This Roman Catholic monastery is located near Bardstown, Kentucky, about 50 miles south of Louisville. It was established in 1848 by a group of 44 Trappist monks from western France who settled into the rolling farmland of central Kentucky and supported themselves, as they still do, through farming. The Trappists, also known as the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are best known for taking a vow of silence.
By far the most famous resident was Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writer and religious philosopher. He lived at the Bardstown abbey for 27 years, and during that time he was a prolific writer who published more than 60 books and hundreds of poems, articles and essays. He was very involved in the nonviolent peace and civil rights movement of the 1960s and felt strongly that these political issues were “… the greatest examples of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.”
Today, 40 Trappist monks continue to live at Gethsemani, much in the same way as they always have. They still earn a living by farming, although they’ve added the modern touch of selling food products via the internet. The monks lead a simple life of quiet and solitude that includes eight worship services a day, with the first one starting bright and early at 3:15 a.m.
The Trappists believe that silence creates the proper climate for prayer, and communing with God requires stillness and solitude. As Merton put it, practicing the Trappist lifestyle allows one “… to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God.”
Visitors are welcome, and retreats can be planned for a day, overnight or longer. Guests also can plan a solitary retreat or ask about interaction with one or more monks—within the order’s rules about speaking in designated areas only.
Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (Bloomington, Indiana)
Most people associate Buddhism with an exotic location in Asia when, in fact, one of the most important religious centers for Tibetan Buddhism is located in one of the most ordinary places in the United States—Bloomington, Indiana. This Buddhist complex includes the Kumbum Chamtse Ling Monastery, a temple, a library and a cultural center, all dedicated to world peace and preserving Tibetan culture and religion.
The monastery is home to several Buddhist monks and includes a two-room suite for the Dalai Lama, who has visited here six times. The main floor houses the shrine room and the kitchen, as well as a bookstore and gift shop for visitors.
The entrance to the shrine room displays an important message in Sanskrit: “All who enter this room should have a pure heart, so please lay your negative thoughts and worries outside this door.” Inside the room, a display of sacred objects from various faiths underscores the temple’s mission to respect all religions. In fact, leaders of 11 different faiths took part in the dedication of the temple in 2003, and Muhammed Ali, a Muslim, was the special invited guest at that event.
People of all faiths are welcome to participate in any of the activities at the Buddhist Cultural Center, including the Dharma lessons (teachings of Buddha), prayer and lunch on Sunday mornings; meditation instruction on Wednesday evenings; the sitting/walking meditation sessions on Monday and Thursday evenings; and yoga instruction on Saturday mornings.
Bear Butte (Sturgis, South Dakota)
South Dakota’s Black Hills are home to this popular pilgrimage destination for many Native American tribe members, who view Bear Butte Mountain as a sacred and holy place. Used for tribal ceremonies for thousands of years, Bear Butte is now part of a state park, although the government reserves part of the mountain for ceremonial use only.
Groups can learn more about the mountain, the native tribes and their rituals related to Bear Butte at Bear Butte Lodge. This educational and cultural center, located at the base of the mountain, is operated by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, including the Lakota tribe, who hope to teach the world about what their version of a pilgrimage is all about.
Visitors can hike to the top of the mountain but are asked to not touch the many ceremonial cloth ribbons and tobacco bundles tied to tree branches along the way. Visitors can also camp or stay overnight in the on-site lodge.
Top photo: Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center
Photo by tmbcc.org