In Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery sits the tomb of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. In contrast to the flamboyant figures cut by Wilde’s most famous works, the tomb is downright imposing: a massive rectangle of marble-esque limestone affixed with a stern-faced angel, its elongated angular wings suggesting, perhaps, the flight of a soul to the afterlife. Encircling the tomb is a glass barrier that, on most days, is covered top to bottom in the lipstick-print kisses left by the thousands of adoring fans who visit Wilde’s resting place each year.1
The glass barrier is a relatively new addition, erected in 2011 because the decades-long tradition of kissing Wilde’s tomb directly had, unfortunately, begun to erode the stone2 — which speaks to just how devoted Wilde’s admirers are. But for all their ardor, those who undertake the journey to Wilde’s grave are far from unique. In fact, they’re participating in one of humanity’s oldest and most widespread traditions: the act of pilgrimage.
Oscar Wilde’s tomb, prior to the installation of a glass barrier in 2011, covered in scores of lipstick kiss marks left by pilgrims. Source: Oscar Wilde's tomb - Wikipedia)
‘A Journey Away From That Which Is Routine’
A trip to Paris might just be a vacation. A trip to Paris to kiss the grave of a celebrated poet? That’s a pilgrimage. But what, exactly, separates a pilgrimage from any other journey? According to Heather Warfield, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Queensland who studies pilgrimages, "A pilgrimage is a journey away from that which is routine in search of something sacred.”3
Certainly the sacred seems to be a key ingredient. Most of us are likely familiar with pilgrimages in religious contexts — such as the Hajj, the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca that forms one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As long as they are physically and financially able to, Muslims are obligated to make the journey at least once in their lifetime. The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, Mecca houses Masjid al-Haram, “The Great Mosque of Mecca,” where pilgrims gather to pray and commemorate the Final Sermon of Muhammad.4
Likewise, the Shalosh Regalim, or “Three Pilgrimage Festivals,” of Judaism include Pesach (or Passover) and the harvest festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot. According to the Hebrew Bible, God commanded the Israelites to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem during these festivals to present gifts and sacrifices. While the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., some Jewish people still undertake pilgrimages to the Western Wall, a remnant of the temple.5
As part of the Hajj, Muslims perform the ritual of Tawaf, in which they walk counterclockwise seven times around the Kaaba, a large black building considered to be the house of God. Source: Hajj - Wikipedia
‘We Bring Our Bodies to the Site’
The chapel of El Santuario De Chimayó in New Mexico is perhaps the most popular religious pilgrimage destination in the United States. An estimated 300,000 visit the site every year, many of them arriving on foot; some walk as much as 100 miles to reach the shrine. El Santuario De Chimayó derives its holiness from its soil, which is said to possess supernatural healing properties. But even so, many pilgrims who make the trek aren’t looking for miracle cures.7
In a 2015 article for the Deseret News, one visitor put it like this: “For me, (the Chimayó pilgrimage) is a day to think about what I'm doing right and what I could do better. It's kind of a selfish thing. I get out of my regular routine and walk and walk and walk." Note that repetition of “walk” — it emphasizes the physical aspect of the pilgrimage, which is almost as important as the sacred component. To quote pilgrimage researcher Heather Warfield again, “We bring our bodies to the site. You're soaking in the sounds, sights, and smells."8
The chapel at Chimayó houses a small well containing “tierra bendita,” blessed soil believed to have healing properties. Source: El Santuario de Chimayo - Wikipedia
Consider, for example, El Camino de Santiago, one of the most significant modern Christian pilgrimages. Constituting a network of routes across Europe, the pilgrimage takes travelers from their various starting points and leads them all to the shrine of St. James the Great in Galicia, Spain. Most pilgrims make their way entirely on foot from locations as far away as Germany.9 As we wrote back in November 2020, the very act of walking can be “grounding, a way of putting ourselves back in touch with a world that seems distant and strange.” It’s no wonder, then, that so many pilgrims choose to walk their way to the divine: That physical act puts them in the right state of mind to find the sacred within the world.
And the strenuousness of the journey makes the pilgrimage more of a ritual, a task undertaken intentionally and with conscious effort. That shared intentional experience also helps pilgrims draw closer to one another. There is a reason why pilgrimages often take place at a designated time. The Hajj, for example, happens during the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar every year and is said to be the largest annual gathering of people in the world.10 Pilgrimage is as much about finding shared meaning in community as it is about seeking personal meaning.
The shrine of St. James the Great, pictured above, is the final destination for pilgrims walking El Camino de Santiago. Source: Camino de Santiago - Wikipedia
Many pilgrims do report feeling that their journeys aren’t isolated events, but parts of an ongoing process of discovery and self-knowledge. Hillary Kaell, an assistant professor of religion at Concordia University, has interviewed many pilgrims during her research into the practice. As Kaell tells Deseret News, "All of the pilgrims impressed upon me that their stories are ongoing, that they don't have a finite beginning or a finite end. When I wanted to talk to them about the pilgrimage, they wanted to talk more broadly about how they viewed the trip beforehand and the way they'd integrate it into their everyday lives.”14
And research suggests pilgrims do experience concrete, measurable improvements in their psychological states. In one study, for example, researchers found that pilgrims to Lourdes, a French town with religious significance to Catholics, experienced sustained and statistically significant decreases in feelings of anxiety and depression.15
Lourdes is a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics. Source: Lourdes - Wikipedia
Pilgrims, All of Us
A pilgrimage, like any ritual, is a deeply personal thing. Even in the midst of mass pilgrimages, where hundreds or thousands of travelers share the same real or metaphorical road, each pilgrim is there because this journey means something to them on a deeply intimate level. If a pilgrimage is a journey away from the routine in search of the sacred, then what constitutes the sacred is entirely up to us. For some, it’s the final resting place of a beloved author. For others, a religious shrine. Still others find the sacred in the natural world — like the author Cheryl Strayed, who details her solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in her memoir, Wild:
Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.16