Pilgrimages for Skeptics

Article by: Alison Bing

Mon August 26, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Maybe I have a godless look about me. Or it could be my Midwestern manners: when we have no idea what other people are talking about, we nod politely. Over the years, I've been actively recruited by Bahai, Catholics, pagans, Transcendental Meditators, Sufis, Lubavitchers, Mormons, crystal healers, at least five cults and too many evangelists to count.

With all that polite nodding, I've wound up accepting invitations to holy places I never intended to visit—and gotten much more out of it than I ever expected. Pilgrimages are illuminating, bonding, moving experiences not to be missed on account of skepticism.

The Universal Unknown

On a pilgrimage, you always have something in common with your fellow travellers: willingness to leave familiar creature comforts to venture into the universal unknown. Visiting medieval Sufi poet Mevlana Rumi's tomb in Konya, Turkey, I was awed by the whirling dervish movement (Semazen) he inspired. At December's Sema ceremony in remembrance of Rumi, Konya dervishes revolve like planets around the sun. They spin too fast for the giddy eye or earthly reason to follow, their robes flowing to a universal rhythm. Instinctively, the breathing of the assembled crowd rises and falls in unison. As the Sufi philosopher Muhammad Iqbal says:

We venture not beyond the shores

Being to the senses confined.

But Rumi is an ocean,

Stormy, mysterious.

Pilgrims & Partiers

Moments of transcendence may be fleeting for skeptics, but a conversion experience is not a strict requirement of most pilgrimages. For some of the 20,000 gathered to greet dawn at Stonehenge's Summer Solstice, it's an ancient Druid sacrament; for others, it’s a rave, conveniently serviced by vegan food trucks. Combining ritual and revelry is nothing new. Along the pilgrimage route to Canterbury Cathedral covered in Chaucer's 14th century The Canterbury Tales, the clever Pardoner does a brisk business in forgiveness, and the bawdy wife of Bath loudly advertises that she is looking for a sixth husband.

Something in the Water

Today as in the middle ages, pilgrims trade stories of their travels, trials and enduring hope. The Catholic Church attributes 49 miracles to the grotto spring waters at France's Notre Dame de Lourdes, the ultimate destination for many seekers of miracle cures. Millions follow the pilgrim trail to Lourdes each summer; some faithful make the hillside ascent on their knees. But there have been unexpected trials this summer, when Lourdes was flooded and thousands of Lourdes pilgrims were evacuated. While painstaking reconstruction work begins, pilgrimages have already resumed, with pilgrims volunteering aid.

Accidental Blessings

Short of taking photos of worship—in my experience, almost universally discouraged—or flashing distracting amounts of skin, I've discovered that embarrassing pilgrimage-rookie mistakes are usually met with kindly tolerance and good humor. I once wound up in the wrong line at Varadharajah Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram, India, and was ushered to the priest for a blessing. I left the sanctum sanctorum wearing holy ash and a sheepish expression. What if I'd used up the last of the ash, or taken a true believer's place in line? My hosts found these questions hilarious: priests don't run out of blessings, and besides, true devotees believe their faith is its own blessing. "Don't worry, you still make a B+ novice," my host joked. I decided to take that as a compliment.

Codes of Spiritual Conduct

Even at ancient sacred sites, codes of conduct are subject to sudden change, so take it from a B+ novice: research before you embark. I've found that security issues and religious observances often limit access to Jerusalem's key pilgrimage sites—especially the Jewish Western Wall and Muslim Haram ash-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). The Jewish prayer site is believed to be the remnant of a 2000-year old retaining wall around the Second Jewish Temple, while directly above it, the Noble Sanctuary includes the Dome of the Rock and Islam's third holiest site, the al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-religious visitors are expected to keep a respectful distance from both sites during religious holidays and at prayer times, when men and women traditionally pray separately. But even longstanding customs are subject to shifts: a contentious 2013 Israeli court case granted Jewish women the right to pray at the wall among men and wear religious garments, and thousands of women claimed prime prayer space at the Haram ash-Sharif during Ramadan 2013.

Treading Sacred Ground

The attraction of sacred sites is so strong that it can be hard for a skeptic's eye to tell pilgrimage sites from tourist attractions. The largest religious monument in the world is Angkor Wat, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 to help preserve the 12th century Cambodian Hindu and Buddhist temple complex. Visitor numbers to the remote site have since swelled from mere thousands to over 2 million per year, causing foot-traffic erosion on sandstone temples—even as the 2013 discovery of a vast lost city near Angkor Wat stretches available conservation and excavation resources.

The Luminous Path

Some fear the spiritual character of the site is also being eroded, with adventurers in Angkor Beer T-shirts outnumbering saffron-robed monks and tour guides introducing Ta Prohm Temple by its nickname, earned as a scenic backdrop for Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Angelina Jolie Temple. But as long Angkor Wat is approached as a sacred site—even by avowed skeptics—this temple complex retains its mystical magnetism, adding a gentle gravity to every footfall. Maybe pilgrimages aren't destinations, but how you walk the route you find yourself on—and even godless creatures with only a nodding relationship to the eternal may walk a luminous path.