Today marks the beginning of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Hajj is the largest annual pilgramage in the world, with at least two million people making the pilgrimage each year.
Although not a mandatory element of our faith, the concept of pilgramage is important for Catholics as well. Each year, many Catholics go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to sites of Marian apparitions like Fatima or Medjugorje, or go on longer pilgrimages, such as the Camino de Santiago.
The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia defines pilgrimages as “journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.” That definition seems to me to run the risk of missing a central aspect of the pilgrimage – the journey itself. While the endpoint of the pilgramage always has special religious significance, and it is correct that veneration will be offered there, what happens on the road is no less important than what happens when one gets there. The conversations with God and with other pilgrims. The difficulties associated with the trip. All of the experiences, large and small, that make up the journey.
Pilgrimage is a good image for our lives. We are, for the entirety of our lives, on a holy journey toward full union with God. Our entire life is a journey with a sacred purpose. And everything that happens along the way is part of that journey and something we learn from. Keeping our eyes on the destination is fine – so long as we don’t fail to notice what is happening along the way.