Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimage and Beyond

Olivier Steiner

The Project
Pilgrimage is one of the most ancient practices of humankind and is associated with a great variety of religious and spiritual traditions, as well as secular practices. These sacred journeys take diverse forms: ‘walkabouts’ undertaken by Outback Australian Aborigines in search of spiritual renewal and ‘caring for country,’ walking in the footsteps of St Kevin in the great Celtic pilgrimage of Glendalough in Ireland, the journey to Lourdes, France, which annually welcomes over five million Catholics and others in search of healing or some form of deliverance, and even gatherings by music fans at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. But what do the Hajj and the Camino have in common? What characteristics do pilgrims in Nigeria and Japan share? What are the similarities and differences between pilgrimage and tourism? Is there such a thing as an authentic pilgrim? Why have the numbers of people engaged in pilgrimage grown so remarkably over the past few decades? By some accounts, one in three international travelers is engaged in some form of sacred travel. How can we create an event in which the similarities in practice are highlighted while understanding the very real differences in specific journeys? How do we create contexts within which theoreticians, practitioners, skilled professionals and lay people can begin to engage with each other in a comfortable and supportive manner and then continue that engagement beyond the encounter?

The topic of pilgrimage is relevant to a wide range of fields, including but not limited to religious and spiritual traditions, human rights, environmentalism and conservation, the arts, journalism, popular culture, travel and tourism, economics, marketing, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, linguistics, activism and politics. Our goal is to overcome the ‘silo effect,’ the problem that develops when disciplines speak only to themselves. The topic of pilgrimage provides an unparalleled opportunity in this regard. At its core, pilgrimage is a universal practice concerned with peacebuilding (inner and outer), reconciliation, and love.

The Issues
The project aims to shed light on the following issues:What patterns exist across the diverse range of pilgrimages that take place across time and cultures? How might our understanding of similarities and differences between types of pilgrimages promote greater understanding and acceptance of cultural and religious difference? How does the concept of sacred journeys inform religious, spiritual, national and cultural identity? What motivates individuals to undertake these types of journeys? What fundamental human needs are satisfied through experiences that are both intensely personal, yet communal? What is the relationship between the physical journey to sacred sites and the internal processes of self-discovery experienced by the pilgrim? What is the impact of the internet and globalization upon pilgrimages? What is the impact of pilgrimages upon economic development and tourism? How is pilgrimage a tool of social or political protest? How can the values associated with pilgrimages improve the lives of pilgrims as well as the rest of the community? Are pilgrimages always a positive experience?

The Audience
The project welcomes participation by anyone with an interest in sacred journeys, particularly pilgrims, spiritual and religious leaders across denominations, theologians, atheists, humanists, philosophers, clinical practitioners, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, artists, educators, journalists, writers, performers, musicians, lawmakers, civil servants, and representatives of NGOs.

The Outcomes
The project will deliver conferences, workshops, readings, seminars, special events and publications, whose aims include:
• Promoting awareness of how sacred journeys contribute to personal development and community cohesion
• Developing strategies for teaching and researching pilgrims and pilgrimages
• Understanding the relevant geopolitical, religious and cultural issues and identifying opportunities for policy development and conflict resolution
• Providing a platform for engaging with the experience of pilgrimage through storytelling, art, music, performance, film and literature