Digital Pilgrimages Allow the Faithful to Make Spiritual Journeys From Their Couches

Pilgrims rest in the garden of Gethsemane, in Jerusalem, on a Holy Land pilgrimage organized by America Media. Photo courtesy of the Rev. James Martin

Susan Stoltze’s Camino didn’t turn out the way she had imagined it.

After days of dealing with cranky innkeepers known as hospitaleros, intermittent thunderstorms, wrong turns and high anxiety, Stoltze cut short her 2014 walk on the Camino Frances, the most popular route of Spain’s ancient Christian pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago. She had more than 450 miles left to go in the 500-mile journey that starts in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, climbs up and over the Pyrenees and ends at the Catedral de Santiago, believed to be the resting place of St. James.

But Stoltze, a Wiccan who is one of many non-Christians and people of no faith to walk the Camino, was determined to finish the pilgrimage.

So she quickly connected with her local chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino after returning home to the Chicago suburbs.

A sculpture showing a resting pilgrim on the side of the
cathedral in Burgos, Spain. The famous Camino de
Santiago passes through Burgos. Photo by Bjørn Christian
Tørrissen/Creative Commons

Earlier this month, she posted in the Facebook group for members of the Chicago-area Chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino that she’d once again made it 17.2 miles into the Camino Frances, even as hostels along the way have closed due to coronavirus restrictions and Illinois has extended its stay-at-home order through the end of May.

That’s because Stoltze is making a virtual pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, walking a 5-kilometer loop in her neighborhood and logging the distances on a website called Walking 4 Fun, which provides maps, photos and videos of what the journey would look like along the Camino Frances.

A few pilgrims have joined her, walking near their homes or on treadmills. Others have cheered them on as they’ve posted updates to the Facebook group.

“What it allows me to do is to get my steps in and just think, OK, my Camino’s a little different than I expected, but then I can go ahead and post online. I can share the pictures,” Stoltze said.

Stoltze isn’t the only pilgrim whose journey looks different at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has made travel impossible.

A shell symbol of the Camino de Santiago along the
pilgrimage route in Logroño, Spain. Photo by Juanje
2712/Creative Commons

From hashtagged travel photos posted on Instagram to immersive apps, a number of digital pilgrimages are making spiritual journeys possible for the faithful and the curious alike, even as they stay home.

Mark MacWilliams, chair of the religious studies department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, has studied virtual pilgrimages since internet technology began accommodating them about 20 years ago.

MacWilliams points to virtual reality apps that allow users to wander around and learn about Islam’s holiest sites, such as the Great Mosque in Mecca, where Muslims make their hajj. Other virtual tours of sacred sites allow pilgrims to explore the Sistine Chapel in Rome or venerate the image of the Merciful Jesus, or Divine Mercy, in Vilnius, Lithuania.

For years, he said, the Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers have offered the Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience, in which volunteers bring a rock from the grotto and water from the spring at the French site known for its miraculous healings to Catholic parishes across North America. The pilgrimage offers the first plenary indulgence granted by the Catholic Church for a virtual experience, according to its website.

Other apps, such as ones MacWilliams has seen for the Shikoku Pilgrimage — which links 88 Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku — offer basic directions and information like an old-fashioned guidebook, a pilgrimage tradition, he said.

These digital pilgrimages aren’t just educational, according to the scholar. They also offer the possibility for pilgrims to experience something sacred or spiritually meaningful.

Pilgrims climb stairs to the Byōdō-ji temple on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

“And I don’t think it’s all that revolutionary a thing,” he said.

Technology always has found ways to invite the faithful on pilgrimage, MacWilliams said.

Before the internet, pilgrims brought readers along on their journeys through written accounts, like the fourth-century nun Egeria’s description of the Holy Land or Margery Kempe’s 15th-century memoir, which included her pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to Rome and on the Camino.

The Stations of the Cross, depictions of 14 scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion that are found in many Catholic churches, started as a way for people to walk the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem at a time when travel was too dangerous during the Crusades, the scholar noted.

“There are a fair number of people that go on these virtual pilgrimages and they experience them as spiritually meaningful and real to them,” MacWilliams said.

For many Catholics in particular, he said, digital pilgrimages continue that tradition.

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Source: Religion News Service