Many major religious pilgrimages have been canceled or curtailed in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. These have included the Hajj, a religious milestone for Muslims the world over; the Hindu pilgrimage, known as the Amarnath Yatra high in the mountains of Kashmir; and pilgrimages to Lourdes in France.
Pilgrims have faced travel delays and cancellations for centuries. Reasons ranged from financial hardship and agricultural responsibilities to what is now all too familiar to modern-day pilgrims — plague or ill health.
Then, as now, one strategy has been to bring the pilgrimage home or into the religious community.
Journey of a thousand miles
Pilgrimage can be an interior or outward journey, and while individual motivations may vary, it can be an act of religious devotion or a way to seek closeness with the divine.
Through the centuries and across cultures, those who longed to go on a sacred journey would find alternative ways to do so.
Reading travel narratives, tracing a map with the finger or eye, or holding a souvenir brought back from a sacred site helped facilitate a real sense of travel for the homebound pilgrim. Through these visual or material aids, people felt as though they, too, were having a pilgrimage experience and even connecting with others.
One such example is the story of the Dominican friar Felix Fabri, who was known for recording his own pilgrimages in various formats, some geared toward the laity and some for his brothers.
Fabri was approached in the 1490s by a group of cloistered nuns, meaning they had professed vows to lead a contemplative life in the quietude of their community. They desired a devotional exercise so they could receive the spiritual benefits of pilgrimage without having to break their promise of a life that was sheltered from the outside world.
He produced “Die Sionpilger,” a virtual pilgrimage in the form of a day-to-day guidebook to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem and Rome. In these cities, pilgrims would encounter sites and scenes associated with many facets of their religion: shrines to honor Jesus and the saints, relics, great cathedrals and sacred landscapes associated with miraculous events and stories.
Fabri’s guidebook sent the pilgrim on an imaginative journey of a thousand miles, without having to take a single step.
My current book project shows that from Lourdes to South Africa, Jerusalem to England, Ecuador to California, DIY pilgrimages are not just a medieval phenomenon. One such example is Phil Volker’s backyard Camino.
Volker is a 72-year-old father and now grandfather, woodworker and veteran who mapped the Camino de Santiago onto his backyard in Vashon Island in the Pacific Northwest. Volker prays the rosary as he walks: for those impacted by the pandemic, his family, his neighbors, the world.
After a cancer diagnosis in 2013, a few things came together to inspire Volker to build a backyard Camino, including the film “The Way,” a pocket-sized book of meditations, “Everyday Camino With Annie” by Annie O’Neil, and the story of Eratosthenes, the Greek polymath from the second century B.C. who figured out a way to measure the circumference of the Earth using the Sun, a stick and a well.
“For me, this guy was the grand godfather of do-it-yourselfers. How can someone pull off this kind of a caper with things at hand in his own backyard? It got me thinking, what else can come out of one’s backyard?,” he told me.
Volker began walking a circuitous route around his 10-acre property. It was a chance to exercise, which his doctors had encouraged, but also created a space to think and pray.
Each lap around the property is just over a half-mile. Realizing he was covering quite a distance, he found a map of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route to track his progress, calculating that 909 laps would get him from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to the Cathedral of St. James.
To date, Volker has completed three 500-mile Caminos without leaving his backyard.
Thanks to a documentary film, Volker’s daily blog and an article in Northwest Catholic magazine, the backyard Camino has attracted many visitors, some simply curious but many who are seeking healing and solace.
Pilgrimage and remembrance
The story of Volker’s backyard Camino inspired Sara Postlethwaite, a sister of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity, to map St. Kevin’s Way, a 19-mile pilgrimage route in County Wicklow, Ireland, onto a series of daily 1.5-mile circuits in Daly City, California.
The route rambles along roads and countryside from Hollywood to the ruins of the monastery that St. Kevin, a sixth-century abbot, had founded in Glendalough. Postlethwaite intended to travel back to her native Ireland last spring to walk the route in person, but due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, she brought the pilgrimage to her home in Daly City.
Every so often, Postlethwaite would check in on Google Maps to see where she was along the Irish route, pivoting the camera to see surrounding trees or, at one point, finding herself in the center of an old stone circle.
Several joined Postlethwaite’s walk in solidarity, both in the U.S. and overseas.
As Postlethwaite traced the intersecting knots, circles and image of the crucified Christ with her chalk, she reflected not just on the suffering caused by the pandemic but also about issues of racism, justice and privilege.