Pilgrimage resonates with Jews as well as Catholics like myself

Modern life can make us feel strangely isolated and suffocated. Walking for spiritual reasons can be a universal balm

August 12, 2021 17:55

The legend of the Wandering Jew is about the man who taunted Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. Cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, the Wandering Jew could never attain rest and repose.

I’ve felt a bit like the Wandering Jew myself since last August when I set off on the 1,000-year-old Camino pilgrimage through northern Spain, to escape lockdowns in the UK. With further Covid-related travel restrictions making a return to Britain impractical, I continued on past the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain that marks the end of the pilgrimage toward the coast, then pivoted south to head towards Lisbon in Portugal, following another Camino route in reverse. As I passed the 2,000-kilometre mark, I began to wonder if my odyssey would ever end.

I’m a Catholic but the experience led to an interview with an American rabbi who hosts a podcast for US-based Spirituality and Health magazine. During our discussion about pilgrimage and walking, the rabbi spoke about the wandering tradition that goes back to Abraham and the migratory aspect that is so central to the Jewish history of being persecuted and seeking refuge. On my Camino, I constantly passed Spanish cities with former Jewish quarters.

Increasing numbers of people are responding to the uncertainty of the age — and, for many, the sense of meaninglessness accompanying it — by packing a rucksack and heading on pilgrimage. “Banking crashes, the rise of populism, seemingly insoluble conflicts and terrifying pandemics individually and collectively are causing us to question the very foundations on which our post-religion twenty-first-century lives are built,” Peter Stanford writes in his book Pilgrimage: In Search of Meaning. “Our belief in what until recently was taken to be inevitable progress of science and humanity — and hence the marginalisation of faith — has been stopped in its tracks.”

Unlike the majority of pilgrimage routes and destinations typically associated with one particular faith tradition, Jerusalem stands out for being simultaneously sacred to three religions through the involvement of Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed in its story. Christians come to Jerusalem to walk in the last steps that Christ took toward his crucifixion, in which is sown much of the intransigent clash between Christianity and Judaism. Muslims come to visit Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, which stands beside the Kotel, which is what draws Jews.

The 50-metre-long section of 20-meter-high weather-beaten blocks is all that remains of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish uprising in 70 CE. Plans to build a Third Temple in later centuries never materialised, resulting in those rocks becoming “by default the holiest place of prayer and pilgrimage for Jews,” Stanford says. The Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi, while stuck in Moorish-ruled Spain during the 12th century, argued that true religious fulfilment— which Halevi defined as getting as close as possible to the “God of Israel”— could only be achieved by Jews physically being in the “land of Israel”.

It’s a reference to the “key notion of places of pilgrimage having a special spirit that draws people to them”, as Stanford puts it. Hence, today at the Kotel, between the cracks of its rocks Jews wedge slips of paper, on which prayers and petitions to God are written. On the Camino, I saw similar petitions stuck under rocks or pinned on boards beside shrines and churches.

Key to most religious pilgrimages is proceeding on foot. This laborious option often proves the enabler of deeper contemplation that is so hard to achieve in the secular and sceptical times we live in.

“Everything is done at walking pace, in contrast to a world that, now more than ever, is ceaselessly rushing ahead faster than we can quite compute,” Stanford says. “To catch a glimpse of the transcendent, otherwise impossible in the hustle-bustle and hassle of modern life, requires making one almighty and counter-intuitive effort — like going on a pilgrimage in a secular age.”

Walking itself increasingly feels a similarly counter-intuitive and subversive act when set against the mechanised modern world of myriad transport options and instantaneous results. “The walker is using the very legs that our globalised world appears to regard as obsolete,” Stanford says. “In its most political form — the protest march — walking is today being deployed with new enthusiasm against entrenched power, usually but not always in favour of openness, the individual and civil society.”

It’s a point that resonates with the Jewish history of trekking across the world to escape persecution and find salvation in other countries. While “entrenched power” faced by people in developed societies today is not as nefarious as what Jews faced, the conforming stranglehold of corporate monoliths and atomising nature of secular modern life is leaving many people feeling unmoored, even hopeless, accompanied by rising rates of addiction, depression and loneliness.

Pilgrimage is a counterweight to a world that extolls us to see ourselves only as individuals and to communicate via electronic means.

On the Camino, the antidote comes in the form of rubbing shoulders with other pilgrims, walking and talking together, sharing dormitories, exchanging blister treatments, being part of something bigger than oneself and moving beyond a microcosm of mundane challenges bequeathed by the petty tyrannies of modern life. It’s a re-engagement with the intrinsic needs of the human condition.

“The walker toiling along a road toward some distant place is one of the most compelling and universal images of what it means to be human, depicting the individual as small and solitary in a large world, reliant on the strength of body and will,” the American academic Rebecca Solnit — born to a Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother — wrote in her 2001 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned.”

Many people who – in terms of resources and possessions – have all they could need, feel strangely persecuted, while unable to pinpoint the exact source, adrift like the Wandering Jew, desperate to find a reprieve.

“Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the souls,” Aldous Huxley writes in The Doors of Perception, his 1954 treatise expounding on the merits of psychedelic-drug-assisted transcendence as a match, if not an improvement, on that traditionally offered by religion.

As Stanford notes, there are “many other ways in the absence or exile of organised religion to reach out for some half-suspected ‘other’ dimension’.” These range from the likes of endurance runners and mountain climbers who report a higher state of consciousness, to those returning from the Glastonbury music festival or a night at a concert hall.

Nevertheless — even more so given the restrictions of the pandemic — the simple act of pilgrimage, regardless of the religious allegiance or lack thereof on the wanderer’s part, is set to continue gaining in popularity given its compatibility with the search for meaning.

“On a spiritual level, most human beings suffer from the equivalent of asthma, but are only very obscurely and fitfully aware that they are living in a state of chronic asphyxiation,” Huxley wrote in The Devils of Loudun, his 1952 book about demonic possession in the 17th century, which also explores the immutability of the human condition through the ages.

“A few, however, know themselves for what they are — non-breathers. Desperately they pant for air; and if at least they contrive to fill their lungs, what an unspeakable blessedness!”

James Jeffrey’s writing can be found at He tweets at


August 12, 2021 17:55

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