Varanasi on the banks of India’s holy Ganges River is believed by those of the Hindu faith to be the first city created on the Earth, making it an active pilgrimage center. Peter Langer
Story by Robert Scheer
Photos researched by Helen Tomei, Sacred Earth Journeys
In ancient Greece, sages built an Earth Goddess shrine at Delphi because of the abundance of plenum, an energy they believed bubbled out of the slopes of Mount Parnassus. In the Chinese tradition there is a similar life force called chi. Sufis call it baraka and Hindus know it as prana. If this invisible energy seems fanciful to you, don’t forget that is how people felt about radio waves a mere 100 years ago. Perhaps 21st century establishment scientists will verify earth energies, but regardless of official endorsement, many travelers are creating their vacations around visiting places of power and spirituality.
England’s Stonehenge is visited by 800,000 people a year. Visit Britain
From ancient stone circles and jungle-tangled pyramids to gothic cathedrals and mountaintop shrines, sacred places attract us with a mysterious power. Since the beginning of time, people have visited sacred sites for healing, inspiration and guidance. Mainstream western scientists may scoff at suggestions that water from holy wells can cure illnesses or that ancient megaliths can deliver messages from the spirit world, but the concept of powerful places has been known to many cultures for thousands of years.
The oldest known pilgrimage site is Mount Kailash in Tibet, which has been a holy travel destination for an incomprehensible 15,000 years. Walking the 32-mile trail around Kailash takes about three days, at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet. Buddhists say the ritual circumambulation erases the sins of one lifetime, and 108 times around the mountain will enable you to reach Nirvana.
The first Christian pilgrim was Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who toured the Holy Land in 326 C.E. and identified (not necessarily accurately) many of the sites associated with Jesus. In medieval times, the tradition of Christian pilgrimages really took hold, with Jerusalem the ultimate destination. Pilgrims who couldn’t manage or afford the long voyage could still do penance or seek cures by visiting European shrines devoted to various saints.
Canterbury Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Thomas, was England’s most popular pilgrimage site, as described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century. In northern Spain, Santiago de Compostela, with the cathedral said to contain the bones of Jesus’ disciple St. James, was second in popularity only to Rome as Europe’s most-visited pilgrimage destination of the Middle Ages. See our magazine’s richly-illustrated collection of FOUR feature articles documenting in personal detail both the small-group walking tour option and the independent pilgrim option along the Route to Santiago.
The well-preserved medieval town center of Santiago de Compostela remains a heavily visited sacred travel destination whether pilgrims travel on foot or horseback, by bicycle, car or bus. Alison Gardner
South America’s most famous sacred site, Machu Picchu, is a mountaintop citadel about 60 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru. There are several hundred stone buildings, built on terraces and connected by a maze of stone steps and pathways.
Enhanced by the dramatic natural surroundings, the atmosphere of Machu Picchu is as holy and inspirational as any cathedral. Some buildings, such as the Temple of Three Windows, are made from enormous stone blocks weighing up to thirty tons and fitted together without mortar. It is utterly mind-boggling to consider how such construction could have been accomplished by a supposedly “primitive” culture, many believe to be pre-Incan by thousands of years.
The surroundings and atmosphere of Machu Picchu are as holy and inspirational as any cathedral. Magical Journey
Today you don’t have to leave North America to find places known for miracles. In Chimayó, New Mexico there is an adobe chapel where 2,000 believers congregate each Good Friday, and 300,000 pilgrims are drawn annually. In a small room at the back of the chapel, known as the “Room of Miracles,” is a hole in the floor through which people scoop out sand, said to have curative properties. The walls of the room are lined with hundreds of letters and pictures from visitors thankful for the healing they say they received.
Red Rock Crossing, Sedona, Arizona. Tobias Lars
Sedona, Arizona has also been a pilgrimage destination from prehistoric times to the present day. Not only the local Hopi and Navajo, but natives from as far as Canada and Central America journeyed there for healing and learning long before Europeans invaded North America. The area’s dramatically-shaped red sandstone rocks are said to emit powerful energy partly because of their high concentration of magnetic iron.
Sedona was settled by aboriginals from the four sacred directions: Apache from the East, the ancestors of the Hopi from the South, Yavapai from the West and Athabascans from the North. This seems to be the way with many pilgrimage sites. They are first identified as places of natural earth energy, then, in time, the land is developed by adding monoliths, stone circles, shrines, cathedrals etc. Over the centuries, as people gathered to celebrate or worship at the places, they add their own human energies.
For every bizarre story you hear about unusual happenings at sacred places, there are thousands of disappointed souls who go on pilgrimages hoping for miracles and personal experiences that never happen. One reason why so many pilgrimages fizzle out may be lack of preparation.
The ancient civilization of Egypt and its landmark pyramids in particular continue to hold a strong appeal for spiritual vacationers. Peter Langer
Ancient Buddhist monasteries in the Tibetan Himalayas make spectacular travel destinations where a warm welcome awaits. Peter Langer
Native youth would spend weeks or months getting ready for their vision quests. They’d study, pray, fast, chant and sometimes use hallucinogenic herbs to encourage their visions. In the European Middle Ages, most pilgrims to Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela and other Christian sites went there on foot which allows one plenty of time to prepare mentally. Travel to sacred sites required planning, persistence and often great sacrifices. No wonder arrival created such excitement!
Is the Holy Grail buried near this still-imposing abbey at Glastonbury, England? Visit Britain
Without going overboard, there are several practical steps to take to make any sacred travel experience more meaningful. First, do some homework. Learn about the history and folklore associated with a place. One reason I was moved to tears in Canterbury Cathedral is because I had first read Becket.
Next, approach sacred places with humility. Instead of barging into a stone circle, stop outside and ask the genus loci for permission before you enter. Know your reason for going. If some entity were to ask “Why have you come here?” how would you answer? Open your mind and heart to the spirit of a place. Meditate, or at least take time to absorb whatever energies might be there.
American folklorist and mythology expert, Joseph Campbell once met a woman going to Greece to discover the spirit of the Goddess. After she showed him her elaborate, highly-detailed itinerary, Campbell said, “Dear lady, I sincerely hope that all does not go as planned.” He explained, “Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter in? The beginning of the adventure of finding yourself is to lose your way.”
One hundred miles northwest of Athens, Delphi and its famous oracle have been a magnet of spiritual influence since the Bronze Age. Alison Gardner
Self-discovery is, of course, the ultimate goal of any spiritual pursuit. All transformation must come from within, and pilgrimage is just one of many routes you can take to get there. In the end, all spiritual roads lead to the same destination, an idea beautifully summarized by T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets:
Robert Scheer is a travel writer based in Canada who specializes in sacred sites and power places. He is also Communication Director of the spiritual tourism company, Body Mind Spirit Journeys.
Peter Langer, www.peterlanger.com, has contributed several images to this article. His professional photography is widely used by publishers, governments, international airlines and tour operators. Having visited 120+ countries, he is actively engaged in the international educational, arts and travel & tourism communities.
Journeys of the Spirit® brings forth experiences that transform lives, open doors to new ideas, feelings and personal connections while offering spiritual journeys and retreats to many inspiring destinations.
SACRED EARTH JOURNEYS specializes in transformative small-group and customized trips [Sacred Travel Explorations, Wellness Travel, and Yoga Tours & Retreats] to explore hidden mysteries and unique features of sacred sites, and to achieve a better understanding of spiritual teachings around the globe.
Body Mind Spirit Journeys offers small groups of discerning travelers expert-guided tours that powerfully connect to the world’s most important sacred sites. Some of their popular spiritual tourism destinations include Machu Pichu, Stonehenge and Chichen Itza. Many itineraries include ceremonies, meditation, wellness retreats and connections with local shamans or healers.
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Enjoy Sedona Nature Spirit Walks in the magnificent Red Rock Vistas of Sedona, Arizona. Walks and hikes are customized from slow and gentle elevation changes to more rigorous hikes and ‘mini vision quests’ that open to the spirits of nature.
Established in 1987, Journeying offers Christian journeys in small informal groups, through Celtic Britain and Ireland. Hiking, island-hopping and worshipping in out-of-the-way places are all part of the experience. Our walking itineraries allow all who take part to deepen and enrich their Christian life, as well as to enjoy a refreshing break.