Why More Christians are Ditching Vacations in Favor of Pilgrimages

The pilgrim journeys toward the center of his world, while vacationers journey away from the center of their world. The pilgrim affirms the world in the holy site he or she is visiting, while the tourist desires to escape the world. The pilgrim welcomes fellow pilgrims as part of the community experience, while the tourist regards other tourists with disdain, as a nuisance. 



Hi there, everyone. A surge in Christian pilgrimages around the world and what it means for a post-globalist age. That's what we'll be talking about on today's video. 

The World Tourism Organization estimates that an astonishing 330 Million tourists visit religious sites around the world every single year. And, of course, in the age of secular globalization, you would think that this number would steadily, if not dramatically, decline since more and more people are obviously turning away from these "silly superstitions." And yet, in point of fact, the number's only getting higher. Indeed, I think we're safe to say that more and more people are turning away from the silly superstitions of globalization and its promised utopic world order. 

There have been a number of reports coming out of late detailing a very noticeable increase in pilgrimage-based tourism throughout the Holy Land, and Europe, and Russia. In fact, Israeli tourism alone has more than tripled over the last ten years with the vast majority of the tourists being Christians. By some figures, Christians account for 60% of Israeli tourism. Just among Coptic Christians alone living in Egypt, their pilgrimages to Israel have doubled in the last two years. Every year, quite literally millions and millions of people visit the sacred sites of the Holy Land to worship, to venerate, and experience the very places where Christ lived, died, and rose again. 

And it's not just the Holy Land that's seeing this up-surge in pilgrimage activity. Studies show that, today, there are over 6,000 active religious shrines throughout Western Europe that draw, if you can believe it, more than 66 Million visitors a year. And interestingly enough, they're finding that a vast majority of these pilgrims are, in fact, coming from the supposedly thoroughly secularized Western Europe. Western Europeans are making up the majority of the 66 Million visitors to sacred shrines, and it's for thoroughly religious and spiritual reasons. 

In addition to all this, a fascinating development occurred in Russia of late, when the relics of Saint Nicholas of Myra came to Russia. It was estimated that 2.5 Million Russians came out to venerate the relics. It was the first time that these relics have been moved from the Italian city of Bari in nearly a thousand years, and the Russian faithful clearly appreciated the rarity of this event. Organizers for the display of the relics estimated that 18,000 to 48,000 pilgrims visited Christ the Savior Cathedral where the relics were being housed every single day and that the line could stretch as far as three kilometers, which is nearly two miles. The average time for standing in line was about nine hours. And, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first to venerate these sacred relics, again demonstrating Russia's re-commitment to its Orthodox Christian culture. 

Now, in reading about this surge in pilgrimages, it made me think of a very insightful article written by the political theologian William Cavanaugh who argued that the classical notion of the Christian pilgrim is a radically powerful response to globalization (and I'll link the article for you down below). 

In making this observation, it brings up the notion of the modern tourist. What is a tourist? A tourist is one who is generally, first and foremost, a vacationer. And this is highly significant, because we need to ask: What precisely is he or she vacating? And the answer, of course, is their jobs, their employment. The vacation is, in effect, a temporary reprieve from the daily grind of the professions and the necessities of producing money. 

But it wasn't always that way! We forget that the origins of tourism stretch back to the medieval pilgrimage, which was situated thoroughly within a moral sense of life, and in this sense, the pilgrim wasn't vacating the necessities of life. The pilgrim, instead, was embracing the necessity of his or her life in communion with God. There was nothing particularly vacating about a pilgrimage. If anything, I'm thinking something else on that, that, in many respects, can be seen as quite disruptive to my life. But as it turns out, it's a disruption that we all need and are inestimably enriched by. 

But over time, as Cavanaugh points out, particularly in the 16th through 18th centuries, we see a shift away from penitence as a motivation for travel. In turn, it's replaced with business concerns and pursuits of pleasure. So along with the rise of the modern age and global capitalist systems, the purpose of vacation was not so much to pursue spiritual or moral growth; the purpose of vacation was to, well, frankly, unwind, to relax, to counter the tensions we experience in modern life. It's the means by which we take a break from the mundane repetitiveness of the secular professions. 

Cavanaugh notes that, in the ancient world, travel symbolized life's journey, particularly the notions of fate and necessity. Think of, for example, Homer's Odyssey. In the modern world, however, travel symbolizes one's freedom, an escape from the daily grind and the necessities of producing money, and finance, and material goods. And so, increasingly, and ironically, Cavanaugh sees the quest to transcend the necessities and the material conditions of life as the heart of modern tourism. In many respects, tourism is a substitute for religion in the modern age. People travel to exotic place to experience a sense of life's authenticity and beauty which overcomes the discontinuities and artificialities of modern life. 

And globalism has radically capitalized on this. Today, tourism is such a part of our globalized world that it's become a mass industry that thrives off of this democratization of travel through the widespread access to money and to the free time, or, better, freed time that we have here. The very fact that we're able to go so many places as tourists, fully accommodated for in our every need suggests that the tourist is far more than a man in plaid Bermuda shorts. As Cavanaugh puts it, the tourist is the aesthetic of globalism; he's the embodiment of a world economic system devoid of any borders, or frontiers, or cultural identities that seeks to turn every square inch of this world into a consumable experience. Very, very interesting insights there. 

Now, the Christian pilgrim stands in stark contrast to the vacationing tourist. Again, even though tourism originated from pilgrimages, the differences between the two belie any causal relationship. So, for example, pilgrims were not trying to find freedom from necessity, but were rather trying to respond rightly to the necessity of their destiny in God. And so, humility is the essential virtue or characteristic of the pilgrim. And as a result of pilgrimages to holy sites in the medieval period, you saw a whole web of philanthropic networks, such as sanctuaries, and hospitals, and monasteries. They were all set up by the Church to assist parishioners on their spiritual journeys. So, in many respects, the secularization of, say, the hospital corresponds to the secularization of the traveler. 

But even more to the point, as Cavanaugh notes, the pilgrim journeys toward the center of his world, while vacationers journey away from the center of their world. The pilgrim moves toward the source of blessing, while the tourist moves away from that source only to enjoy its fruits devoid of that source. The pilgrim affirms the world in the holy site he or she is visiting, while the tourist desires to escape the world. Note that the pilgrim welcomes fellow pilgrims as part of the community experience, while the tourist regards other tourists often with disdain, as a nuisance. 

And so, if Cavanaugh is right, and I think he is, that Christian pilgrimages are indispensable resources for combating the secularizing habits, and assumptions, and arrangements, and practices of globalization, then, with this mass surge of pilgrimages going on as we speak, particularly as we saw with the turn out to venerate the relics of Saint Nicholas in Russia, we are seeing a most profound display of sacred dynamics that are, in fact, ushering in a post-globalist world. 

Transcription provided by Dormition Professional Services.

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