Religious Sites, Pilgrimages and Events: Sacred and Secular Motivations for Pilgrimage

  July 31, 2021   Read time 3 min
Religious Sites, Pilgrimages and Events: Sacred and Secular Motivations for Pilgrimage
The most prominent religious ‘tourist’ or pilgrimage sites in CEE are Catholic shrines dedicated to Jesus, Mary the Mother of Jesus and the saints. In the religious usage of the word, shrines are repositories for a revered body or venerated relic.

In its broader meaning a shrine refers to a sacred site that houses holy artefacts, promotes ritual practice and attracts religious travellers (pilgrims), who often mark the time and extend the space of the journey by returning home with mementos. These sacred sites function as mediating spaces or transitional zones by allowing a vertical movement toward the sacred, elevating devotees and ‘bringing low’ the transcendent, as pilgrims petition and thank God and the saints. Shrines also allow horizontal movement outward into the social terrain and built environment. In this sense, they culturally situate devotees by creating interpersonal bonds, negotiating social status and constructing collective identity. Shrines differ from other places of worship such as local churches, mosques, temples or synagogues, which attract visitors on a more regular basis and from a narrower geographical range.

The religiously motivated travellers who come to shrines are defined as pilgrims. They often undertake infrequent round-trip journeys to sites they consider sacred. At their destination, and along the way, pilgrims engage in religious practices that might include ritualized speech, dress and gestures. Pilgrimage is one of the well-known phenomena in various religious cultures and exists in all of the main religions of the world. It is defined as ‘a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding’.

Pilgrimage sites sometimes stand far from the follower’s home, and sometimes the length and arduousness of the journey is itself spiritually significant. In recent literature, a high level of uniformity was found to exist between pilgrims’ beliefs among different religions. As such, it is possible to view pilgrimage as a phenomenon cutting across religions and cultures, with uniform patterns and concepts. Even more so, contemporary research emphasizes the importance of what the pilgrims themselves say about their pilgrimage, since they are the main element in the pilgrimage phenomenon, and this subject has received meagre coverage in sociological studies.There have been several approaches as to the study of pilgrimage. A historical approach has highlighted change over time and the distinctiveness of each pilgrimage, plus its embeddedness in the cultural context and the sponsoring religion. The sociological view, inspired by writings of Emil Durkheim, presupposes that pilgrimages reflect broader social processes, such as bolstering of social status and construction of collective identity.

A phenomenological approach, guided by the writings of Mircea Eliade, has identified pilgrimage’s common features by theorizing across religions and cultures. Claiming to be more sympathetic to the participants’ interpretations, these scholars have seen pilgrimage as an encounter with the sacred. In opposition to functionalist sociological theories (Durkheim), they have also highlighted religion’s inherent character, criticising those who reduce the phenomenon to social, cultural or economic impulses. According to the most influential anthropological theory, developed by Victor Turner and Edith Turner, pilgrimage is a rite of passage: the pilgrim begins in the social structure, departs from it during the ritual and then returns (transformed) to society. During the pilgrimage, devotees stand in a ‘liminal’ state, where the usual social hierarchies are suspended and an egalitarian spirit of ‘communitas’ temporarily holds.

In contrast, within Turner and Turner’s concept of the location of the pilgrimage centres, this remoteness gains theoretical significance. Turner and Turner (1969) introduced several fundamental ideas into the study of pilgrimage, directing the study of these phenomena into entirely new paths. Their basic idea was that pilgrimage might be analysed in homologous terms, proposed in their concept of the ‘ritual processes’. They argued that pilgrimages typically involve a stage of liminality, resembling that in which novices find themselves in the transitory stage between two established social statuses.

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