The Power of Pilgrimage

Years ago while living in New Mexico, I witnessed the curious site of people walking by the side of the road (including along Interstate I-25). It was the week before Easter, and some carried heavy crosses. When I started asking around about who these people were, I was told that they were among the tens of thousands of people that embark on pilgrimages to Northern New Mexico each year.

The destination of most of these pilgrims was El Santuario de Chimayo, located about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. This old Spanish church (see below) has been the site of many miracles over the years and is reputed for the healing qualities of the earth beneath it.

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According to the Santuario de Chimayo website, “In some cases the pilgrims walk for hundreds of miles, sometimes bare-footed, sometimes carrying crosses which are often left on the grounds of El Santuario. Some walk as an expression of their culture and beliefs. Some walk to give thanks for prayers answered. Some walk to pray for divine intercession, healing for themselves or their loved ones, or for enlightenment.”

Last Spring I brought my family to visit the Santuario. As we approached this holy place we felt a special energy radiating from it and could see the signs of faith everywhere. There were crosses placed around the fence along the property, photos and prayers posted outside the chapel, children’s shoes left by the faithful, and hundreds of candles burning with hopes and prayers. The photos here are all from our visit.

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All of us are on a pilgrimage of some sort as we journey through life. Each step we take, each decision we make, is part of our journey of faith and discovery.

In the words of Father Julio Gonzalez, pastor of the Santuario de Chimayo: “To be a pilgrim means that we let God guide our footsteps…”

When we begin a pilgrimage we always start with a prayer and voice our intention for the pilgrimage. We then walk humbly, feeling the earth beneath our feet. We can ask our Creator to guide our feet, guide our thoughts, and guide our hearts.

Many people choose to fast while on a pilgrimage, drinking nothing but water. This increases the physical challenge and strengthens our resolve. During the pilgrimage we can then offer our tiredness, our hunger, our pain, as a show of our commitment to our prayer or intention.

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While living in Mexico, Argentina and Haiti I witnessed crowds of pilgrims approaching sacred chapels or sacred sites in nature. The power of their faith was palpable and their devotion evident as they reached their destination. In Mexico, hundreds of pilgrims chose to approach the chapel on their knees, making their final steps even more challenging. In Haiti too, they moved closer to the ground before plunging into the mud surrounding the sacred site.

Regardless of the chosen destination the pilgrim experiences a profound sense of relief and satisfaction when he or she arrives, as if the prayers have already been answered.

The Purpose of a Pilgrimage

There are many motivations for undertaking a pilgrimage, and I find that the Santuario de Chimayo website does a wonderful job of explaining them:

“A pilgrimage is a journey of the body and soul. Regardless of our religion, it is an effort to become closer to our God. A pilgrimage is sometimes undertaken to pray for God’s intercession in our lives or as thanks for an intercession that has been granted. Often, though, a pilgrimage represents nothing more (or less) than our desire to let God guide our footsteps and nourish our souls.

A pilgrimage should not be undertaken lightly but neither should it be undertaken in fear. It is intended to be a journey of joy and fulfillment.”

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Indigenous peoples have been walking in pilgrimage to sacred sites in the mountains and plains, to caves or waterfalls or sources of the river for thousands of years.

You can easily transform your next hike into a pilgrimage if there is something you would like to give thanks for or pray for. Find a destination that is meaningful for you, say a prayer and set your intention before you embark, then walk in silent contemplation and ask God to guide your feet. When you arrive at your destination, offer a gift of flowers or a special stone or something meaningful from nature, and take time once again to pray.

If you are interested in walking a pilgrimage with a group of companions in prayer, song and meditation, join our summer pilgrimages in the Rocky Mountains.

Sea Ritual for the New Year

Every year in Brazil, thousands of people flock to the oceans to celebrate Yemanja, release the past, and set their intentions for the New Year.

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The ocean is the original source of life. Her salty waters are like the waters of the uterus, in which we can immerse ourselves as part of a process of annual rebirth.

The rituals at the sea are simple yet powerful. They help us release difficult emotions or situations from the past and focus our intent for the future.

If you’d like to do a ritual to bring in the New Year or are simply ready to enter a new phase in your life, here is a simple ritual inspired by Brazilian traditions that you can do on your own.

Ritual at the Sea

You will need a white candle, some white roses, white clothes, and a beach where you can safely immerse yourself in the ocean water.

  1. Begin with a meditation in a quite place. Light a white candle and place a clear glass of water in front of it on your altar or on a table. All four elements are contained within the candle and water (fire of the flame, earth in the wax, water, and air circulating between them). Sit in front of the candle and glass of water. Breathe deeply and center yourself.
  2. Once you’ve taken many deep breaths and are feeling centered, take one of the white roses. Begin reflecting on those emotions, situations or qualities that you’d like to release. Pull a petal from the rose. Rub it between your fingers. Think of something specific you’d like to release. When ready to release it, place the petal on your altar. Pull another petal and repeat with another thing you are ready to release and place it next to the first. Form a circle around the candle and water with the petals. You may continue until all of the petals from the rose are gone. I often find that as I continue with this process, things bubble up from my subconscious when I get to the innermost petals of the rose and I become aware of much deeper layers that also need release.
  3. Say a prayer of gratitude for those things you are releasing and the wisdom they have brought to you. Move the petals to a bag or bowl that you can carry with you to the sea. Set them aside.
  4. Now take another rose and repeat the exercise, but this time with your prayers. At first, each petal represents something you are grateful for. Rub the petal and feel your gratitude deeply. Continue placing the petals in a circle. As you move deeper into the innermost petals of the rose, place your prayers for the future and clarify your intentions with each petal. Sit with these and continue praying until you feel that your intentions are very clear. Collect the petals and place them in a separate bag or container to take to the sea. You may add other flowers or roses to these prayer petals, as an offering to the sea.
  5. Dress in white and go to the sea, to a safe and quiet place. Take the petals that represent everything you’d like to release and walk slowly into the ocean. After releasing the petals you will submerge your whole body, including your crown, three times. If there are waves at your part of the beach you will do this when a wave comes so that it can wash your crown. Drop the petals into the water, and release everything you intend to let go of from your heart. Submerge yourself three times (submerge your whole body and head each time a wave comes) with the intention of each wave washing those things from your heart and your mind. Walk backwards out of the ocean, showing her respect.
  6. Now collect the petals and flowers that represent your prayers of gratitude and your intentions for the New Year. When ready, throw them into the water. Say a prayer of thanks. Know that your prayers will be answered.
  7. Leave the ocean walking backwards. Leave the spot on the beach where you made your offerings and released your past. That spot has now become sacred to you. If you intend to swim or sunbathe, move to a different spot on the beach.

postRemember that the most important part of any ritual is your focus and intention. If you perform this ritual from the heart and with clarity, you are sure to feel lighter and energized when you are done.