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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.