Over 30 million Hindus seek purification in the waters of the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela festival; 2.5 million Muslims per year make the Hajj to Mecca; 2 million people visit St. Joseph’s Oratory annually. Pilgrimage is a universal phenomenon that takes many forms, partly in response to the diversity of motivations that drive the practice. Through the exhibition God(s): A User’s Guide, the Canadian Museum of Civilization sheds some light on this ancient tradition.
The road most traveled
What is a pilgrimage? The dictionary tells us that the word pilgrim derives from the Late Latin pelegrinus, meaning “he who journeys in foreign lands”. Pilgrimage thus implies a voyage. Traditionally, such journeys were arduous. One had to leave home and loved ones, facing difficult conditions and making countless sacrifices along the way.
Although some people still ascribe to the traditional idea of pilgrimage, walking for days on end in pursuit of their goal, modern methods of transport have radically transformed the practice. For example, of the millions of people who follow the Way of St. John to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, only 200 000 make the trek on foot, on horseback or bicycle.
Even if walking isn’t as popular as it once was, one thing remains the same: pilgrimage still involves a form of separation. No matter if the destination is Jerusalem, St. Joseph’s Oratory or the summit of Mount Fuji: pilgrims must break free from their daily routine and familiar points of reference. They must travel to a holy place in the company of thousands, if not millions, of fellow pilgrims with whom they share, oddly enough, a certain measure of interior isolation.
The road that leads to a place of worship is often just as important as the final destination, yet the arrival invariably takes on a special significance. A pilgrimage always leads to a place of historic or mystical importance: the birthplace of a divinity, the site of a holy revelation, a miracle, a death, or the final resting place of a saint.
The site can be natural or man-made. It can even, over time, change hands from one religious group to another – or come to be shared by members of different religions. At St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, you will often see Montrealers of Tamil descent who may be Catholic…or who may not. But they all share a profound devotion to St. Joseph and Brother André, to whom they attribute the miraculous healing of one of their own.
Be it a temple or a river, the place of worship is imbued with special significance. As pilgrims touch a relic, a stone, a statue in a gesture of reverence, they are participating in a significant ritual. They have come to thank, to pay homage, to seek forgiveness or healing. Or they may have simply come to find inner peace and a sense of community. Pilgrimage is, however, not solely the purview of the devout. Many take the road to explore, to discover, to seek adventure. In the end, however, all pilgrims meet with something bigger than themselves…
If religions are many, pilgrimage sites are more numerous still. Rather than delve into theology or history of religion, however, the exhibition, God(s): A User’s Guide seeks to take us on an exploration of contemporary religious practices in their multiple forms.
Join us from December 2, 2011 to September 3, 2012 for a fascinating inner and outward journey here, there…and back again!