Muslims around the world celebrated Tuesday the feast of Eid al-Adha – commonly known as Eid, which marks the end of Hajj. Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the city in Saudi Arabia, regarded as the holiest site in Islam, since the prophet Muhammad proclaimed Islam in that city in the 7th century.
Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world and considered a religious duty among Muslims, who believe that every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so, must make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah.
Hajj is associated with the life of Muhammad, but some Muslims believe that the pilgrimage to Mecca dates back to the time of Abraham. In a way it makes sense, since pilgrimage is something that has been part of our human nature since the beginning of time.
And pilgrimage is not just associated with religion. A pilgrimage can be any journey to a place that holds significance for us: Graceland, a war memorial, a place from our childhood, a grandparent’s home town… Even here in Canada we have our own version of pilgrimage. It’s called a “road trip.” How often did I sit in the "comfort" of a Greyhound bus for hours (sometimes days) going somewhere and getting "lost and found" in the traveling? All these journeys help us (yes, even Graceland) find, or define ourselves – to a certain extent.
As many of you know, I was recently in the Holy Land. We visited several “places of significance” in Jordan, in Palestine and in Israel. In a way (and I wrote about this
) it was good to be meeting with people, “the living stones,” instead of visiting so many religious sites. I guess that’s a personal thing for me: it’s of special significance to me to meet people. Yes, places hold meaning and can transform us, but people, like a mirror, have the ability to reflect us back to ourselves.
Last May, I also traveled to the Yukon
for the filming of Ends of the Earth
. On the last day, we went on a hike, a pilgrimage really, up Sheep Mt. It was a difficult hike: five hours to climb up to 6000 ft. And somehow, without having any conscious spiritual desire or doing it as a search for anything, nor for any religious reason, it was at the top of Sheep Mt. that I had a profound moment of transformation: A moment of experiencing the divine; one of those moments that shape us forever.
I read the news of Hajj, I think of World Youth Days
, where Catholics of every age also gather as a demonstration of solidarity with each other, with the Church and with Christ, and of their submission to God. And it’s important that this demonstration happens in the form of a pilgrimage.
World Youth Day at its best does not include hotel rooms or meals in fancy restaurants (or restaurants at all!). World Youth Day is about sleeping on the floor in a school gym and eating peanut butter sandwiches and apples. It is about not sleeping, or sleeping in the rain at Downsview Park, and sometimes not eating at all. Anyone who’s walked the Camino de Santiago
can attest to that!
And so, a pilgrimage is not just a journey to a religious site. We go on pilgrimages to get out of ourselves. I think of Jesus inviting us to “deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him (Lk 9:23; Mat 16: 24; Mk 8:34). There is something about picking up our cross that has to do with denying ourselves. Denying ourselves of those things that make us proud and righteous – of those things that make us feel good, comfortable. It is an emptying of sorts that takes place. And who doesn’t need emptying? Emptying ourselves of prejudices, of biases, of expectations, of our pain and brokenness, of our need to be right, of our need to fix things, of our need to control, our need to be God…
And this often happens in the midst of a pilgrimage. It happens inadvertently in the midst of the tightening hamstrings and the blisters. It happens when the backpack straps are digging so hard into our shoulders and we long for nothing more than our own warm bed. It’s funny how that happens.
Which is why a tourist can travel through many places, but a pilgrim lets the places travel through them. A tourist returns home with a heavier suitcase; a pilgrim returns with a lighter load.
And so, as the three million Muslims who traveled to Mecca this year return home, let’s remember that we too are called to solidarity with each other and submission to God. And as some of us continue to prepare for next year’s pilgrimage to Madrid for World Youth Day 2011
, let’s remember that while a physical and arduous journey can be helpful, it is not necessary. We can empty ourselves, deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily, and let places transform us and be present and authentic to people, right here at home.
CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo