Following him on the Internet, I imagined myself a sister pilgrim on theholy journey. I was connected to biblical events in a way I had neverexperienced. When he returned to Rome, I actually felt disappointed andsuffered a kind of religious ennui as if I had gone on pilgrimage myself.
For many believers, this has been a spring of pilgrimage. Within six weeks,Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will all have celebrated their primarypilgrimage festivals: Passover, Lent and Easter, and the Hajj.
The Christian seasons of Lent and Easter are marked with pilgrimagethemes. Lent recalls Jesus' 40-day temptation in the wilderness andculminates with Holy Week in which Christians commemorate his final days.This somber journey ends at the empty tomb with the cry, "He is risen."
Christians equate Lent and Easter with the Jewish Passover. Lent symbolizesthe suffering slavery of sin; Easter celebrates God's liberating victoryover death. Since the earliest days of Christian history, the devout, suchas the Pope, have longed to walk the Way of Sorrows in Jerusalem or gazeinto his empty tomb sometime before they die.
The Jewish Passover commemorates the events surrounding the biblical Exoduswhen God liberated the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. Passover celebratesJewish identity--their pilgrimage from Egypt to Israel, from slavery toliberation.
Islam requires a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, for every Muslim who isable. There, Muslims enact events of the prophet Abraham's life andcelebrate the purification of Mecca by the prophet Muhammad. As with theJewish and Christian rites, Muslims must cleanse themselves spirituallybefore entering the holy city by washing and eating only prescribed foods.Those who make it through the arduous pilgrimage often weep as they circlethe Ka`ba.
Traditionally, each of the great pilgrimages involves going somewhere:Jerusalem or Mecca. A devout believer undertakes such a journey to touch theholy places, to receive the benefit of God's mercy, and experience the powerof community in sacred ritual.
Less traditionally, each of the great pilgrimages can now be experiencedonline, making "virtual pilgrimage" a new reality.
Although I have been skeptical of such innovations, the Pope's recentjourney convinced me the cyber-pilgrimage is spiritually viable. I actuallycried while watching him pray at the Church of the Holy Nativity. Betweennews coverage of the events and actual ritual web sites, believers could logon to virtual pilgrimages approximating the real thing. Prayers, music,testimonies, tears, and all.
While cruising pilgrimage sites during the papal tour, I began to realizethat "virtual pilgrimage" is not new at all. In the Middle Ages, whenChristian pilgrims could not travel to the Holy Land or other sacred sites,they placed labyrinths in their churches and cathedrals. Walking to thecenter of the labyrinth and out again was akin to the geographicalpilgrimage. Thus, believers gained the spiritual benefit of pilgrimagewithout ever leaving home.
Similarly, the ritual feasts of each religion are themselves virtualpilgrimages--one of the oldest religious ideas around. In Judaism, the Sedertheologically recreates the Passover pilgrimage of liberation. InChristianity, Holy Week rituals such as the Maundy Thursday, Eucharist andthe Stations of the Cross enact Jesus' pilgrimage through death toresurrection. In Islam, Muslims share with Hajj pilgrims the Feast ofSacrifice, an animal sacrifice commemorating Abraham's obedience to God.
These ancient rituals, whether traditionally practiced or cyber-experienced,allow the devout to participate as pilgrims in God's unfolding mystery.Pilgrimage reminds believers that God has worked in human history throughhuman beings, accomplishing works of redemption, freedom, andreconciliation.
We did not witness these events; we cannot physically touch Moses or Jesusor Muhammad. But we can walk where they walked--actually or virtually--andexperience the divine. And, like all pilgrims, we return home changed bythe journey.