What makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage?

The word "pilgrimage" is tossed about so loosely these days, it's often applied as casually to culinary adventures as to acts of religious devotion.

But "pilgrim" customarily has referred to someone who exerted time and effort in the service of a belief, usually sacrificing physical comforts in the process.

Linda Davidson, Spanish professor at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston and secretary of the Friends of the Road to Santiago association, has had to grapple with a modern definition. She's writing an encyclopedia of pilgrimages for ABC-CLIO Press, due out next year.

She's settled on a working definition of pilgrimage as "a journey to a place that has spiritual significance for the journeyer."

Rome and Jerusalem would fit her definition, of course. Walden Pond, Ellis Island? Probably. And by her reasoning, those who trek to Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion, or those who keep vigil at Jim Morrison's grave at Pre Lachaise Cemetery in Paris are pilgrims just as surely as those who walk the trail to Santiago. All those places of pilgrimage will make it into her encyclopedia, along with the Vietnam Veterans Wall Memorial in Washington, the Oklahoma City building that was bombed in 1995, and the traditional healing shrines of Fatima in Portugal, Lourdes in France, and Guadalupe, Mexico.

"If you limit the concept of pilgrimage to that which is mandated by official religion, then you remove the individual spirituality," Professor Davidson says.

Pilgrims who've walked the Camino de Santiago like Davidson's spiritual definition, also emphasize the element of physical hardship. "It's a kind of test of yourself," says James Alverson, a retired high school teacher from St. Louis and an amputee.

"There's the idea of breaking your body," says James Novak, a restaurant purchaser from Wisconsin. "Pilgrims carry a physical load and they feel pain. But they endure."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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