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A Journey of Devotion

Café Europa panelists discuss the significance of their religious and literary pilgrimages.

Cafe Europa Pilgrimages
Professors Paul Westover, Elliott Wise, Lin Sherman, and Anna-Lisa Halling present at the February 1 Cafe Europa roundtable discussion.

Your feet hurt. You have scrapes all over your legs. You’re famished. And you still have 50 kilometers left. What’s the appeal of a pilgrimage? Pilgrimages are more than a strenuous hike; they’re exhausting yet rewarding journeys to connect with the divine and one’s identity.

At Café Europa (a Kennedy Center roundtable discussion on various facets of Europe) on February 1, 2023, panelists discussed the changes they’ve seen in devotees—and themselves—while participating in religious and literary pilgrimages.

Roman Catholic Art Traditions

Assistant Professor Elliott Wise (Eucharistic and Liturgical Imagery) discussed the change that comes from pilgrimages to the sites of sacred objects within the Roman Catholic Church. The burial grounds of saints, for example, frequently inspire devotees to travel from hundreds of miles away to visit. Devoted Catholics believe that burial grounds hold a portal between heaven and earth and that interacting with the sacred sites will heal them.

Not all pilgrimages take hundreds of miles. In fact, some are very short and only span the length of a cathedral, like the practice of the Stations of the Cross. This act includes stopping to pray and ponder at a series of 14 paintings or sculptures that depict Christ’s journey to His Crucifixion. Pilgrimage paintings are also popular, “in which you can imaginatively visit the sites of Jerusalem and meditate on each of the vignettes essentially from your armchair,” Wise said. Praying the rosary is another important Catholic devotional practice that represents a symbolic pilgrimage. Catholics move the beads around as they pray, discovering different spiritual insights along the way. Even though the pilgrimages are short, interaction with these sacred objects directs devotees’ energy toward God and inspires internal change.

Camino de Santiago

Last year, Professor Lin Sherman (Spanish Enlightenment and Romanticism) took students on a study abroad to hike all 490 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. Sherman explained that there are three different types of people who walk: those who want to give thanks for a blessing they received, those who seek a blessing, and former thieves who walk for penitence as they work to create change in themselves.

Experiencing a sense of community with the Spanish locals greatly influenced Sherman and his students. “We’d go into a small town, and many times there would be someone who had set up fruits, cookies, and all kinds of things to keep your energy up. They would say, ‘Take whatever you want. We’re just so grateful you’re here with us,’” Sherman said. The kindness of those on the pilgrimage inspired Sherman and his students to look for more ways to become Christlike especially in the midst of difficulties.

Three Shepherds in Fátima

Associate Professor Anna-Lisa Halling (Iberian Women Writers) described Portugal’s most famous pilgrimage, known as the Caminhos de Fátima, and the change she found there. The inspiration for this journey comes from the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in Fátima in 1917. The Virgin Mary told the children about the coming Milagre do Sol, or Miracle of the Sun. According to eyewitnesses, the sun danced across the sky for 10 minutes. Believers were inspired by the powerful message of the Virgin Mary appearing to the poorest and most humble members of the war-torn and economically struggling Portugal. Pilgrims now take a 90-minute walk or bus ride to the basilica, where they visit the children’s burial grounds, the site of the tree where Mary appeared, and a bullet from an assassination attempt on the pope.

Halling visited the basilica with a former student who was a practicing Catholic. She noted that visiting the site with the student made the experience more meaningful. “She had dreamed of coming here her whole life. She brought a family picture and put it into the slot of the church so they would be prayed for. It was a really beautiful thing for me to witness.”

Literary Pilgrimage

Associate Professor Paul Westover (Literary Tourism) was the only panelist whose pilgrimage reflected a deeply moving literary experience. He defines a literary pilgrimage as a journey relevant to a site, author, or work of literature; however, the strenuous aspect of the journey is less important than connecting with the site’s literary importance. Westover argued that a literary pilgrimage was like a soup made up of multiple cultural ingredients, including the pilgrimage itself, the historic “Grand Tour” of exploring a continent and its people, and bringing the experience back home to keep the changes made during the journey.

Westover concluded that pilgrimage is innate and helps us make sense of the world around us. “Pilgrimage satisfies some kind of deep need in humans and then if you can’t do it in a purely religious sense, something else will take its place.”

Interested in learning about European culture, events, or traditions? Check the Kennedy Center’s Café Europa schedule for the next lecture.