Nowadays most people in the Western world expect to have at least one holiday a year but wouldn't it be a good thing if we thought about making a pilgrimage sometimes too? After all, if the mind and body need to be refreshed perhaps the spirit does as well. This needn't be a dramatic affair but it should require a little effort and sacrifice on our part, and it ought to be made with the right attitude which is reverence mixed with aspiration.
In the past people went on pilgrimages to renew a connection to God which, even when it exists, is often weakened during the rough and tumble of everyday existence in the material world. They went to absorb holy influences from a recognised sacred site, sacred either by association with a saint or just in itself because of the spiritual power to be sensed there, and they also went as an act of penance or contrition. They went too to give thanks to their Maker. All these motives help to revive the sagging spiritual impulse. A pilgrimage can also be thought of as an externalisation of the inner spiritual journey and so aid and strengthen one for that task since, by being something anyone can do physically, it is rather easier to accomplish. It should not be taken as a substitute for the need to make that inner journey but it can be used as a support and inspiration for it.
The effort involved in reaching a place is an important part of any pilgrimage. If you simply turn up at a holy site having driven there in comfort you are not going to reap the same spiritual benefit as you might if your journey had been more arduous and required real effort, even a degree of hardship. This is why some people made all or part of their journey barefoot or even on their knees. When I lived in India I noticed that many people would shave their heads when going on a pilgrimage. Some would fast as well or take a temporary vow of celibacy. Of course, this can be taken to excess and the actual pain or deprivation involved be seen as a virtue in itself which is a mistake. But if it is seen symbolically and as a gesture of penitence and humility then there is a point to it, and it can be spiritually constructive. We recognise that we must approach God emptied of self and without any preconditions on our part, and although the ideal is to do this on a mental level, that is hard and to do it physically is a good step in the right direction. It's a reasonable substitute that sets the mind on the right course. Physical privation or hardship is not, on its own, going to make you a more spiritual person, any more than poverty can, but the acceptance of it can assist in turning around the worldly self and helping it submit to true spiritual values.
It is well known that Christianity didn't just set up its own brand new holy places but adapted them from former pagan sites, effectively baptising an already holy place. Now this could have been for two reasons. One, the people accepted that site as holy so it was easier just to put it under new management. The already existing sacred aura of the place could simply be converted to Christian usage. It merely required rededicating to Christ or the Virgin Mary or a saint and cleansed of any lingering potential defilement by the appropriate rites. But I think there is another reason too. Some places really are more sacred than others. If we think of the Earth as a body with lines of what, for want of a better phrase, we can call psychic energy running all over it we can understand that there are certain nexus points where that energy is concentrated and where it may take on a particular quality. These are also places where, given the right conditions and receptivity on the part of the visitor, the veil between this world and the next can be thinner than elsewhere. Such localities are well suited to adaptation for worship and pilgrimage.
Britain has several pilgrimage sites, some very well known. Canterbury, Glastonbury and Walsingham come to mind as sacred places where a strong Christian influence has persisted for centuries. Lindisfarne and Iona are holy islands which are probably nexus points as described above but have also benefitted from the presence of saints, Columba and Cuthbert respectively, and from the veneration afforded these saints by their followers. This is actually an interesting point. The presence of true spiritual aspirants can add to the sanctity of a place or at least enable it to come out. If people come in a spirit of devotion and reverence they can both receive and give. They can receive the spiritual virtue of the site but they can also contribute to building that up by the quality of the feelings and motives they bring with them. If their hearts are pure and properly directed to goodness and truth they can, as it were, feed the atmosphere. But the reverse is also true and present day Glastonbury is an unfortunate example of this. If people come to take and with unworthy motives then they can suck all the good atmosphere out of a place, driving its virtue underground.
Glastonbury is certainly a holy place which means it has a powerful energy. Regrettably this attracts all sorts of types including those who just wish to feed off that energy, and these people corrupt the atmosphere through their desire to appropriate the energy without being worthy of it or able to live up to its quality. That is why, ideally, all holy places should be guarded or protected from the profane by a dedicated priesthood or something of that nature. If you wish to enter a sacred place or space you must make yourself worthy of that. Everybody, both pagan and Christian, understood that very well until recently.
In a sense, then, pilgrimage might be considered as a symbol of the return to God. That is a long journey, though, and, as one of the outer supports to treading the inner path, a physical pilgrimage can be of great value for it not only brings that inner journey into focus but it can also inspire and revitalise us for the road ahead.