The Passion and Ritual of the Pilgrims

[This is the second in a multi-part series on religious pilgrims. Read part 1 here.]

In the last post I wrote about the experience of being part of the Catholic pilgrimage to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Here I want to expand a bit more on some of those experiences, especially some of the ritual and symbolic aspects of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

This obsession with the Virgin (both symbolically and physically) is something that strikes me as very odd, especially coming from my own animist and pagan background. Although there are numerous sacred natural sites that have special significance for pagans–Stonehenge being a classic example–I cannot think of a comparable site which functions as a center for millions of religious pilgrims in the same way as the Basilica appears to–or similar official holy sites such as the Vatican in Rome, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, or Mount Kailash in Tibet. What is it about the Virgin, and her attachment with this particular basilica, that has such power and pull over people? I’m still not sure, even after spending the night amidst the huge crowds of believers.

A pilgrim crawls towards the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)
A pilgrim crawls towards the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)

But one thing is clear, and that is the power of the ritual being enacted. To really appreciate just how devoted some people are, you need only look at the small but dedicated groups of people who literally crawl–often on hands and knees–from outside the basilica gates all the way to the top of the hill overlooking the basilica. The sight reminded me of images of Tibetan Bön practitioners making a kora, or circumabulation, around Mount Kailash in Tibet, who literally prostrate themselves in full extension the entire way around the mountain. In both cases, a tremendous amount of faith and dedication is required to undertake such a feat.

One look at the faces of those pilgrims slowly crawling through the crowd, statues of the Virgin cradled in one arm, or strapped to their back, was a testament to just how deep this devotion can run for some believers. It also gave me a certain unease. I couldn’t help but feel that my fascination with the religious process unfolding before me, and my desire to document it as a scholar of religion, was itself somehow an unwelcome intrusion. I found myself wondering what each person was thinking. Were they aware of the huddled mass of people around them, the constant click and flash of cameras, or were they totally focused and absorbed in their own interior religious world.

Pilgrims climb the final set of stairs above the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)
Pilgrims climb the final set of stairs above the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Source: Chris Crews (Attribution via chriscrews.com)

Interestingly, most of the people I saw doing this kind of prostration were young men. Some looked young enough to still be in high school, while others appeared to be in their mid 30s. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to talk with some of them, to ask what was motivating them, or why they chose this form of religious ritual. Fortunately others have asked precisely this question, and the answers vary. For some, it appears to be a family tradition. For others, it is an attempt at deeper supplication to the Virgin, usually in the hope of having a prayer answered. For others, it is simply another way to express their faith. And like the mysteries surrounding the tilma, or burlap cloak, that Juan Diego was supposed to have worn so many centuries ago, and in which the image of the Virgin is etched–some things transcend explanation. They just are. You either take it on faith or you don’t.

Over the past several years I have been increasingly spending time studying, following and thinking about religious pilgrims from many different faith traditions. It’s part of a research project on Sacred Landscapes in the Himalaya, which I have written about in some of my earlier posts (here and here). The dynamics in Mexico are quite different from my usual sites in South Asia–this pilgrimage takes place in a densely populated and highly concentrated physical space in a huge urban city–as opposed to remote and difficult mountain sites in the Himalayas. Yet many of the religious dynamics appear similar–from elaborate rituals and daily devotions to complex symbolism. The stories and beliefs may be different, but the practices and aims are incredibly similar.

In this time of global crisis and conflict, when religion so often seems to be blamed for its excesses, I want to suggest that religious pilgrims offer an important counter-point to these more conflict-driven narratives. If we want to promote inter-faith engagement and cross-cultural understanding, religious pilgrims may just offer some important lessons about peaceful religious devotion. While I didn’t return from my Mexico trip a Catholic convert, I did gain some insights into another important religious tradition that has meaning for millions of people around the world.

Such experiences are, as the cliché Kodak ads likes to remind us, priceless.

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