Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages: Hospitality and Encounter

Friday, January 27, 2023 12:00 pm EST

Join the Medieval Institute and the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion for the first in a webinar series on pilgrimage. Why did medieval people go on pilgrimage, how did they travel, and what resources did they need while on the road?

“Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages: Hospitality and Encounter” will examine medieval social institutions that supported pilgrims in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Chinese Buddhist traditions.

Panelists will include Notre Dame professors Robin Jensen (Theology), Mun’im Sirry (Theology) and Alexander Hsu (Keough School). They will compare different cultural provisions for hospitality, pilgrims’ experience of encounter along the way, and the sacred art of shrines and holy places.

This webinar will be the first in a series of spring-semester events exploring the practice of pilgrimage, both historically across faith traditions and in present-day work for social justice.

For more information visit the event website.

The first virtual event in the Medieval Institute’s Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation series explored pilgrimage as a global, cross-cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages. This event was moderated by Sr. Annie Killian, OP, Public Humanities Fellow at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame. Killian spoke with three experts on medieval pilgrimage and members of the Notre Dame faculty: Alexander Hsu, Assistant Teaching Professor of Global Affairs at the Keough School; Robin Jensen, Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology; and Mun’im Sirry, Associate Professor of Theology. This discussion began with panelists presenting on pilgrimage in the medieval Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions, followed by an opportunity for questions and answers from viewers.

Jensen spoke first about the where, when, and why of Christian pilgrimage. Beginning in the fourth century, pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem to visit the shrine at the tomb of Jesus, known as the Holy Sepulchre, and the site of the Crucifixion. They also sought out saints’ tombs, relics, and other holy objects. Christian pilgrims sought to encounter the divine, and they also went for healing, penance, and adventure. Economically, pilgrimage routes needed to provide lodging, food, care for pilgrims’ animals, guides, and souvenirs. When travel to the Holy Land became difficult, replicas of holy sites were built closer to home, and the devotional form of the Stations of the Cross developed. 

Hsu discussed Chinese pilgrimage beginning with the Monk Xuangzang in the seventh century who traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures and translate them. The word for pilgrim is related to pedestrian and practitioner, signaling that pilgrimage is both a physical and spiritual journey. The monk and his companion the Monkey King embarked on an ascetic journey through inhospitable desert terrain to seek the dharma, that is, teaching or enlightenment. “Seeking the dharma” is one ideal type of Chinese pilgrimage; the other is “visiting the sacred.” From ancient times in the Chinese cultural sphere, people have journeyed to holy mountains to present oneself before the sacred and offer incense. The five sacred mountains in China are holy sites in the Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. 

Sirry explained that pilgrimage to Mecca, hajj in Arabic, is one of the five pillars of Islam. However, only Muslims who have the financial and physical ability to make the journey are required to do so once in their lifetime. 3 million Muslims travel to Mecca each year, 20% of whom are Indonesian. They save for decades to afford it. For many, the experience is transformative, like starting a new life. When they return home, they receive an honorific title; some change their name. Sirry also talked about Islamic pilgrimage practices at places other than Mecca. In Morocco, pilgrims circle shrines at the tombs of Sufi saints. In Java, Indonesia, Muslims visit sacred mountains and sites like the tomb of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), former president of Indonesia. These inter-religious holy places reflect the syncretic religious culture of Java.

During the Q&A, Jensen explained that labyrinths are a pre-Christian symbol for the journey of life. They appear in medieval churches, but we don’t know whether they were used in connection with pilgrimage. Sirry elaborated on the pre-Islamic history of the Kaba. According to tradition, the prophet Muhammad ordered the cleansing of the shrine of all idols except the statues of Jesus and Mary.

Visit the event page for more.

  • Pilgrimage takes various forms within different religious traditions.
  • The early Christian tradition was ambivalent toward the concept of sacred place and sacred travel. Early Christians resisted the idea that certain spaces were especially holy. Only later did Christian pilgrims begin to travel to the Holy Land. A similar tension exists within Buddhism. “Enlightenment can be received anywhere.” (37:56)
  • Holy objects can be “translated,” or relocated, to new places. Sites of pilgrimage and the rituals that take place at those sites can be replicated elsewhere.
  • Making a pilgrimage may be an ascetic journey through inhospitable territory, or it may be a journey made in comfort, “something akin to modern cultural tourism” (30:22).
  • Holy sites that are sacred to multiple religious traditions – like the sacred mountains of China and Java – can be places where people of different religions pray and present offerings together.

  • “Within Christianity, God, at least initially, is not thought to be confined to specific places, or even especially accessible in certain spaces.” (Robin Jensen 5:23)
  • “The journey is as important as the destination… It’s not just to arrive. It’s to make the journey itself, and that can be stressful, strenuous, and arduous.” (Robin Jensen 13:41)
  • “I wanted to bring up the Silk Road as a facilitator of the spread of Buddhism… the movement of silk from China to the West, to Persia, to Byzantium, and of precious metals and gems from Central Asia and from India out East as well. Monks and other pilgrims could kind of freeload upon this commercial venture.” (Alexander Hsu 31:05)
  • “Enlightenment can be received anywhere. Just like God exists everywhere, enlightenment exists everywhere… At the same time, there are really special spaces” (37:56).
  • “It is hardly surprising that, despite the difficulties and challenges every year, many Muslims from all over the world go to the holy city of Mecca to perform hajj, and it is in this place that Muslims from different backgrounds and social status pray together, perform hajj rituals wearing the same clothes, irrespective of their status back home, and I think it is not an exaggeration to say that hajj is the highest expression of Islamic civilization that subsumes every race and culture.” (Mun’im Sirry 41:15)
  • “Pilgrims also search for a way to spiritually improve their everyday life back home… Several pilgrims that I talked to said that once they return home, the real tests begin. Would they transform so fully and live up to the morals developed during hajj? They often describe the hajj as a transformative experience on both a personal and social level. (44:21)

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