Skip to content
Home » Updates » Of  Travelers and Pilgrims

Of  Travelers and Pilgrims

    by Robert Z. Cortes

    These days are probably as good a time as any to talk about travel. The reason is that for most of the world, and certainly now in the Philippines, vacation months begin in the latter part of May and goes all the way to the first part of August. Travel – either around the country or abroad – now invariably form part of people’s ordinary vacation plans at some point.

    What’s your trip?

    This is not exactly news, considering today’s greater ease of travel. After having been cooped up for nearly three years, people all over the world are just raring to avenge their extended isolation. The last couple of years have witnessed the rise of “revenge travel” and it shows no sign of slowing down (Lanckbeen, 2023). This year, more Filipinos “across all demographics” (PublicusAsia, 2023) are expected to have as their “trip” that of making trips.

    My own experience attests to what’s in the news. Partly because of work and partly because of family responsibilities I have had to travel to Palawan at least monthly and to Cebu at least twice a year since 2021. I will not be lying if I said that all the flights I took were full or nearly so. Many passengers were foreigners; an even greater number were locals. In almost all my flights all year round most of these were in vacation attire.

    Instinctively, I surmised that most of these people were making these trips to rest, relax, and reinvigorate the body. Interestingly, one research done in the U.S. as far as 40 years ago supports this gut feel. In fact, the top three responses from 11,00 people who were asked why they took vacations were to “rest and relax” (63%), “escape routine” (52%), and “recharge and get renewed” (45%) (Epperson, 1983). They really say the same thing since, arguably, the last two refer to the first.

    Travel sounds like travail

    Yet despite these reasons’ predictability and explanatory power, they raise the question: if the point is to rest, why move? If the purpose is to relax, why undergo a process that is sure to create stress along the way? An American researcher phrases the question more sardonically: “Why…not…just stay home?” His defense of the proposal goes beyond the apparent ironies and reflects typical “first-world” 21st century concerns. Staying home, he reasons, would make it easier to overcome “sustainability challenges,” lessen carbon emissions, and build community (Lew, 2018). Similarly, a British academic asked, “Why, oh why, oh why, do people travel abroad?” suggesting that if the more overt and conscious motivations for travel are “rest and relax,” then going abroad is counterintuitive.

    Of course, one could address the apparent contradiction between resting and moving by quoting a modern saint, that “to rest is not to do nothing…(but) to turn our attention to other activities that require less effort” (Escrivá, 1981, p. 78). But this reply only leads to more why questions, perhaps beginning with why do human beings rest that way? The answer would lead to the next question and so on until one realizes that the ultimate answer to the question of the human being’s attraction to travel is an existential one and goes to the very essence of what it means to be human.

    Even the two remaining responses to the 1983 survey mentioned above – “visit friends and relatives” (45%) and “explore new places” (35%) – raise questions whose answer points to the deepest roots of human nature. Indeed, for these two survey responses, the hyperbolic advance of technology only raises the bar of irony. Why, for instance, do we still feel the need to go and visit relatives and friends, when Facetime and Zoom make seeing them cheaper, faster, and more convenient? We use these technologies, but the fact that we do hardly precludes the felt need to eventually make the journey to be in the real presence ofthose on the other side of the screen.

    The perduring metaphor of sojourning

    For all the above, it is thus reasonable to posit that the ultimate explanation to our apparent desire to travel is bound to the very nature (Latin: natura; Greek: φύση, physē) and end (Latin: finis; Greek: τέλος, telos) of the human being. In other words, this desire to travel is so engrained in the human being’s “total physiology” so that one may reach the very telos of one’s existence. These considerations in turn help us to understand why the metaphor of life-as-a-journey is accepted by all human history and exists in all human cultures.

    For instance, Carl Jung’s “stages of life” in the 20th century both echoes and updates the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s “life is flux” and the Buddha’s “path of gradual detachment” from the 5th century B.C. The teachings of these thinkers from both West and East suggest that life is a journey (Mark, 2020).

    But much earlier literature had already expressed that metaphor – and more explicitly. In Genesis 47:9, for example, Jacob is quoted saying, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years… few and evil have been the days of the years of my life…” This passage was written possibly as early as the 15th century B.C. Moreover, there are passages of the same theme, in Job, Exodus and Psalms, all written at more or less the same time, with Job possibly even earlier (Petersen, 2016).

    Toggling the time machine, we see that the same imagery appears in different forms in the West in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” In the East, the poems of the 15th century Indian mystic Saint Kabir admonishes us that “now is the time to prepare for the journey that lies before us” (Westcott, 1907, p. 49). Before him, the Korean thinker Bojo Jinul in the13th century taught the same with his own eclectic philosophy of life (Lee, 2020).

    Zooming back to our century, the works arguably most familiar to the recent generations on both sides of the globe among the works that use this metaphor are perhaps Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. The latter is the one of the most successful movie productions of all time globally (Box Office Mojo, 2023).

    When empirical data point to metaphysical realities

    Quite remarkably – or perhaps predictably – the considerations above seem to be supported by empirical studies from tourism of the last 50 years. Just which aspect of human nature I refer to in my claim is captured by one very recent tourism research that examined several “empirical studies of tourism motivation.” In the end, it affirmed that “the phenomenon of tourism is based on the notion of human incompleteness and lack of closure.” Furthermore, “the idea of human incompleteness must refer to something beyond the physical.” (Dann, 2018, pp. 50–52)

    These affirmations are remarkable because the conclusions of this empirical study ineluctably point to the meta-physical – hence, spiritual – nature of man. If we accept these as true, it then makes sense that, in our attempt to understand the human being’s “traveling nature,” we pass over types of travel that arguably remain within the realm of the “physical.” Examples are those enumerated by Becker (2016): “cultural tourism,” “consumer tourism,” “nature tourism,” etc. As one experienced traveler wrote, in these types of tours he had not only seen his “fellow travelers’ cynicism or jadedness,” but more strikingly, “the way their faces and voices and words betray the longing for something more than their travels were giving them” (Cousineau, 2012).

    Rather, to “cut to the chase,” as it were, we turn our attention to an age-old purpose of travel that offer the said something-more-beyond-the-physical. It is one which modern society now often simply subsumes under the term “religious tourism” (Durán-Sánchez et al., 2018). I refer to the very ancient tradition of “pilgrimage.”

    Religious tourism vs. pilgrimage

    The subsummation of pilgrimage to religious tourism is at least incongruous if we use its present dictionary meaning, i.e., “the journey of a pilgrim” (Merriam-Webster, 2023). As early as the 13th century, the word pilgrim has meant “a person traveling to a holy place (as a penance or to discharge some vow or religious obligation or seeking some miracle or spiritual benefit)” (Douglas Harper, 2021). Moreover, it is universally accepted that “pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise” (Cousineau, 2012). Here we immediately see the incongruity: tourists don’t think of penance at all, or any of those other things mentioned that real pilgrims seek.   

    The root of pilgrim is even more telling. Ultimately, it comes from the Latin per- “beyond” + agri “country, land.” The etymology suggests that a pilgrim is a traveler or wayfarer who is a foreigner or stranger because he comes from a territory outside the holy place. The ironic twist, however, is that in coming to the place of pilgrimage each man or woman from “beyond the country” acts as one arriving not to a foreign place foreign but, as it were, to one’s true country. Whether the pilgrim is conscious about it or not, one’s arrival at the site of pilgrimage induces feelings of hope, joy, and rejuvenation – experiences normally felt at home.

    This phenomenon suggests another difference between tourists (even religious tourists) and true pilgrims. If the inner motivation of travelers in general is to “complete themselves” and “find closure,” for the tourist, this is done by encountering “something new.” For the pilgrim, it is done by encountering “something that is already somehow there” – only, the encounter is deeper and more meaningful. The former finds completion and closure in what is extraneous; the latter, in what speaks to the inner core. This is why, if the phenomenon of the human being’s “traveling nature” were to be instructive at all about the human being’s “true nature,” it is best studied in terms of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage helps us understand who and why we are.

    Pilgrimage as “sacrament”

    Of course, being Catholic, I can only speak about pilgrimage in the Catholic tradition. However, I suspect that true pilgrims even of other faiths can identify with what I will affirm. The power of the pilgrimage as a spiritual exercise lies not in the pilgrim’s external action of physically traveling to a holy place. Rather, it comes from the fact that the act of pilgrimage itself reflects to the pilgrim something that escapes the modern mind: that this earth, which many treat as their permanent country, is in fact foreign land.

    Our true country, the pilgrimage teaches us, is “beyond this land,” and it is represented, no matter how imperfectly, by the pilgrimage site. Moreover, whereas there each act of the pilgrim only allows one to progress towards “completeness” and “closure,” in that Ultimate Place, which the holy site represents, one finally finds the fullness of that “completeness” and “closure” that the heart had always sought but could not quite articulate. For Catholics, this is the state of union with God in heaven called the “beatific vision.” When understood this way, the pilgrimage is, in some sense, a sacrament.

    Moreover, in the Catholic sense, the lesson of pilgrimages is always achieved through personal encounters, i.e., an intimate encounter between the pilgrim and a living sacred “other.” The most important “Other,” of course, is Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that pilgrimages in the Catholic sense are to shrines where invariably the Blessed Sacrament is present. Often, these pilgrimage places are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, the most famous being those of Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima. But many are also dedicated to other saints, such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy, and the Shrine of St. James in Compostela, Spain. In these places, more than the place itself, what matters ultimately is the personal encounter with Christ and the heavenly friends who would lead the pilgrims to Him. This is why, as regards the “Camino de Santiago,” for example, instead of Spain, the one in Compostela, Cebu can very well do for those on a tighter budget.

    The points just mentioned in the last couple of paragraphs suggest that one can do a pilgrimage even without traveling thousands of kilometers of sky or roads. Indeed, one does not need to travel far to become aware that one lives “in a foreign land.” It is easily evident that we live “in this valley of tears,” as we say in the prayer Hail Holy Queen. Neither does one need to travel far to find that “holy place” and encounter those “heavenly friends” who remind us of our “true country.”  One’s pilgrimage could be as beautiful in one’s parish church or maybe even to a grotto in one’s garden, as it would be in Fatima. Indeed, the pandemic has taught us that when push comes to shove, those who need to can always resort to online pilgrimages which attest that “the fervor of our prayer need not depend on context” (Cortes, 2020).  

    The budget-flexible pilgrimage plan

    For the ordinary man and woman, this deeper understanding of pilgrimage opens wider horizons for one’s piety. This was precisely the idea brought home by St. Josemaría Escrivá, the “Saint of Ordinary Life” (St. John Paul II, 2002), who in his lifetime made many pilgrimages to shrines of Our Lady. It is true that he made pilgrimages to many famous shrines all over the world, and even has the honor of being “the first pilgrim to Fatima raised to the altars” (, 2017). Yet, he made even more to shrines or “simpler places with her image” just in Rome, the city where he lived for forty years of his life (, 2020). He taught this devotion through his example and word, and it has spread to many people from all walks of life.

    Part of the reason that his original “pilgrimage style” has endured is its simplicity. His “formula” for the pilgrimage was only to say three parts (sets of mysteries) of the Rosary. One part was said on the way to the place where Our Lady is venerated. The mysteries that correspond to the day are recited in the venue, and another part is recited on the way back. He preferred small groups to big ones so as not to attract attention. To complete his “pilgrimage formula,” he threw in the spirit of penance (e.g., doing part of the pilgrimage on foot, giving up snacks, etc.) and the apostolic spirit (e.g., doing it with a friend or relative whom one could bring closer to God, doing it alone but expressly praying for someone, etc.).

    Echoing Catholic tradition, St. Josemaría encouraged people to do Marian pilgrimages in May, the month dedicated to Our Lady. This year, I have done quite a few myself, one of which was to the International Shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo, the most visited Marian shrine in the country. In the context of this essay on “travelers and pilgrims.” I must affirm that the pilgrimage was providentially instructive not only because Our Lady’s title refers to a “Good Voyage.” It was more so because I learned then that since 1947, the Shrine has a tradition called “Season of Pilgrimages,” which runs from the beginning of May to July, and it was just relaunched after two years of being suspended (Ramirez, 2023). It was a discovery that pleasantly astounded me. Here, I thought, they understand that a month is not enough to accommodate the thirst in the Filipino soul – indeed, in every human soul – for an encounter with God and his mother and the “completeness” and “closure” that such an encounter brings. Of course, they are correct.

    Anytime (spiritual) fitness

    But in the same way that one doesn’t need to go far to do a pilgrimage, it doesn’t have to be May or even a “season of pilgrimages” for one to do a pilgrimage. After all, any time is a good time to be reminded that we are not living in our permanent home, and we are only wayfarers passing through. Any moment is a salutary moment to consider that maybe we love to travel the world only because we are mere travelers through this world.

    So, being the time for vacation planning, these days are probably as good a time as any to plan a pilgrimage and maybe do one. Who knows? It could very well help us appreciate our future travels in more profound ways, make them more meaningful, and consequently help us make the best of the unique life journey each of us is making.

    Robert Z. Cortes is an assistant professor in the School of Communication of the University of Asia and the Pacific. He finished his MA in Education Leadership in Columbia University (New York, U.S.A.) and his PhD in Social Communication at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce (Rome, Italy) in 2019. He obtained a post-graduate degree in Ancient Philology from Polis The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and the Humanities (Israel) in 2021. His main areas of study and teaching include: communication and media ethics; the connections among media, culture, and society; and the teaching and applications of languages.


    Becker, E. (2016). Overbooked: The exploding business of travel and tourism. Simon & Schuster.

    Box Office Mojo. (2023, June 2). Top lifetime grosses. Box Office Mojo.

    Cortes, R. (2020, May 22). Not your usual May pilgrimage: Prayer, history, and culture. Opus Dei.

    Cousineau, P. (2012). Art of pilgrimage: The seeker’s guide to making travel sacred. Reed Wheel/Weiser, LLC.

    Dann, G. M. S. (2018). Why, oh why, oh why, do people travel abroad. In Nina K. Prebensen, Joseph S. Chen, & Muzaffer S. Uysal (Eds.), Creating Experience Value in Tourism (2nd ed., pp. 44–56). CABI.

    Douglas Harper. (2021). Pilgrim. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper.

    Durán-Sánchez, A., Álvarez-García, J., Del Río-Rama, M. D. la C., & Oliveira, C. (2018). Religious tourism and pilgrimage: Bibliometric overview. Religions, 9(9).

    Epperson, A. (1983). Why people travel. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 54(4), 53–55.

    Escrivá, J. (1981). Friends of God. Scepter Publishers, Incorporated.

    Lanckbeen, C. (2023, April 21). Post-COVID “revenge travel” has gone big. And the revenge is sweet. Euronews. Post-COVID ‘revenge travel’ has gone big. And the revenge is sweet

    Lee, S.-C. (2020). An Aristotelian interpretation of Bojo Jinul and an enhanced moral grounding. Religions, 11(4).

    Lew, A. A. (2018). Why travel? – Travel, tourism, and global consciousness. Tourism Geographies, 20(4), 742–749.

    Mark, J. L. (2020). Heraclitus: Life is flux. In World History Encyclopedia.

    Merriam-Webster. (2023). Pilgrim. In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. (2017, May 12). Saint Josemaria and Our Lady of Fatima. Opus Dei. (2020, March 25). In the footsteps of Blessed Alvaro. Opus Dei.

    Petersen, J. (2016, February 1). When was each book of the Bible written? Bible Gateway Blog.

    PublicusAsia. (2023). Filipinos to travel more. PUBLiCUS Asia.

    Ramirez, R. (2023, April 24). Antipolo Church resumes ‘Pilgrimage Season.’ Philstar Global.,May%202%20until%20July%204%20.

    St. John Paul II. (2002, October 7). Address of John Paul Ii in praise of St Josemaría Escrivá Founder (of) Opus Dei. The Holy See.,the%20saint%20of%20ordinary%20life.

    Westcott, G. H. (1907). Kabir and the Kabir Panth. Christ Church Mission Press.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *