Sheltering in Place, Journeying Spiritually: Moving Pilgrimage into the Virtual Realm

The labyrinth symbolizes the path from Earth towards God
The labyrinth symbolizes the path from Earth towards God
Elise Morton

Former Commissioning Editor (Eastern Europe)

Coronavirus has caused holy sites across the globe to close, but virtual pilgrimages are helping would-be pilgrims to connect with sacred locations and embark on spiritual journeys.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral from the Plaza del Obradoiro,

Travel is being disrupted worldwide by Covid-19, and pilgrimages are no exception. The Saudi Arabian authorities imposed curfews in Mecca and Medina, holy cities in the Islamic faith, and suspended umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca that can be made year-round) from early April. The annual five-day Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is set to take place from the end of July, but there are fears that this key event in the Islamic calendar will be cancelled. Spain entered lockdown on 14 March, ruling out the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain for both Christian pilgrims and the many who embark on the journey as a time of self discovery, reflection and adventure.

Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca to the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia

A digital window to sacred locations

As innovative initiatives have sprung up in the wake of coronavirus, facilitating physical, social and emotional wellbeing, faith communities have equally sought creative solutions to meeting spiritual needs in this new (if hopefully temporary) reality: prayers, sermons and certain ceremonies have moved online, in many cases fairly seamlessly. The idea of moving a pilgrimage – which often requires a physical journey – into the virtual realm, however, presents a particular challenge.

Where the final destination is the most crucial element of a pilgrimage, virtual reality offers a digital window to sacred locations. Before coronavirus began to curtail travel, for example, in 2019 Pakistani startup Labbaik VR developed the world’s first virtual reality Hajj and umrah simulator.

“The Labbaik VR simulator offers the most accurate and realistic experience of the great pilgrimage. You will feel as if you are actually walking along the paths of Safa and Marwa (two small hills now located in the Great Mosque of Mecca), feel the environment of Jamarat (three stone pillars that pilgrims pelt with stones as part of Hajj) and experience the tawaf (walking seven times, in a counterclockwise direction) around the Kaaba (the holiest site in Islam, set within the Great Mosque),” project director Adnan Maqbool told Arab News.

While the simulator was initially designed to train future pilgrims before setting out on Hajj, the curtailment of travel may see greater numbers of would-be pilgrims embarking on this virtual journey this summer. Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera also offers its own interactive Hajj 360 experience, launched in 2015, which sees journalist Basma Atassi lead viewers on a tour of the major landmarks visited by Muslims during Hajj.

Muslim pilgrims head to stone one of three pillars in a ritual called Jamarat, symbolising stoning the devil, in the Mina Valley, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia

‘A new form of virtual pilgrimage’

Another virtual project to have taken on new significance in this era of travel restrictions and social distancing is the Tower of David Museum’s The Holy City experience. The Jerusalem-based museum was due to launch the on-site experience on 24 March, running free of charge from the first day of Passover (9 April), through to Easter weekend and continuing on until the first day of Ramadan (24 April), but decided to launch it virtually once the temporary closure of the museum became inevitable. Using volumetric scanning and Stereo 360 VR filming, an inter-faith team of Jewish, Muslim and Christian innovators from Blimey and Occupied VR captured the most holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Beyond simply visiting the locations, participants can also virtually attend sacred ceremonies, such as Ramadan prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the priestly blessing at the Western Wall (Birkat Kohanim), and the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“At this time, I am reminded of the strength of Jerusalem and hope that the film The Holy City will be enjoyed by those from near and far, as it shows the Old City of Jerusalem in all its beauty and makes the holiest sites in Jerusalem accessible to all, especially at a time like this when access is so limited,” says Eilat Lieber, Director and Chief Curator of the Tower of David Museum.

Sharing in Lieber’s enthusiasm, director and producer of The Holy City, Nimrod Shanit believes that Covid-19 has highlighted the capability of VR technology to facilitate virtual pilgrimages. “In these dark times of travel restrictions due to Covid-19, these immersive technologies have an incredible opportunity to shine […]. With the holy sites in Jerusalem inaccessible, VR can become a virtual alternative for reaching these places of worship, and a new form of virtual pilgrimage can be achieved.”

You can now visit the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem digitally, with a virtual reality experience

‘In lockdown, pilgrimage has meant connecting with the land in a new way’

If, however, the essence of a pilgrimage is found not so much in the destination as in the journey (both physical and metaphorical), a different approach may be taken – and, indeed, a potential re-thinking or re-framing of the very concept of pilgrimage.

Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, explains: “The words ‘pilgrim’ and ‘pilgrimage’ come from the Latin peregrinus (from ‘per’ = away from + ‘agri’ = field, land, country, territory)” meaning “a person away from their field, land or country”.

In a period of lockdown, when being “away” in a physical sense is off the cards, the key is rather a change in perception. “There is nothing stopping me becoming a ‘foreigner’ in my own land, even in my own home. It’s all about the frame of mind you decide to be in,” Hayward says, noting that current restrictions to travel have transformed the way he thinks about pilgrimage. “In a pre-lockdown world, pilgrimage meant journeying with an intention on foot to holy places,” he says. “In a lockdown world, pilgrimage has meant connecting with the land around me in a new way, seeking out new ‘holy places’ near me, paying attention to the coming of spring with keener awareness.”

For Victoria Preston, author of We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves (released on 9 April 2020), the loose definition of pilgrimage that she settled on for the purposes of the book – “a ritual journey to a place of shared spiritual meaning” – served as a launchpad for questions around the true essence of pilgrimage. “This simple definition prompted many other questions, including whether such journeys must extend beyond the boundaries of our home town or village, and if not, what then distinguishes them from everyday acts of devotion?” Preston says. “Equally, if a pilgrimage involves travel on foot over a great distance, how is this different from the many long-distance hiking trails which criss-cross Europe and beyond? I concluded that what made pilgrimage distinct from other kinds of journey was ‘intent’,” she reflects.

Lockdown has not stopped Preston from embarking on pilgrimages. “My first virtual pilgrimage came about before the lockdown because my friend Richard, usually a great walker, was too unwell to venture out,” she says. “We decided to give it a try, he at home in Barnet, me at home in Suffolk, using a combination of Skype (allowing us to talk face to face), and Google Maps Satellite View to give us a shared view of the landscape.” Together, the pair “walked” a route of special significance to Richard, around Croyde Bay in Devon. This experience took on fresh importance with the advent of coronavirus. “I found the experience of this mental journey to be almost as exhilarating as the real thing and once lockdown arrived, it seemed like a great way to get out and about while obeying the rules,” says Preston. Since then, she has “walked” in Siirt in southeastern Turkey and along the Ridgeway, England’s oldest path, among others, with fellow virtual pilgrims.

Embarking on an inner pilgrimage

In a similar vein, The British Pilgrimage Trust puts out Instagram Stories of “Virtual Pilgrimages” on Thursday evenings at 7pm, allowing users to follow pilgrimage routes from home. Focusing less on physical location and more on the pilgrim’s mindset, though, Hayward also suggests making a more symbolic journey. “Traditionally when people couldn’t make pilgrimage in medieval times, for whatever reason, they would employ the walking of a labyrinth in a prayerful or mindful state as a pilgrimage substitute,” he says. A feature of many ancient spiritual traditions, the labyrinth has once again become a popular tool of meditative exploration.

Unlike a maze, which is designed to puzzle and confuse with dead-ends and many paths to choose, the labyrinth is a singular path to the centre and back and invites walkers to embark on an inner pilgrimage. Though some labyrinths can be physically walked – such as the famous labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral, France – an equally powerful journey can be travelled from home. “You can draw one of these labyrinths either with a pen or pencil on a small-scale so you can ‘walk’ with your finger, or at a larger scale with rope or string for the garden or living room so you can walk it,” Hayward says. Again, here the pilgrim’s intent is key: “You start ‘walking’ the labyrinth with an intention of a question you want resolving in your life, a bit like a real pilgrimage,” he explains. “Then you stay with that intention as you walk round, before finally coming to a resting point in the centre, the place of all knowing. Then you can make your way back out the way you came.”

Labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral

Day by day, step by step

Both Preston and Hayward believe that pilgrimage, and the pilgrim’s mindset, have a lot to offer in such challenging times as these. “We are each struggling individually with the impacts of this pandemic, and no doubt we will all need to draw on our inner resources to see us through,” Preston says.

Indeed, Hayward highlights the harnessing of one’s inner pilgrim as an invaluable asset during uncertain and unfamiliar times. “In a sense, we are all strangers or ‘foreigners’ on a journey through this new way of living,” he says. “A pilgrim’s mindset is ideally an open one, embracing all the challenges and joys of whatever the journey brings. And in this sense, the pilgrim is a good archetype for the kind of adaptability and flexibility we need right now.”

In addition to looking inward, and entering a mindset of self-reflection, both Hayward and Preston see the practice as a journey beyond oneself, helping pilgrims to engage with the world around them, and understand their place in that world.

“Savour the land you claim to know near your home as deeply as you can; set out to be an improvement on the lives of the people, animals and plants you meet along your daily walk (albeit at a respectable distance),” says Hayward, encouraging would-be pilgrims to “surprise yourself by opening up to the fullness of what’s already around you”.

Preston speaks to this theme on a broader, existential level: “One of the great things about pilgrimage […] is that it gives us a sense that, while being no more than a speck of dust in the great arc of history, we are each an equal part of a greater humanity,” she says. “It is this bigger picture view and this duality of both belonging and insignificance which makes pilgrimage so liberating.”

For more examples of innovative takes on pilgrimage, and to find out how to download your own labyrinth, visit the Center for Arts and Religion.

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