The first pilgrimages of the modern era, that is to say around the 9th or 10th century, were undertaken in an effort to seek some sort of healing - physical or spiritual. Sacred destinations, like Mecca or Jerusalem, and sacred personages, like St. James, Buddha or, in the case of this pilgrimage, St. Nicholas, were thought to possess miraculous powers.
Regardless of the tradition one was immersed in there were "special" places and "special" people that attracted the faithful. In earlier eras, undertaking a pilgrimage was a significant undertaking indeed. Not like today, with the relative ease of transportation that we have.
I remember hearing one of my favorite poets, Wendall Berry, say in an interview, "All the earth is sacred, it is just that we humans have desecrated some of it."
Much of that desecration has been, sadly, done in the name of religion and by people who thought themselves to be doing the utmost "religious" good. No one religion has a franchise on violence. It is just sad that the history of religion and the history of violence are more often than not the same history.
Life is a journey and the deliberately chosen pilgrimage, or any spiritual intention we consciously choose and attempt to follow, is a metaphor for this life journey. On the journey of life there is inevitable difficulty. Somehow we often seem to make our journey more difficult than it need be. In Buddhism the word for "suffering" comes from a word that means "having a bad axle on a cart." In other words, was your journey a rough or a smooth one?
All of these thoughts about sacredness, violence, suffering - and more! - fell into place when I was standing in a huge side altar in the church of St. Pietro. We had come to the fishing village of Otranto. As we walked up from the harbor toward the town, we saw a boat on display. It was one that had been used by Albanian "boat people" in their effort to escape their country. The plaque honoring those who died in trying to cross the sea into Italy referred to this as a modern day "holocaust." It should be noted that those fleeing from Albania at this time - the late 80's and early 90's - were seeking survival from severe economic deprivation.
In earlier times, Muslims invaded this area, one of the reasons that Nicholas' relics now reside in Italy rather than Turkey, and offered the Christians they encountered the same choice the Spanish Inquisition offered to Jews and Muslims - convert, leave or die. In Spain the death toll was, according to Karen Armstrong, into the millions. Here much less. In this town, over 850 in one day.
After time had passed and the natives had defended this place, the church decided to do a unique thing - at least I've never seen this before. They put the skulls and bones of the victims into the walls of a chapel in one of the transepts for all to see. It is a sobering sight.
People intent on following a disciplined path of peace, love and joy don't kill their brothers and sisters. Though there is a destination on the physical journey we are all on - to be reduced to dust and ashes - the spiritual journey is a complex contradiction, a puzzling paradox: we are already where we seek to be. The task is to realize this.
We don't achieve sacredness. We realize it - in ourselves and in others.