Why You Should Embark On A Pilgrimage

Travel writings, like travelers themselves, come in different forms.  Some travel books offer a dull, tour-guide type of narrative, lacking serious reflection or insight. Other writings provide something deeper:  an attempt to relate the experiences or impressions of the traveler in a way that transcends the simple activity of travel.  It is the latter type of writing that I value most.  For it elevates travel from a laborious task to a quest for knowledge and discovery.

So the itinerant scholar Ciriaco de Pizzecolli (Cyriac of Ancona) meandered around the eastern Mediterranean in the 1440s, searching for and recording ancient inscriptions, manuscripts, and other antiquities, which he carefully transcribed in his thick notebooks.  His mission was to document the details of the crumbling monuments of classical antiquity, and in this he succeeded brilliantly.

And so also did humanist Biondo Flavio, traveling through Italy, seek to record the local folklore, geography, and historical oddities of the cities and regions he visited.  His masterpiece Italia Illuminata, appearing in 1451, is a goldmine of strange information about the nooks and crannies of Italy.  Describing the Piceno region, for example, he relates this story:

Quite apart from fornication and adultery (which every one of them [the adherents of a secret society near Piceno] practices indiscriminately in secluded spots furtively equipped for the purpose), another such abomination is perpetrated in their public ceremonies.  All the more attractive women—widows, virgins, or wives—are summoned and purposely led aside as they assemble at night in grottoes.  Shut up in the same cave…the priest tells them in a loud voice that couples must…mingle in carnal embrace and copulation.  The lights are put out and every man lays down the woman closest to him, either groping for her or having previously kept an eye on her for the purpose.

Flavio reports some gruesome ritual murder practices of the cult, and ends by reassuring his readers that the members were eventually arrested and burned at the stake, “as indeed they deserved.”  Alas, not all travels are this exciting.

Cyriac and Flavio were both pilgrims of the mind, in a sense.  That much they shared.  They were on a quest for knowledge, and traveled with the specific purpose of learning something about their external world, something that would serve as a springboard for self-knowledge.

We map the world’s macrocosm, so that we can map our own microcosm.    The outer world is the gateway to our own inner world.

Many people travel for work, and many for recreation.  But how many travel specifically for the purpose of self-improvement or discovery?  And how many are able to leave their prejudices at home?  At one time, people did undertake travel for just such a purpose:  it was called a pilgrimage.  What happened to the idea of the pilgrimage in the West?  It has fallen out of fashion.  And it is sorely due for a resurrection.  It can be an important vehicle to assist the modern man on his path to self-realization and improvement.


Note that I do not necessarily mean a pilgrimage for religious purposes.  By pilgrimage, I mean the act of travel to some “shrine” (house, building, tomb, etc.) of a great man, as a means of contemplating his life and what lessons it may hold.  It is a sign of devotion, a method of meditation, a quest for guidance.  Some background is in order here.

Pilgrimages were a key part of medieval European religious devotion.  The general setting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, was the pilgrimage of an assortment of characters.  By the end of the thirteenth century, one historian tells us, there were about 10,000 sanctioned sites of pilgrimage all over Europe.  People undertook such journeys to fulfill some vow, seek a cure for some malady by contemplating the relics of some saint or holy man, edify themselves, or for other personal reasons.

An Englishman, might, for example, visit the tombs of St. Cuthbert at Durham, or Edward the Confessor at Westminster, or that of St. Edmund at Bury, or Thomas a Becket at Canterbury.  A Frenchman might seek out Notre Dame at Chatres, or St. Martin’s at Tours.  Italy, of course, had hundreds of such sites, among them the relics of St. Francis at Assisi or the Santa Casa at Loreto, as well as Rome itself, the Eternal City.

Sooner or later, all roads led to Rome, of course.  Pope Boniface VIII declared a jubilee for the year 1300, and requested all who could to make the journey to Rome and visit the historical sites there.  In that year over 2 million visitors reached Rome, a huge figure for those days.  So many coins were deposited before the tomb of St. Peter that two priests working around the clock were needed to rake them in manageable piles for collection.


How did the idea of a formal pilgrimage as a method of self-improvement vanish?  Few people today undertake such religious obligations, at least in the West.  But could the idea of a pilgrimage still offer us something of value today?  I believe it can.  Instead of our focus being a religious site, we can instead seek out some site central to the life of a great man.  By visiting the house, tomb, or architectural work of some great man, we will feel sympathy with, and kinship for, his struggles.  Such a visit will be a useful way of contemplating our own hardships, and how our historical “mentor” may have handled himself in similar circumstances.

This year, consider making a “pilgrimage” to some site intimately associated with a great man whom you admire.  The journey will do you good.  It does not matter who it is.  It does not matter where it is.  The only requirements are:

1.  It must be to a site intimately associated with the great man in question (house, place of work, tomb).

2.  The journey should not be too easy.  You will value it more if you supply yourself with a bit of hardship.

3.  You should visit the site, and contemplate the life of the great man in question while you are there.  Then contemplate your own life.  You should then record your impressions in writing.  It will mean something to you someday.

There are thousands of such sites to choose from.  It does not matter if your great man was a public figure, musician, leader, saint, artist, scholar, scientist, doctor, or poet.  What matters is that you sincerely believe in his greatness, and that his life’s lessons may be a candle to illuminate our own pathway.

And finally, the ecstasy of reaching a long sought-after destination, after many trials and troubles, is one that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  Masculine energy is about overcoming obstacles, breaking through barriers, and seeking out the sacred chalices of our own desire.  The journey, with all its hardships, is the major part of the reward of pilgrimage.

Only by knowing this, can we begin to understand the joyous release of the medieval pilgrim, reaching the gates of Rome, breaking into the stirring strains of the Pilgrims’ Chorus: “O noble Rome, queen of the world…we bless you through all the years.  Through all the centuries, hail.”

Read More: What Hitchhiking Taught Me About Picking Up Girls

53 thoughts on “Why You Should Embark On A Pilgrimage”

  1. “We map the world’s macrocosm, so that we can map our own microcosm. The outer world is the gateway to our own inner world.”
    Well said!

  2. An astonishing thing about pilgrimages is that they allow access to the divine. We deify great men and aspire to become that which we know we cannot. When we observe how they lived, where they achieved, and the hallowed ground in which they lie, we experience something of their humanity. Flipping through the annotated volumes of a great thinker’s library, seeing the polished steel of a great warrior’s arms, witnessing the hardwood chair that kept a man’s back straight and hemorrhoids throbbing through hours of study and writing, or the crummy cot and dutch oven that fed his basic needs of sleep and food- all these things make the man real again. Coming into contact with the tools for greatness, and ultimately the final setting for great thoughts and deeds, have an edifying effect as the author suggests.
    Humans become heroes, and the point is never lost while observing how our heroes lived.

    1. Well said, Admetus. I agree completely.
      As I said, masculine energy is all about seeking out goals, overcoming obstacles, and breaking through barriers.
      It’s fundamentally different from feminine energy.
      We should try to seek out and do things that help us to develop as men.

    2. I travelled across the world to see Gustav Mahler’s composing hut in Austria. His music has always meant a lot to me since I was a teenager.
      His wife cheated on him while he was dying, and during that time he wrote his 9th, which is full of pain and anger. The work itself is one of the most incredible things mankind has ever created.

      1. hi michael. are you referring to the lakeside hut near salzburg?? i’d love to visit this hut but have never heard of it.

  3. One such site I visited was the tomb of Phillipos the II in Greece. He was the father to Alexander the Great.
    Others were areas where the Apostle Paul would have walked. People walked right by these places. Only going to the more tourist locales. History is not in the making of the temporary, but the making the ordinanry, the temporary, the extraordinary.
    The story that comes to mind is the Christian parable of three trees. The trees talk to each other and one says I want to be made into the throne of a great king! The second says yes, and I want to be made into the boat of a great ruler myself; and the last says I want to be made into something that carries a great man on his journey.
    The first is ironically made into a pig trough. The second, into a lame fishing boat. The third, many years after the others are cut, is cut into large boards.
    The first is the trough in the manger, the second the boat taken across Galilee, and the third where he was nailed to death on the cross.
    You have to know what to look for, and not be drawn to the usual all the rest are. People are lazy, even in the presence of greatness. A been there, done that mentality. This article is spot on.

  4. trolling and even more trolling every day on this site…
    Oh wait, it’s a Quintus Curtius post..

  5. By foot or by car or does it not matter? Personally, I have thought of travelling around America and documenting the quirks of the various cultural groups, not unlike Biondo Flavio there.

    1. You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood
      begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe. ~Edward Abbey

  6. Does any editorial review take place before publication? I mean, you misspelt it as “pilMgrimage” in the title of all places…

  7. This is an interesting perspective.
    I’ve begun contemplating a list of 20 or so men (some very famous, some maybe not so much) whose examples we would do well to emulate in at least some ways. Adding important places in which they lived and died might make it more profound.

      1. I’ve tried to gather a list of guys from all time periods and places, and in multiple occupations- kings and warriors, scientists and philosophers, inventors and businessmen. Explorers. Haven’t finished compiling them all or am I entirely sure that these guys would make MY final cut (I understand that no two people in the world will have exactly the same list or possibly even very similar ones) Here’s what I’ve gathered after a couple of days of brainstorming:
        Cyrus the Great (c. 576 – 530 B.C.)
        Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.)
        Julius Caesar (100 – 44 B.C.)
        Charlemagne (c. 742 – 814)
        Francis of Assisi (1181/2 – 1226)
        Zheng He (1371 – 1433)
        Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506)
        Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584 – 1645)
        Louis XIV of France (1638 – 1715)
        John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650 – 1722)
        Giacomo Casanova (1725 – 1798)
        George Washington (1732 – 1799)
        Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)
        John D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937)
        Arnold Scwarzenegger (b. 1947)
        Marcus Luttrell (b. 1975)
        All of these guys faced hardships. All had the masculine drive to succeed over their obstacles. All of these guys built something, and all of these guys left a legacy of some kind. Whether it be Aristotle’s life and treatises, Casanova’s adventures, Caesar or Churchill’s battlefield triumphs, Rockefeller’s ruthless drive to build and succeed in his business, or Luttrell’s bravery and devotion to his comrades in action, there’s something to learn from everyone.

      1. I am a fan. His series of views of Edo is also magnificent.
        The modern man has been told that arts and letters are “for fags”, but we should recall that classical Greek and Roman education was based on the study of arms and letters. They conquered the known ancient world by studying poetry. The modern man cannot forsake knowledge of the arts, just as he cannot forsake knowledge of arms. These two things have created skilled and accomplished leaders for a few years thousand years.

  8. When I get back into the habit of traveling again, I’ll do it with just the jacket on my back (wcich will have many pockets with my bare essentials stuffed in them). No luggage for me. Whatever I need I can buy at my destination. Geez, most of my traveling has been torture, having to carry suitcases filled with mostly the bitch’s shit.
    How many times did I tell women, “We just don’t need all this shit!?”
    Fuck it, no more waiting at luggage carousels for me!

  9. excellent post as always QC. would you recommend the writings of de Pizzecolli and flavio? or would you recommend beginning with chaucer?
    i wish my friends and family in the states would follow this advice.

    1. Biondo Flavio and Cyriac of Ancona I’d recommend only to those really interested in Italy or Renaissance Italian humanism.
      Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is a classic of English literature and I would recommend to all. You would very surprised to see how bawdy and risque some of these stories are.
      Make sure you get a version in the ORIGINAL Middle English. It will seem strange at first, but good editions will have detailed notes to explain archaic words and phrases.
      It’s also cool to hear how this Middle English sounded. You can Google “Canterbury Tales” and “reading” and find recordings of actors and scholars who have read it aloud. Very interesting to see how English sounded in the 1450s.

  10. Great truthful article. I visited the cultural site of a political figure who had died about 100 years ago. Since it wasn’t that far off in the past, they were able to preserve his personal space intact. You could see how he organized his desk, his bed, his books ; all the little details his personal life. It was a window in the life of a successful man that brought insight and inspiration.

  11. Is one pilgrimage partner all we need? Or is there room for a more expansive type of love as we humans evolve in consciousness?

  12. To me there is nothing worse than trolling about the world as some rubber necking tourist trying to entertain myself with trivia and artifacts…
    But as you say, traveling with a goal and a purpose and having a geographical end point that requires some difficulty to reach… that is worthy….. you don’t have to be affliated to any religion… mountain climbers and arctic explorers – even astronauts and test pilots… are just as much pilgrims….

  13. As a Roman Catholic, and not a Catholic of the faggy socialist variety, I much approve of the idea of a pilgrimage. My next one involves a certain Italian saint, but I will travel only by bus and not by flight. This will buy me three days of travel time for reflection, prayer and meditation. One of the big questions I will ponder is how a religion that once allowed women to achieve their highest dignity as mothers and wives, seems to have lately being doing nothing but producing a bunch of single-mother- apologists, faggots, manginas, and weaklings. I will ask myself why it has failed to stand up to the Muslim invasion of Europe and why it shrinks from defending the superior cultures from the barbarian hordes. Then I will ask what this means for me, what I can do about it, and how the fuck I got the balls to go running down then Church when I too have done fuck all about these problems. I will pray for guidance.

    1. ” . . .why. . .”
      Because from the first century it has been far more interested in gathering adherents than it has been in maintaining an orthodoxy.
      It has always followed social trends that it could not change, adopted them into itself and then claimed them as its own ex post facto.
      The Catholic Church, as you understand it, is almost entirely a figment of your imagination.

      1. It is indeed the great assimilator, no arguments there. But with respect, my understanding of that particular institution is somewhat more nuanced than my vulgarity would suggest:)

        1. I certainly have answered some of it but, the point of the pilgrimage is for me to find how it relates to my life. It is not the first time we in the West have had barbarians at our gates or that our standards have fallen, but it is the first time that I have been self aware enough to take personal responsibility for these things rather than hoping that others will take care of them. Hence the pilgrimage.

        2. “It is not the first time we in the West have had barbarians at our gates or that our standards have fallen . . .”
          Indeed. The Christian invasion comes to mind.
          “. . .it is the first time that I have been self aware enough to take personal responsibility for these things . . .”
          You can only take personal responsibility for yourself, but yes, a pilgrimage is one way of exploring the meaning of that.

        3. I would not suggest that we can take personal responsibility for vast social and historical trends, but we can certainly take personal responsibility for our own reaction to them.
          As for the Christian invasion, massive credit must surely be given to the Greeks too, since their input had a massive influence on the world view of Christians at the time.

        4. Alexandria, being both the centre of Greek scholarship and home to half a million Jews was the natural invasion point and vector.
          I would find it surprising if the Greeks didn’t have a massive influence.

        5. indeed. a pilgrimage to greece is also in order, but i’ll save that one for the summer. i will need at least that long to figure out where to go.

        6. Very true, and little known. Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish scholar, is an excellent example. He is owed much credit for the development of the “Logos” concept that played such a big role in Neoplatonist thought.

  14. Nice article!
    I´ve always observed that travelling is a way to bring us closer to our inner nature.
    It brought to mind the journey of Tobias and the archangel Raphael.

  15. Seven years ago I made a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae. It is located about an hour’s cab drive from the city of Shiraz. While sitting in the front seat talking to the cab driver, we passed the dry mountains and waved at the local tribes. It was a scorching hot day, the Aryan sun was lighting this ancient pathway (the same pathway that Alexander had journeyed on to pay his respects), and I only could think about how the ancients carried the body of this majestic king to his resting place. When I got there, I was humbled by the greatness of the tomb and the surrounding mountains. But I realized that in the tomb lay the body of one of the mightiest kings and conquerors history has ever seen – The first empire builder in human history. After all the blood, pain, sacrifice, queens, children, war, peace, conversations, laughter, prayer, etc. he is a mere skeleton in a stone tomb. One day, I realized, that that would be me. I had to choose my destiny: Do you want to achieve what this man achieved in such a noble fashion or die without a mark of greatness in this world before returning to the next dimension of Divine peace? It was a journey I will never forget. I have forgotten the details to many of the places I have traveled, but not this. I remember many of the details because it was…it was…a pilgrimage.
    Great article Quintus Curtius my dear

    1. This is a great comment. I’m glad it meant something to you. I’m going to post your comment to my Twitter feed.
      Yes, the act of devotion of seeking out a specific person’s legacy makes the journey an entirely different experience than that of a routine tourist.
      Judging from your comment, you might also like Shelly’s famous poem, “Ozymandias”…if you don’t know it already.

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