The word, “pilgrimage” may be traced etymologically to the 13th century, Old French, pelrimage, meaning to take an often long and arduous journey through strange and foreign lands, to arrive at a destination of a holy place. The Old French word, was also used to signify a crusade or a distant journey. It would only be around the 14th century that the word, “pilgrimage” in its modern spelling form would be used and also at the same time to denote a metaphoric “journey of life”. (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.).
During the Middle Ages, a chronology spanning several centuries from A.D. 500 to A. D. 1500, Christians embarked on prolonged and perilous journeys to the Biblical Lands, in particular, Jerusalem, the Holy City, and to the places that Jesus or the Apostles lived, walked and preached. By engaging in the rigours of such strenuous travels, given the conditions of the time, and the lack of travel amenities, the presence of bandits, Bedouins, pirates, and thieves, pilgrims often found themselves thrust into months, sometimes years of uncertainty and danger. This was evident when they had to cross treacherous terrain, or when they were caught in the middle of empire wars, such as the Crusades between the Christian and Ottoman Kingdoms. Nonetheless, it was believed that there was sanctification in simply beginning the journey and that these physical voyages allowed Christians to draw closer to God by the corollary, or outcome that the walking of the physical territory was an act of faith that brought them to the attainment of a spiritual goal and destination. These pilgrimages allowed Christians to express their piety, and also marked the Christian sojourner as set apart and different from the members of other religions. These pilgrimages were embarked upon with varying motives – such as to visit for oneself the catacombs or the relics where the Saints would be, to act as an expressed prayer of thanksgiving or petition, to bring to fruition a vow that had been uttered, as a form of reparation and penance for a sin or crime that had been committed, and as a means of seeking out a miracle or the fingerprints of God (Chareyron & Wilson, 2005; Foss, 2002; Sorabella, 2011).
The desire was to arrive at Jerusalem, where the reality of Jesus’ Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection would unfold. The journey itself would take on significance as to ascend to Jerusalem located 3,000 feet above sea level, would require the act of climbing uphill and in that way arriving at the Holiest of places where the land would meet the sky – a foretaste of man’s own journey into the Heavenly City and the Heavenly Banquet. The irony of the desire was that the exorbitant costs of the journey, the lack of logistical support, the intense hardship and travails on embarking on such a journey, in addition to tenure to a particular piece of land often bestowed by a noble landlord, often made the reality of such a holy journey, a non-journey. These barriers to entry prevented physically, and mentally any possibility of attaining to the grace of ever beginning on such a peregrination, odyssey, or expedition. According to research collated by Daniel Connolly (1999), this incapacity to enter into the pilgrimage, gave rise to prayerful reflections about the Holy City and the creative minds of those in monasteries, abbeys, and convents, began to see the evolution of virtual and imagined pilgrimages, as legitimate substitutes for the actual spiritual journeys. At the heart of it, was the exhortation of the monastic to take up a journey to the heart, where Jerusalem would be engraved upon in the spirit’s imaginary. To this end, elaborate maps of the physical spaces of Jerusalem were drawn out in manuscripts and on parchment, which the monastics then used to trace on the page, a spiritual and contemplative journey towards a Heavenly Jerusalem. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux postulates, “For the object of monks is to seek out not the earthly but the Heavenly Jerusalem, and this is not proceeding with feet, but by progressing with feelings.”
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps a parallel may be drawn to the situation as encountered by the people of the medieval age, with the exception that while a journey for us today takes but a few hours, via the medium of flight, we are grounded as borders remain closed to visitors as a bit to stop the spread of COVID-19. With these restrictions to which we have no choice in our circumstances but to abide to, the invitation thus is for us to explore our own backyards and cities as cultural palimpsests where the stories of our Faith have been written unto the fabric or parchment of our land, and the invitation is to explore these spaces intentionally and with the eyes of Faith.
A feature of a pilgrimage often takes the form of site visits to prominent features of sacred architecture. Emperor Constantine, for example, sanctioned and commissioned the building of lavish basilicas and shrines in locations that had already become popular Christian sites of pilgrimage during his reign. Over the tombs of saints, and over special grounds pertaining to our faith, such as the Crucifixion grounds of Jesus, Emperor Constantine built up a Christian legacy of important buildings, churches, and shrines of visitation (Sorabella, 2011; Bitton-Ashkelony, 2005). Borrowing this idea, we can extend the notion of curating a local pilgrimage in Singapore, by mapping out the local church landscape and by paying special attention to how each church contains at least one, if not several saintly relics. Using the early monastics’ idea of mapping a metaphorical Jerusalem unto a written manuscript page, we too can map the sites from which these saints originate from and incorporate these churches into a Spiritual Prayer Walk around Singapore. While we may not enter as yet, into the compounds of these churches, we can stand at the gates and pray, invoking the names of the saints or the attributes of God or our Blessed Mother, to which these churches have been placed under their patronage and named.
In addition, the unique architecture of each church is an invitation to pray an intercession for a subject matter close to what these images and architecture of Faith represent. For example, the sloping roofs of the Church of St. Joseph, Bukit Timah recall how the church was founded to cater to the Chinese immigrants and plantation workers who worked the grounds of Tek Ko Swa (Teochew for Hill of Bamboos). While the new building bears little resemblance to the original church built of wood, and subsequently the second rendition designed like a paladin, its architecture recalls the difficult times faced by the founding priests, Fr. Anatole Mauduit who was tasked to build St. Joseph Church at Kranji in 1846, and subsequently by Fr. Jean-Marie Belliot in 1905, who had to fend off the tigers which infested the woods, and the secret societies that controlled the Bukit Timah area. It could be a grace-filled moment to pray for migrant and immigrant workers, and also Youth-and-Children at risk as one contemplates the life-sized Stations of the Cross as one sits outside the bus-stop at the gates, or as one is standing at the overhead bridge traversing the highway and facing the church. There are other hidden gems embedded into the sacred architecture of the churches found in Singapore. Among these, the lotuses in the main stained glass window of the Church of the Transfiguration recall, allude to, and catechise the concept of the resurrection – the lotus journeys through the mud to reach the surface to bloom in glorious splendour, recalling the time and the darkness spent in the tomb, to a glorious Resurrection 3 days after, to a Singaporean population who may be familiar with Buddhist teachings and the association of the Lotus, as national flower for some migrants, or seat of power for others.
Another way of curating a local pilgrimage in Singapore, is to trace the places that actual saints when they were alive, stopped by and visited in Singapore. For example, in 1986, Pope, now Saint John Paul II visited Singapore amidst a heavy and awesome downpour of rain. He had kissed the tarmac when his plane landed, and his motorcade took him past Opera Estate Convent and St. Stephen’s School, before he arrived at the National Stadium (The Straits Times, 1986). These sites thus could be incorporated into our Prayer Walks, where there is open access to reflect upon the lives and times of the saints, and their special charisms. St. John Paul II is one example among many other saints such as St. Laurent Imbert, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, who made stopovers in Singapore.
Our human hearts are made with an innate longing for God our Father, and pilgrimages allow us to enter the sites of the Divine here on earth. Perhaps in this time and season, for the purposes of celebrating the Catholic Church’s 200th year in Singapore, you could consider curating a pilgrimage in Singapore’s own back yard for your faith communities, in small groups of five (accurate as of writing this article), or in accordance to the national stipulations for social gatherings.
“I have reached Singapore on 11th instant, and have visited, according to your Lordship’s request, the Catholics of this new settlement. There are only 12 or 13 in number and seem to lead a wretched life.” – St. Laurent Imbert. What a grace of the Lord that we have grown from 12 or 13, to 300,000 today! May our visitation of the sites these saints have walked on bring healing and joy in the name of Jesus.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Batholomew Tan
Bitton-Ashkelony, B. (2005). Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity. University of California Press. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnfbc
Chareyron, N., & Wilson, W. (2005). Pilgrims to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/char13230
Connolly, D. (1999). Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris. The Art Bulletin, 81(4), 598-622. doi:10.2307/3051336
Foss, C. (2002). Pilgrimage in Medieval Asia Minor. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 56, 129-151. doi:10.2307/1291859
Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.) Pilgrimage. In Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pilgrimage
Sorabella, J. (2011). Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm
The Straits Times. (1986, November 9). When the Pontiff sets foot on S’pore Soil. The Straits Times. p.3.