In Holy Pilgrimages, Travelers Urged to Unplug

When Matt Schiller rose at 5:30 a.m. for a pilgrimage through New York City last year, he decided what clothes to wear for the long day. He stuffed a bottle of water and some fruit in his backpack. Next, the New Jersey resident took a bus to the Port Authority bus terminal, where he caught an uptown train to reach the starting point.  When Schiller finally arrived at the Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Shrine in Upper Manhattan, he prayed with some people he knew and others he had just met. But before he began the 15-mile, 36,000-step journey through the city, Schiller did something no ordinary New York commuter would do on a trek that long: He turned off his cellphone.

Schiller, an advertising and business manager, is prepared to do it all over again this March.

He is one of more than 100 pilgrims from across the country who have signed up for the Pilgrimage of New York on March 23, an annual ritual sponsored by several organizations including the Cathedral of Saint Patrick’s Young Adults group. This year organizers are encouraging pilgrims to leave their smart devices at home. While handheld technology is part of modern day life, it is seen as taboo for the most devoted of pilgrims. Organizers say such devices distract participants from connecting with other pilgrims on both a human and spiritual level, an important part of the experience.

Schiller agrees. But like many, he suggests that completely disconnecting from technology is not a simple task.

“The only two devices I brought were my digital camera and my cellphone — the camera to photograph the faces and places along the route,” Schiller said. “My cellphone was turned off and in my backpack just in case of an emergency.”

Similarly, pilgrims who journey to the Illinois-based National Shrine of Saint Therese want to keep a record of their experience by taking pictures of the tombs, relics and statues, said Bernhard Bauerle, a Carmelite priest who gives tours of the property. Digital platforms — everything from emails and Tweets to Facebook — have helped sustain pilgrimages in modern times by getting the word out to adherents in advance of these journeys.

For example, pilgrims who travel to a hosting site in Washington, D.C., are encouraged to use social media as a way to share stories about their service and community projects. But once the day arrives, the directive changes.

“We do encourage groups to think about if they will be more fully present if they don’t have their cellphones all the time,” said Karina Saunders, a program manager for The Pilgrimage, a service-learning center in the nation’s capital that hosts student and adult pilgrims throughout the year. “At the same time we acknowledge that technology is really big in all of our lives and we can’t deny that.”

As pilgrimages march through a modern age, some are being more deliberate about pushing back against the encroachment of personal devices. The Pilgrimage of New York’s website says participants can choose to bring a cellphone to use only in case of an emergency. Leave the MP3 player at home, it suggests, “unless you have it loaded with spiritual or classical music that will get you in the proper mood for the pilgrimage.”

Members of the Pilgrim Center of Hope in San Antonio, Texas, help organize pilgrimages all over the world. They tell participants to leave the iPad at home, said Mary Jane Fox, founder and co-director of the center.

“We stress so much the importance of being united in prayer,” Fox said. “When we take our iPad or our digital media world with us, then we’re still in our comfort zone — still connected to home.” Instead, she said, “a pilgrimage is supposed to get you out of your routine.”

“The pilgrimage allows you to step into an identity and think about not just who you are but who you would like to be,” said George Greenia, a professor of Hispanic Studies and founder of the Institute for Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William and Mary.The exclusion of technology from pilgrimages encourages participants to get into the mindset of the pilgrims studied and revered in history books and religious texts.

Avoiding the urge to check emails and text messages, even for one day, encourages the tech-obsessed to commit to what Greenia describes as “communal choreography” or engaging in an experience with like-minded strangers.

Participants in next month’s Pilgrimage of New York will visit various places of worship throughout the city. But the event will begin with opening prayers at the Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini Shrine and end with a special mass at the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in lower Manhattan. Both represent the northern and southern-most “holy places in Manhattan,” said Patrick Howley, a New York Pilgrimage producer and director of special events for the Cathedral of Saint Patrick’s Young Adults group.

However, there is more to being a pilgrim than just visiting holy sites. That’s why it’s important to make the distinction between the term pilgrim and tourist, said Cheryl Claassen, a professor of anthropology at Appalachian State University. Unlike tourists, she said, pilgrims generally make some kind of pledge to God prior to their journey.

“For some, the pilgrimage is a thanksgiving act and for other people it’s a show of good faith,” Claassen said. When the pilgramage is on foot, “there needs to be some kind of hardship. For foot pilgrims in Mexico, for example, the amount you bleed, is indicative of how sinful you were and how much you needed to have done the pilgrimage.”

The absence of technology is representative of a kind of hardship, Claassen says.

Minus the use of any electronic devices Eileen Mahoney has participated in pilgrimages in New York, Lourdes, France, and Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mahoney, a special education teacher in Westchester, N.Y., said it’s not about where you do a pilgrimage. But how you do it.  Leaving electronic distractions at home is part of a bigger journey that ultimately leaves all material possessions behind, she added.

“We’re all traveling here on this Earth,” she said. “We’re not here to stay.” She added: “In that sense we’re all pilgrims.”