The Good Retreat Guide Online

Mountains and lake graphic.


To go on a pilgrimage to a holy place is a long-established religious practice of most major world faiths and can be found in both Native spiritualities and in ancient religions. A pilgrimage is a kind of retreat since the pilgrim hopes for a deepening of personal spirituality. The place you are going to has had millions of pilgrims over the years and it is not a visit to a famous monument but to a place in which people have found the presence of God. Many people find that going in a group to a place of pilgrimage is the best way and there are numerous travel agencies, which specialize in such pilgrimages. Listings can usually be found in the Church Times, The Tablet, or the Catholic Herald in Britain and in La Croix in France or by internet search. Listed below are three of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Europe:

Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Walsingham Shrine is an ancient place of Christian pilgrimage for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Like most pilgrimage places, this is a famous centre is a busy place so you will not find many facilities for silence or for personal spiritual guidance. Before starting out, read about the history of Walsingham so that you may understand what has drawn Christians there over the centuries. This should put meaning into what might otherwise simply be a visit to another monument.

Saint Thérèse de l'Enfant de Jésus at Lisieux

Lisieux is another international Christian place of pilgrimage located in France. Saint Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus (1873-97) or The Little Flower as she is often called, was the daughter of a watchmaker. At the early age of 15, she obtained permission to enter the Carmelite convent at Liseux. She wrote about twenty prayers and an autobiography, L’Histoire d’une ame (The Story of a Soul), which has been translated into fifty languages and is the biggest best spirituality seller after the Bible. She had little education, suffered grave and painful illnesses from which she eventually died in agony, and sometimes faltered in her beliefs. Yet, she is one of the most famous and beloved saints in the world. Her popularity lies in her appeal to ordinary people. She believed, among other things, in a return to the word of God, a priority for all Christians of the virtues of faith, hope and charity in everyday life, the call of each baptized person to sanctity, and the need for brotherly affection for those of different beliefs and for those who do not believe in God. She rose above the religious thinking of her time and she showed with inspired insight a new way to God based on the central message of the Gospels, which is love.

Shrine of Our Lady Lourdes

Lourdes is one of the greatest places of religious pilgrimage in the world. It is visited by millions of people every year so it is always very crowded. The history of this great Christian shrine is a simple one. A fourteen year old poor peasant girl, Marie-Bernarde Soubirous (1844-79) received 18 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Massabielle Rock in Lourdes over a period of months. During this time, a spring appeared in the grotto of the rock, the waters of which are believed to be miraculous. Almost from the beginning people visited the grotto to seek cures for their illnesses and fulfilment of their prayers. The girl later became a nun and is known today as Saint Bernadette. The Catholic church is medically and ethically extremely rigorous in deciding if any claim of a cure is authentic. There have been a small but impressive number of cases declared so over the years and you may read about these in detail. The grotto itself is filled with candles and has remained relatively simple. People here are quite silent and all attention is on spiritual intentions – the atmosphere is unique and conducive to prayer inspite of the number of people gathered together. However, an enormous church has been built on the site with religious chapels and sanctuaries plus a museum and all the various facilities related to handling millions of visitors each year. Many of these are ill, infirm, in wheelchairs or on stretchers. Indeed, those suffering from illnesses and handicaps come by the coach and plane load each year. At all times, there are visitors who may not be Christians or who have doubts about the existence of God but have been attracted to Lourdes by its global fame. Along with many Christians, they may be appalled by the commercial aspects of Lourdes like the streets lined with shops and tables selling religious trinkets like rosaries, statues, and bottles of holy water from the grotto spring, the distress of ill pilgrims, and the harsh realities of how men and women may behave when driven by their religious yearnings. But all great religious shrines and places of pilgrimage through the ages, whether Christian or not, suffer this kind of commerce and Lourdes is no exception. A visitor, who is not a pilgrim or believer, needs to put to one side all this human economic foible and think about the spiritual awareness that draws pilgrims here by the millions. All have taken time to devote a few days to prayer and God. And too, is it such a bad thing that some hope, now matter how faint, may be given to the sick and the incurable when nothing else has given it? So, the Shrine at Lourdes and its huge church are well worth a visit. Forget the streets lined with tourist religious trinkets and concentrate on the prayerful atmosphere of the Shrine with its many candles of inspiring light. Afterwards you might take a picnic lunch to Lourdes Lake nearby and drift in a pedal-boat – it is a kind of day retreat that lifts the heart. There are many hotels and guest houses in all price ranges in Lourdes and, of course, a number of religious houses some of which take guests.The Lourdes tourist information office that will help you find accommodation. The Lourdes website gives details about the place and some good photos.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is in the north west of Spain and here in this lovely city is the cathedral where Saint James, Apostle of Christ, is buried. It is the most famous pilgrims’ goal in Europe and perhaps the whole world. The pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela are numerous, threading their ways across Europe and eventually converging in Spain and finally leading to the cathedral itself. The concept is to make this pilgrimage on foot - all the way over many miles, stopping to rest at monasteries and to camp and bed down as you find yourself. It is tremendously popular these days with thousands of people from all over the world and of all ages from teenagers to the senior seventies walking from the interior of France to Spain and on down to Santiago de Compostela. They follow ancient roads and paths and enjoy themselves, most realising by the end that the spiritual nature of a pilgrimage is not in the arrival but in the journey itself. They usually stay in hostels, refuges or in monasteries along the way which are often located in some of Spain’s most lovely countryside. Many of the historic places and churches contain great works of art. Given the limited number of rooms in such guest places and the number of people doing the pilgrimage, try to book well in advance. If like most pilgrims, you fall behind in your walking schedule and just happen to discover a nearby monastery as night falls, a knock on their door will probably find you both the bed and a meal. After all, the monks on this route have been dealing with pilgrims for hundreds of years. There are many books in a number of languages about the routes of Saint James of Compostelle and these give details of routes, procedures, history, and places of welcome on your pilgrimage.