Pilgrimages have been part of the human experience for thousands of years. In ancient times, people traveled to important religious or pagan sites to give their thanks, or to ask for healing. There are cultural festivals, solo quests, and mass gatherings where we look for kinship, answers, forgiveness, hope and enlightenment.
In the modern age, pilgrimages have made a resurgence and many people are looking at doing one as a pathway to faith or self. If you are one of them, these books about pilgrimages will give you a lot of information, inspiration and ideas for how to craft your own quest.
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According to author Victoria Preston (more on her below), over 200 million people a year perform some sort of pilgrimage. She says that “these journeys of meaning and purpose are always a powerful reminder that we are each part of something much greater than ourselves.” I agree and have found my own meaning and purpose on several different routes of the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain.
The authors and fictional characters from these pilgrimage books have each crafted their own unique journeys. In curating this list, we have tried to represent a range of different pilgrimage types; from more formal routes like the Camino in Spain or the Japanese Shikoku route, to individual quests through nature. These books on pilgrimage include very personal memoirs, non-fiction books on the nature of pilgrimage, and a smattering of fiction books featuring characters on a quest.
A note about the Camino. This ancient pilgrimage in Spain has become very very popular and there are many books about it. I’ve noted a few of my favorites here, but if you want a deep dive, check out this list of books that are specific to the Camino.
“…for to go on pilgrimage is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul.”Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Memoir Books About Pilgrimages
I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair
By Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck
The Camino Frances starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France and goes 800 kilometers (500 miles) across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The route has mountain ranges, rocky hills, dirt forest paths and hot, flat countryside. It was hard enough for someone like me, who doesn’t have a disability.
But when Justin Skeesuck, a wheelchair user with a degenerative neuromuscular disease told his best friend Patrick that he wanted to go on the Camino, Patrick said “I’ll push you”. And so began their difficult and inspiring journey. What makes this memoir so inspiring is how the combination of Patrick’s grit, Justin’s grace and the kindness of strangers, all of conspire to help them with their quest.
The Way of the Wild Goose: Three Pilgrimages Following Geese, Stars, and Hunches on the Camino de Santiago
By Bebe Bahrami
Bahrami is also the author of the Moon Guide for the Camino Frances. In this hybrid of a guide/memoir, Bahrami explores the proliferation of pagan symbols on the Le Puy (French) and Frances (primarily Spanish) routes of the Camino de Santiago. She finds examples of an ancient goose game and feminine fertility symbols in the churches, historic sites and town plazas along The Way, thus demonstrating how pre-Christian folklore influenced the development of these ancient pathways.
The memoir follows her journey on three different Caminos (including the full Frances), as she seeks out these symbols, explores modern day festivals and befriends quirky locals along the way.
Returning from Camino, Alexander John Shaia
Plenty of memoirs and guidebooks tell you what to experience while on pilgrimage, but few get at what it’s like to come home a changed person. Shaia, who leads retreats on prayer and spiritual journeys wanted to address the question of “re-entry”. Upon his arrival home from the Camino, he experienced a “tumultuous period of joy, peace and bewildering confusion that lasted a year”.
This book aims to help returning pilgrims be prepared for that with thoughts on how to approach traveling toward home, reintegration and owning your story.
A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, Timothy Eagan
Moved by his mother’s death and a desire to reconcile his family’s complicated relationship with the Catholic church, Timothy Egan set out on a thousand mile journey from Canterbury to Rome on the Via Francigena. His intention was to connect with the land, making it about the journey and not just his destination in Rome.
Along the way he’s joined by various family members. He also ponders Becket, Augustine, two Francises, and the ancient (and often brutal) history of his chosen path. And all of it is a grand journey through history.
“Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought. We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life.”
The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, Michael Wolf
Most of these books about pilgrimage describe routes that anyone can take, regardless of their faith. The Hadj is a pilgrimage that all Muslims are asked to make, but one that non-Muslims are forbidden from taking. So if you are not a practicing Muslim but want to learn more about the road to Mecca, this memoir is a great read.
As a recent convert to Islam, Wolf spends the first part of his journey in Morroco, staying with friends and getting acclimated to the culture of the Middle East. As he begins his pilgrimage to Mecca, the book takes on a travelogue style approach to describing his experiences, the people he meets and day-to-day life while on Hadj.
Walking in Circles: Finding Happiness in Lost Japan, Todd Wasse
10 years after graduation, Wasse was still trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. So, like all good pilgrims, he went walking. His adventure returns him to the 750 mile Shikoku Henro pilgrimage in Japan, which he had walked 10 years earlier.
As he “walks in circles” around Shikoku island, he comes across a unique cast of characters, and discovers his enlightenment. You get a perspective on what it’s like to be a foreigner in Japan and get glimpses of lovely Japanese countryside.
“I realized that my search for what I wanted to do for the rest of my life had missed the point completely. The answer had been staring me in the face the whole time. It was simple, and yet I hadn’t been able to see it. I was already the person I wanted to be.”
Neon Pilgrim, Lisa Dempster
Dempster also undertook the Henro Michi trail in Shikoku. She set off without any training. She was out of shape, battling a creeping depression and feeling stuck in a life of her own making. She does the trail the hard way, sleeping rough and relying on the kindness of strangers to help her out. Gift giving is an important part of the pilgrimage and Dempster struggles to reconcile herself with the concept of it.
She offers up her tale with a big dose of uninhibited honesty, and she comes across humble and human.
“Travel is an internal journey as much as an external one… Could I learn and grow without travel? I was seeking something tangible on the henro michi: wellness. Was that something I could have achieved at home? Do I need to be here?”
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, William Dalrymple
Most of these pilgrimage memoirs are very personal accounts of the trials and revelations of that particular pilgrim’s experience. Dalrymple takes a different approach. He researches the pilgrimage of John Moschos and his acolyte Sophronius, who traversed the Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to Egypt in 587 AD.
Dalrymple uses Moschos’s writings as inspiration to undertake his own journey following the same path, seeking out ancient Christian history along the way. He visits monasteries and hermitages and he interviews priests, hermits, scholars, survivors of massacres and journalists to give a vivid picture of the region.
There’s a lot in the book about the region’s ancient history and culture, and the author doesn’t shy away from politics and the darker side of the region’s history.
Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, Peace Pilgrim
In 1953, the woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim marched out in front of the Tournament of Roses parade, handing out messages of peace. And then she just kept on walking for the next 28 years. She covered all of the US states, Mexico and Canada, logging over 25,000 miles before she stopped counting.
This book is a gathering of her writings that was put together after her death in 1981. She spent 28 years as a penniless pilgrim and an advocate for overcoming evil with good, spreading a simple and universal message for achieving inner and worldwide peace
The book has information on her backstory. But it also includes her advice on living a spiritual life and steps toward inner peace, which include preparations, purifications, relinquishments and the attainment of inner peace.
“I am a pilgrim, a wanderer. I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.”
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, Ben Montgomery
Walking the 2,000 mile Appalachian trail is hard enough today. But imagine doing it in 1955, when there was little infrastructure and none of today’s sweat-wicking, tragically practical hiking gear.
Well, 67 year old Emma Gatewood did just that. After having had 11 kids and then ditching an abusive husband, this tough pioneer woman told her kids she was setting out for a walk. She was the first woman to do the full Appalachian trail, and the first person to do it two and three times. Her amazing story, and her advocacy helped to bring awareness to the trail, ensuring that it was preserved through improved infrastructure.
Montgomery got access to her diaries, papers and interviews with her family to put together a profile of this amazing woman.
“There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.”
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert McFarlane
MacFarlane set out to explore the UK’s ancient paths, but in the process, found himself spinning out to pathways in Palestine, Spain and the Himalayas. He’s lured by these paths, wondering about their origins. He explores the geography, flora, fauna and local personalities as a gateway to the histories that they reveal. Until at last, he finds himself along the way.
“We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places — retreated to most often when we are most remote from them — are among the most important landscapes we possess.”
The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues on His Way, Anonymous
(Translated by Helen Bacovcin)
This is a good book on pilgrimage for readers who are keen to explore an explicitly religious, prayerful pilgrimage. It was written by an anonymous 19th century Russian peasant as he seeks to answer the question “How does one pray constantly?”
He travels over the Russian Steppes in the general direction of Jerusalem, wandering Russia from one place of pilgrimage to another, asking at churches for advice about the Jesus prayer. He gathers the advice and begins practicing his prayer faithfully. He succeeds to some extent and is then able to share the practice with others.
“The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles.”
The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground, Rosemary Mahoney
Like Robert McFarlane, Rosemary Mahoney walks many different roads on her quest to find the root of belief among modern religious pilgrims. She works through a form of Catholic rebellion over six pilgrimages: the shrine to Saint Mary in Walsingham, England, the Camino de Santiago, bathing at Lourdes, camping below the Golan Heights, viewing Varanasi, India’s holiest city, and soldiering barefoot through a multi-day penitential Catholic pilgrimage in Ireland.
“The more we learned about our physical existence, about the hard facts of our world, the more we were able to accomplish, but the less room there seemed to be for us here. We were moving so quickly now that moving slowly had become a struggle. As I watched the pilgrims below in the square, it struck me that we had come here in an effort to slow down.”
Non-Fiction Books on Pilgrimage
These books include some personal stories, but they are more about the nature of pilgrimage, rather than about individual pilgrimages. These pilgrimage books explore why we do it and how we can be more thoughtful or meditative about travel and pilgrimages.
We Are Pilgrims: Journeys in Search of Ourselves, Victoria Preston
Preston covers all of the reasons why humans go on pilgrimage. She explores factors like kinship, survival, faith, wonder, solace and gratitude. The book includes specific examples from many different locations and cultures, such as the Chunyun festival in Singapore, the Hajj, St. Cuthbert’s Way, Waldon’s pond and the beautiful houses of worship which are beacons for the faithful.
The book is particularly interesting if you are trying to examine just exactly why you are interested in going on pilgrimage.
The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, Phil Cousineau
This is a great book for avid travelers who find themselves at a crossroads. It’s for those who want to bring more meaning to their journeys. The ancients referred to this path as the Way of the Pilgrim, an acknowledgement of travel for the sake of devotion, commitment, penance and meaning — a journey of risk and renewal.
Cousineau’s book is a sort of how-to guide for helping you design these journeys for yourself. It includes stories, quotations, narratives, heroic tales and practical exercises that address how, with intent, we may be transformed when we travel.
“On an ordinary journey, one designed for sheer entertainment, diversion, or self-reward for a year of hard work, there would be no obvious need to go out of your way to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger. But a pilgrimage asks us to do exactly that. The path needs more light. To shine the light of your own natural curiosity into the world of another traveler can reveal wonders. To remember the mysteries you forgot at home.”
The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Nhat Hanh
In this slim volume, Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers advice on how to turn your walking into a meditation, making it a pilgrimage of sorts. According to Hanh, doing this can help you connect with the energy of the earth and find peace that exists in the present moment.
“When we practice walking meditation beautifully, we massage the Earth with our feet and plant seeds of joy and happiness with each step. Our Mother will heal us, and we will heal her.”
The Soul Within: Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Christine Valters Paintner
This spiritual book is focused on the inner pilgrim. It explores how contemplation, creative expression and developing a spiritual discipline can help prepare you for pilgrimage.
The 8 chapters include advice and suggested practices on topics like: hearing the call, crossing the threshold, packing lightly, being uncomfortable, embracing the mystery and coming home.
“The spiritual journey calls us out into the wild places where God is not tamed and domesticated. We are asked to release out agendas and discover the holy direction for our lives.”
Fictional Books Featuring Pilgrimages
Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the UK’s most significant and popular pilgrimage sites. In this classic, Chaucer recounts 24 stories of pilgrims traveling to or from Canterbury. They come from different backgrounds, and the stories feature peasants, noblemen, clergy, a knight, a nun, and innkeeper and so on.
The book carries a lot of bawdy humor as he subverts popular culture of the day through moral fables, chivalric romances, and other tales of 14th century England.
“He who repeats a tale after a man,
Is bound to say, as nearly as he can,
Each single word, if he remembers it,
However rudely spoken or unfit,
Or else the tale he tells will be untrue,
The things invented and the phrases new.”
The Canterbury Sisters, Kim Wright
After her mother’s death, Che, decides to follow her mother’s last wishes by taking her ashes on a 60 mile pilgrimage to Canterbury. She soon meets up with a group of American women and they decide to walk together. In the tradition of Chaucer’s tales, as the women walk, they each tell a story (or in some cases, a confession) about love. Along the way, Che takes the opportunity to questioning everything about her life, giving it all a good hard look.
“…that no matter how far or fast we walk, everyone eventually circles back. Comes face-to-face with whatever they were trying to escape”.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
Poor Harold. A deep sadness has compelled him to take a most unlikely 600 mile quest on foot to visit an old flame, who lives in a care home. But his pilgrimage isn’t really about the old flame. It’s about coming to terms with grief and better understanding what he wants and needs. However, this isn’t some heavy tale, because while on pilgrimage Harold becomes an unwilling media sensation and he accrues an motley cast of disciples along the way.
“Beginnings could happen more than once or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them and so the real business of walking was happening only now.”
All that Fills Us, Autumn Lytle
Mel’s anorexia is slowly killing her. She knows that she needs to deal with it, but can’t face rehab. Instead, she feels a calling and subsequently sets out on a pilgrimage from her home in Michigan to Mount Rainier National Park. Along the way she meets a range of people and learns about their struggles, which gives her a different perspective on her own.
Her experience is heart-wrenching and gritty. This book (if you can handle the heavy subject matter) is a good one for people looking for a Christian-themed read.
“Remember, just like in running, the greatest accomplishment isn’t that you finished but that you had the courage to start.”
A Psalm for the Wild Built (Monk & Robot #1), Becky Chambers
Chambers is really great at writing sci-fi that brings warmth and friendship to the coldness of outer space and far flung planets.
In this book, set in Panga, the sentient robots have long since given up on civilization and wandered off into the wilderness. But they have a tradition of “checking in” periodically and they can’t go back until the question of “what do people need” is answered. The robot Splendid Speckled Mosscap has shown up to do just that.
Mosscap meets Dex, a wandering monk whose job is to dispense tea and philosophical wisdom to the humans. But Dex has grown weary and dissatisfied with his way of life. After the two meet, what transpires is a joint wander through the woods and an exploration of purpose, identity, nature, and productivity. Which not-coincidentally, are just a few of the meaningful things that we humans contemplate on our pilgrimages.
“You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.”
Part II of the series is called A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, which carried on with Monk and Robot’s journey.
The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming (Book One, Theory), Sienna Tristen
Ronoah suffers from severe anxiety and his fear of messing up means that he’s constantly pulling up stakes and moving on to someplace new. When he meets Reilin (a mysterious trickster character), they end up going on a journey across the continent to the holy Pilgrim State. Reilin nudges Ronoah along, helping him see what he needs to see, telling him what he needs to hear and helping him journey back to himself. The book covers themes of kindness, daring to face your fears, and the quest for self-acceptance.
The book is thick with stories and has lots of world-building. And if you like it, part two is called Practice.
“You strain yourself trying to understand something before it is ready to reveal itself to you. Truth barely has time to set up her gauntlet before you are sprinting towards her prize. A piece of advice to you, Ronoah: wait it out. Enjoy the run.”
More Related Reads
- If you love a good, long meditative walk, check out our list of books about Walking.
- We also like Chris Guillebeau’s book The Happiness of Pursuit. In it he explores the value of questing and shares profiles of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
- Author Andrew McCarthy has gone on several Caminos and in his memoir The Longest Way Home, he goes on a series of quests (including the Camino) to discover and unblock what’s holding him back.
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