"Pilgrimage is not merely ancillary to the modern spiritual existence," writes Bruce Feiler in The New York Times:
In an age of doubt and shifting beliefs, people are no longer willing to blindly accept the beliefs of their ancestors. They are insisting instead on choosing their own beliefs. A pilgrimage can be a central part of this effort.
He goes on to assert that "religious identity is more fluid these days" and that taking a pilgrimage is one facet of choosing a religious identity rather than simply continuing in your parents' religious tradition. "Half of Americans have changed their religion at least once; one in four is in an interfaith marriage."
Suffering and deprivation seem to be important components of many pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is not a vacation. When you take a vacation, even to a foreign land, you intend to return to your station in life with a sense of renewal. When you go on a pilgrimage you intend to change your station in life. Changing your station in life is not easy and pleasant:
Often the food is bad, the accommodations uncomfortable, the weather unpleasant. Traveling in congested places, with little sleep and upset stomachs, is taxing...To go on a pilgrimage is to enter a heightened place where emotions soar, but sometimes dip.
To change your station in life you have to break things. Once things are broken, you can put them together. And if the things being broken are your ties and attachments, then the YOU that puts them together is a new self, or the core around which one can be built:
It’s that feeling of taking control over one’s life that most affected the pilgrims I met. So much of religion as it’s been practiced for centuries has been largely passive. People receive a faith from their parents; they are herded into institutions they have no role in choosing; they spend much of their spiritual lives sitting inactively in buildings being lectured at from on high.
A pilgrimage reverses all of that. At its core, it’s a gesture of action. In a world in which more and more things are artificial and ephemeral, a sacred journey gives the pilgrim the chance to experience something both physical and real. And it provides seekers with an opportunity they may never have had: to confront their doubts and decide for themselves what they really believe.