Throughout our period of getting to know each other, we were on constant pilgrimages together, visiting amazing holy sites. We wanted that to be part of our wedding. —Sarah Syer
Sarah Syer and her husband Nate hiked 62 miles to their wedding. Their car didn't break down. They didn't ascend a remote mountain peak. Instead, they planned the pilgrimage to prepare their hearts for wedded life.
"When you've been walking for 18 miles straight, you learn to rely on each other for encouragement and support. You learn what your limitations are as a couple," she said.
Pilgrimages, or journeys with personal or spiritual significance, had been a part of their relationship from the beginning. They fell in love in Cambridge, England, in the fall of 2013, when they were both Yale graduate students on a study abroad program. They filled their weekends with train trips to famous churches or saintly shrines.
"Throughout our period of getting to know each other, we were on constant pilgrimages together, visiting amazing holy sites. We wanted that to be part of our wedding," Syer said.
Although they settled in Massachusetts after graduate school, they chose a site along the St. Cuthbert's Way pilgrimage in Scotland for their July 2016 nuptials. They arrived in the country a week before their wedding date to set out on their trek to sacred ruins, prepared for mud, rain and very sore legs.
At certain points, "I remember just wanting to be done and call a taxi," Syer said.
Their combination pilgrimage and destination wedding was a one-of-a-kind affair, but it's part of a general trend away from traditional church weddings, caused, at least in part, by the growing likelihood that couples will meet far away from their hometown and childhood church.
"With all the traveling that people do today, it's less and less common that the bride and groom come from the same parish," wrote Father John Wauck, a Catholic priest, in an email.
Interest in faraway celebrations is growing, and around 1 in 5 couples (21 percent) chose destination weddings in 2015, gravitating to tropical places like the Caribbean, according to The Knot's Real Weddings Study.
Some faith leaders have criticized this development, arguing that religious couples should be married where they plan to worship each week. However, other observers note wedding-related pilgrimages can be a meaningful way for couples to start their life together, especially when the experience centers around a religious destination such as a church, temple or other site of sacred significance.
"I think it's a very honest and vulnerable way to start to build or continue a relationship when you get married," said Heather Warfield, a pilgrimage researcher at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. "One's priorities are examined quite a lot on a pilgrimage, and it might be a meaningful time for significant others to discuss these priorities. You have the time and space to talk."
In general, travel plays a large role in wedding planning these days. Half of all weddings in 2015 (49 percent) took place more than 200 miles away from where the couple currently lived, up from 21 percent in 2014, The Knot reported.
These trends stem from a variety of causes, including budgetary concerns and the growing likelihood that people move away from their hometowns for school and career opportunities. Faraway weddings can actually cost less because fewer guests make the trip.
Although The Knot's data offers no clues about how many destination weddings are religiously motivated, hosting a wedding at a notable sacred site may become more viable as traveling long distances to a celebration becomes the norm and not the exception.
"For two people who enjoy traveling or history, visiting sacred sites or learning about themselves, what better place or better time to explore that?" Warfield said.
Famous houses of worship are appealing wedding locales because of their beauty and spiritual significance, noted Father Wauck, who has officiated two weddings at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"The weight of history and the majestic art in St. Peter's give the weddings there a special solemnity that's difficult to match in a regular parish," he said. "It's almost as if you are calling St. Peter himself to be a witness at your wedding."
Holding a wedding in a unique and distant place can also help couples center themselves before they say "I do," Syer said. She and Nate had time to talk and think on the pilgrimage trail. Other couples may do the same on a long plane ride.
"We got on the same page spiritually and emotionally and had a chance to enjoy each other's company before the chaos of family and friends arrived," she said.
Religiously motivated destination weddings do have drawbacks ranging from headaches of organizing flights and hotel rooms to the stress of ensuring that family members and spiritual mentors will be able to attend.
Like all wedding facilities, sacred sites have certain regulations that couples must abide by, and that can further complicate the planning process.
For example, ceremonies in St. Peter's must be at 10:30 a.m. on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, and couples need to provide a letter of consent from their local parish priest. The bride and groom and their guests should also be prepared to navigate crowds of tourists because St. Peter's weddings take place in a chapel off the basilica's main hall, the Cappella del Coro.
The grandeur of most holy sites likely makes up for the unique challenges of planning a wedding there, Father Wauck noted. But he and other faith leaders said they hope couples won't overlook the simple pleasures and spiritual value of being married in the presence of the same people you worship with each weekend.
"As a general rule, I think that it is good to celebrate weddings in one's habitual spiritual home," Father Wauck said.
Weddings are a community event, like a baptism or confirmation, argued Catherine O'Connell-Cahill, the former editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, in a 2013 article. She criticized the modern individualistic instinct that leads couples to deem their local church "too boring" for their nuptials.
"It's better to be married where you can stand before those who have helped to form you, who loved you when you were a bratty kid, who stuck by you even in your Goth phase," O'Connell-Cahill wrote.
Austin Shepherd said he can't even count how many times he'd been in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' temple in St. George, Utah, before being married there in March 2016.
Although he and his wife, Katie, both lived closer to the famous Salt Lake City temple in the year leading up to their wedding, they wanted to return to where they grew up for their big day. The decision allowed them to share their celebration with the family members, friends and other people in the St. George area who shaped their religious lives.
"It felt important for everyone to be there for us," Shepherd said. "It's nice being somewhere that you know well."
The Syers' are a clergy couple, with Sarah working as a priest associate in an Episcopal Church and Nate serving as a hospice chaplain. They know how meaningful it is to be wed in a church surrounded by family and friends, but they didn't grow up in the same state, faith community or even denomination.
Unlike the Shepherds, the Syers didn't have a natural "spiritual home" for their wedding, so they got creative.
"I'm a little more traditional. I wanted to get married in a church. Nate wanted to get married outside. That's how we got the notion of having the wedding in church ruins," Syer said.
Faraway sacred sites like a famous mosque or ancient cathedral may be a helpful compromise for couples who want their faith to play a central role in the ceremony but can't agree on a local house of worship.
Of course, couples who go this route need to prepare themselves for the potential dark side of pilgrimage, Warfield said.
"One note of caution in going on a pilgrimage leading up to a wedding: What if someone discovers something about a partner that he or she doesn't like?" she said.
Sarah and Nate Syer walked 62 miles as a way to prepare their hearts for wedded life before their 2016 wedding in Scotland. | Sarah Syer
Although it may be tempting to choose the most glamorous church available, Warfield and Syer emphasized the importance of finding a place that reflects your spiritual journey. They echoed some of the arguments made by faith leaders who favor local church weddings.
"The U.K. held so much significance for us. We fell in love there, and share a love of Celtic Christianity and those holy sites and saints," Syer said. "If we had gone to Istanbul and held a wedding in the Hagia Sophia, it wouldn't have meant as much to our story."
She's thrilled with how her combination pilgrimage and destination wedding turned out, noting that many loved ones were willing to make sacrifices to attend.
Guests "showed us how much we could rely on them in our future marriage. They will come together for us, through thick and thin," Syer said.
She warned couples against choosing her kind of wedding lightly, while also adding that she wouldn't have traded the lessons she learned on the pilgrimage trail for a less-complicated celebration.
"The pilgrimage was really a reflection of what a marriage is. Compromises have to be made. There are going to be muddy, ugly parts. We walked through knee-deep bogs for 4 miles," Syer said. "The physical trials were reflective of the emotional and spiritual ones that lie ahead."