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Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage means following in the footsteps of somebody or something we honor to pay homage. It revitalizes our lives, reinvigorates our very souls.
The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau

 

Recently I've been thinking about the idea of pilgrimage. But defining a pilgrimage is a slippery task. Is it a specific route to a specific place? Or does it refer more to the state of mind in which you undertake a journey? Do you have to wear sandals and a floppy hat, carrying a staff and a scallop shell as symbols of your pilgrim status? Do you have to believe in a god, or saints, or leylines?

As you might guess, there are no very definitive answers to all these questions. But there are some general principles which cluster around the idea of pilgrimage. Somewhere in the overlapping layers of Place, Purpose, People and Presence is the elusive key which turns a long walk into a sacred journey.

Place

Here, I said: here where you stand / And stop, and let everything go still...

The Sacred Way by Jay Ramsay

At its most basic, a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. Jerusalem. Mecca. Canterbury. Lourdes. These are names which, for hundreds of years, have drawn people towards them. Defined routes to such places then develop, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain, with pilgrim hostels along the way, and a passport to collect stamps in. Hundreds of people walk these ways every year, and the experience is deepened as you follow in the footsteps of so many others.

Sometimes the place is special to only a few, or to you alone. Recently I visited Bristol, a city where I lived for several years, and walked to a particular nature reserve where I often used to sit. To my delight, it was almost unchanged - a few more interpretive signs, that was all - and I sat in my old spot, soaking it in. That journey had an element of pilgrimage.

There also seems to be a strong theme of appreciating the landscape as you walk through it, not just focusing on the final destination. Don't go too quickly. Notice what is around you. Try to include sacred sites along the way - stone circles, village churches, ancient wells. Many emphasize the care for creation that comes with reconnecting with the landscape, too.

Purpose

Some people focus their pilgrimage around a particular intention, specifically meaningful to them, whereas other people don’t know what intention to choose, but are open to whatever the pilgrimage brings them, and are willing to be changed by it.

 Pilgrimage Basics, The British Pilgrimage Trust

Intention is a word that comes up often, which to some extent means: If you say it's a pilgrimage, it is a pilgrimage. The intention is what matters. It doesn't have to be a certain distance, a certain place, or even involve a floppy hat. A pilgrimage can be a trek to the Holy Land, or a walk around the garden.

During the lockdown discussions about online Communion, I realized my theology of Communion was similar. There are things which make a service more recognizably Communion - bread, wine, liturgy, nicely ironed white cloths. But if you've got a chocolate biscuit, some fruit juice, and someone on the other side of a computer screen, and you still intend to meet Jesus through that; well, I'm not going to say that's not Communion.

St Joseph's Oratory
 

On pilgrimage, people often go with more specific purposes, too. Many pilgrimage sites were places of healing. I remember visiting Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, where there are hundreds of crutches displayed inside, reportedly left by those who had been healed. Some pilgrims make a journey in memory of a relative who has died, while others are trying to make sense of knotty questions or situations.

Whatever the purpose, many people speak of something that draws them to a particular route or place, a sense of longing which finally pushes them out of the door and onto the road. 

People

I could see that this crowd of pilgrims, my Camino cohort, was not extraneous to my journey, it was central. We were part of each other's story.

Pilgrim by Kari Gillespie

I expect I'm not the only one who thinks of pilgrimage as a solitary endeavour. Like a retreat, it has a sense of getting away from it all to discover your inner self. But as Kari Gillespie discovered when she set out to walk the Camino de Santiago, you never do it entirely alone. The companions that you travel with, and those that you meet on the way, are an important part of the journey.

Long-distance walking seems to bond people together particularly strongly. I recently discovered the blog of Tim Greig (no relation to Pete Greig of 24-7 Prayer, who is also just starting a pilgrimage!). Tim has made an extended pilgrimage every year since 2016, and it's fascinating to see names pop up over and over, as he makes friends on one walk and reconnects with them on subsequent treks.

Especially for solo travellers, the chance encounters with others along the way become special. Kari and Tim both refer to "Camino angels", who appear when desperately needed, to offer food, comfort, or shelter.

Presence

Stand in the presence / Though you cannot name it / By any name, or only one

The Sacred Way by Jay Ramsay

There are two aspects to presence in pilgrimage. The first is the awareness that you, the pilgrim, have of your surroundings: being present to what is occurring moment by moment. The second is that elusive goal which the journey hopes to achieve: finding the presence of the divine.

A pilgrimage is the antithesis of the kind of journey where you seal yourself in a metal vehicle, plug in your headphones, and look at a screen until it's all over. The aim is to be constantly awake to what is around you - even when that is pouring rain, knee-deep mud, and blisters! Lacy, on A Sacred Journey website, writes: "In order to experience the transformation that they seek, the pilgrim knows it is important to stay present to the journey at hand." She offers suggestions for ways to do this, including naming a theme or reflecting on specific questions each day.

The destination is often somewhere revered as a "thin place", where the supernatural is more easily sensed. Perhaps someone had a vision there once before, or the building has been hallowed by thousands of years of prayer. By travelling there, you hope to sense a little of that specialness for yourself.

Martin and Nigel Palmer, in their book Sacred Britain, caution, "While the places we shall take you to are often powerful in their sense of the divine, they require something from you as well". On a practical level, they warn against rushing in just before closing time. But on a spiritual level, I think they are trying to say that being present yourself, through the highs and lows of the journey, is the surest route into sensing the presence of God. In the end, the two aspects of presence turn out to be one and the same. And your long walk becomes a pilgrimage.

 


Bibliography

Sacred Britain: A Guide to the Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes of England, Scotland and Wales by Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer - which contains the poem The Sacred Way by Jay Ramsay

Pilgrim: Finding a New Way on the Camino de Santiago by Kari Gillespie

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau

The British Pilgrimage Trust

A Sacred Journey

Tim Greig's blog Pilgrimage

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