Last week-end my wife and I attended a family gathering down in Kent so that we could meet up with various relatives who live in the south. Some of them we have not seen for a long time, as we moved up to live in Scotland and the North of England some 12 years ago. One of the people I met again was a nephew in his 30s and he told me of his interest. He was, with a friend, walking the old pilgrim routes of England, singing traditional music, sleeping rough and generally trying to enter the experience, both physically and spiritually of the pilgrims of long ago. He was now acting as a consultant to help an interested group who want to put pilgrimage on the map for a new generation.
Pilgrimage is something that has always interested me but my interest has focused more on the early pilgrimages to the Holy Land. I have always been intrigued by the way the early Church’s liturgy, from the fourth century onwards, has been influenced by the accounts of pilgrims who went to the Holy Places in Jerusalem. They brought back not only details of the liturgies they observed taking place in Jerusalem, but they also made sketches of the lay-out of the buildings in which these liturgies took place. There are a number of church buildings in France from the 9th century which use the layout of the churches of the Holy Land as their inspiration. This copied architecture made possible a reproduction of the distinctive Holy Week liturgies that the pilgrims had seen on their journeys to the Holy Places.
After the conversation with William, my nephew, I began to reflect on the power of pilgrimage in the way that it encourages and fosters a distinctive spirituality. Various ideas had occurred to me in the course of our conversation and subsequently. I feel that some of these are worth sharing with my readers. One thing I particularly responded to was a comment by William that pilgrimage has a resonance with younger people. One of us made the point that being a pilgrim was something that one did for oneself and this was quite different from sitting passively in a church pew. Each and every person on a pilgrimage was putting in effort and time to make the experience real, something hard to avoid when you were walking 10 -15 miles in the course of each day. This physical effort was combined with focusing of attention towards the destination. The destination, whether it be a holy well, a collection of sacred bones or the setting of a significant event in the Christian history of the nation, gave the journey its particular structure. Whatever we might now think about relics and holy wells, it is still possible to enter, through our imaginations, into the hope and expectations of the early pilgrims and the way they looked forward to entering a numinous space. Each and every pilgrimage destination had been made holy or set apart by an association with a spirit-filled individual, a martyr or saint. It might also be a place where miracles had taken place. Whatever the reason for the holiness of the destination, the mediaeval pilgrim was going to be able to participate, even for a moment, in a movement out of the ordinary into a dimension touched by the transcendent. Whether through kissing a reliquary or drinking holy water, this was a moment when each pilgrim believed him/herself to be meeting the divine. What could be taken home was a sense that God cared for each and every individual. Pilgrimage, in other words, brought the transcendent down from the control of the priests to the level of the common person. Such experiences are still enjoyed today.
The actual experience of pilgrims, past or present, I feel, is also a metaphor for a different way of being a Christian. While on the physical journey to a holy place, the pilgrim will surely become sensitised to life in ways that are not part of everyday experience. The thought of the destination, while it might not inspire constant prayer, would lead a pilgrim to a level of meditation and reflective thought. The sort of questions that might be raised internally would be ones that concerned individual purpose, direction for life and decisions for the future. Idle chit-chat would seem less appropriate when the pilgrim was trying to take the whole process seriously. I would also expect the pilgrim to pay a great deal of attention to his/her surroundings. Something of the wonder and mystery of creation would inspire a new appreciation for beauty in the natural world. Finally the pilgrim would be open to the new encounters with people that he/she might meet on the road. There would be an openness to a new relationship, a readiness to give and receive of oneself to everyone who passes by.
The feature of pilgrimage that appeals to me, in particular, is the throwing off of the trappings of role and convention while on the road. In day to day lives, as we are aware, we are forced so often to fulfil the expectations of others, be a particular kind of person so that we can earn a living. On the road there is an enforced equality. No one is taking a position of teacher or leader. ‘We are pilgrims on a journey’ are the words of a well-known hymn. Would it not be wonderful if the freedoms glimpsed by the pilgrim could be something that our churches offered? So often the membership of a church feels like a straightjacket. We are not allowed to travel onward, discovering who we are and what might be our particular role as Christians. So often we are presented with a list of correct things to believe, correct things to do and the exact formula for our financial contribution. Instead of movement forward, there is a sense of being tied down to the pews. The congregation can make no contribution to what is said or taught in church. There is no opportunity for articulating a person’s unique insight and particular journey. It is as though no one’s voice is ever valued except the one who is authorised to preach. The ‘pilgrimage model’ of church life, on the other hand, would encapsulate the vision that the abilities and insights of every single person would have a role in the onward journey of the whole. I would love to see a large sign outside every church which reads ‘Pilgrims welcomed here’. Working out what this invitation will involve will take some unpacking but it would be an exploration that would be really exciting to be part of.