It’s reading week here at college and I’ve picked up a collection of essays about pilgrimage. I had no intention of doing so, in fact I was looking for a book by Joseph Ratzinger about Eschatology (not something I’d normally choose but we had an essay question set on his views on purgatory and I thought I’d pick the question that least appealed to me because that way I might learn most… as it was, the book wasn’t there, someone else had it out -so I’ll be writing on John of the Cross instead (!)
Anyway -3 books along from where the Pope should have been was a teeny section on Christianity and Place, just 5 books or so, and one called ‘Pilgrimage’ a collection of articles from a journal ‘Concilium’ edited by Virgil Elizondo and Sean Frayne, [London: SCM Press, 1996]… you can tell it’s the essay season can’t you, I’ll be putting in footnotes in a minute!
Reasons for going on pilgrimage vary -though apparently there are often certain common expectations:
- Seeking an experience of the Divine…
This is something that a lot of pilgrims have in common -they maybe of a faith or of none, but many hope for some significant encounter at the ‘liminal’ place… an edgy, or thin place, a transitory or unexpected place where they hope to meet with something or someone outside of their current understanding.
Well that’s a pretty good place to look for God -outside of our understanding, and outside of normal circumstances… and in the Gospels, Jesus was certainly often to be found on the margins… both geographically, skirting round Samaria and the Gentile regions; as well as socially speaking -with the Lepers, at the Gates, dining with the bailiffs and sinners and unpopular people -though at times he was also in the thick of things…
Personally, I’m not searching for faith (coz God’s got that in hand already), and not expecting an encounter with the Divine -but then that’s kind of the point with the ineffable God -you haven’t got a chance of ‘effing’ where he’s going to meet with you next or how -though in the sacramental life of the Church, you are in a more ‘edgy’, thin place than usual daily life, so that’s a better than average place to look… IF you are already in kind of a liminal frame of mind… but the ‘edginess’ of Christian discipleship is a whole other blog entry, and I digress.
Whether strong of faith or driven by desperation, many pilgrims travel for healing -places such as Lourdes see many people hoping for healing that defies present medical comprehension. Many more hope for mental or spiritual healing which human efforts just can’t touch. And some people find this. Others perhaps, find the experience feeds or heals them in an unexpected way, and still others -just enjoy the exciting shared experience, which brings us to…
- Tourism/ Sensationalism
Some people want to go on a pilgrimage because the historic places are a draw – the idea of ‘being a pilgrim’ may hold a deal of romanticism, or they may go along with a larger group, to share the experience… many sites of pilgrimage cater for this very well -and you can buy every souvenir under the sun, from models of the shrine itself, to bottles of water, to T-shirts and keyrings…. And why not… I have no doubt that many people who go along ‘just for the ride’ or ‘to see the sights’ find themselves moved or changed by the process of going on pilgrimage -by unexpected encounters… either with people, or with something in themselves, or with something else. As a Christian, I could say ‘Someone’ else.
- Escape/ Transformation
This is about travelling -away from, away from the ordinary, away from the past, perhaps away from yourself… but pilgrimage differs from just travelling endlessly – which people do, do… pilgrimage has a destination, may begin with a vow, to oneself or to a higher power, but it certainly has an end in sight, and the expectation that things will no longer be the same once the journey is completed. Pilgrimage is about travelling away from, but also travelling to.
There are more reasons, and all sorts of types of people involved in Pilgrimage -from Sister Etheria a roving medieval nun who went gadabout and wrote about it for posterity. To penitents, who walk to try and escape or make up for their past… popular film and fiction are full of travelling stories… the Jewish nation’s exodus, dispersion, gathering and re-gathering for feasts and festivals, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, whilst the New Testament is full of the wanderings of Jesus and his disciples, up and down hills, back and forth across lakes and ultimately into Jerusalem, for a climax that none of the disciples could have imagined. After Pentecost, the disciples begin to go out, wandering far and wide, finally across the world as they take the news, of the world’s Salvation to the ends of the earth.
Wandering is in Humanity’s nature… movement is in God’s nature… it was only last year as I began to study theology, that I learnt a wonderful and weird word that is used to describe the movement of God: Father, Son and Spirit… perichoresis… from the Greek meaning ‘dancing around’! It is important to emphasise that God is not static in God’sself, nor in relation to his creation. God is not the bricks and mortar of the universe, like another force of energy to be factored in to the equations of physics… something infinitely more vivacious and unexpected, more musical and liquid in what goes on amongst the living God -Father Son and Spirit -and it is something that involves us all -since Pentecost, more than ever… we are invited into the heavenly community, and though we are fixed in our temporal progression in this life, whilst we move slowly on, God can, at any moment sweep us up and dance with us.
…Well, anyhoo, all sounding a bit mystical for a blog, so I’ll finish off…
I am not sure quite what the piligrimage I am planning is about. I’m not searching for God, nor running from something, I won’t be going in a big, emotional group or buying keyrings… I will take an interest in the history of the places I go to, as there will have been decades, hundreds, or even a thousand years of prayers taking place at some of the destinations -and I would like to learn more about the prayer history of this country, firsthand. I won’t be alone in spirit, as there are those who support me, and those who I will carry with me in prayer -but to be honest, the most accurate thing I can say is that, like most pilgrims, I don’t know quite what to expect, but I know things will happen.