Walking the Pilgrim’s Way – not consuming pilgrimages!

John Payne reflects on a recent pilgrimage, and lessons learned about walking, history and consumerism.

Four weeks ago I finished walking the so-called  Pilgrims’ Way, the (alleged) route taken by pilgrims from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas A Becket at Canterbury  The route, as I understand it, might have been used by pilgrims from France coming into Southampton – possibly also from the West Country, but much is unclear, and parts of what might have been the route are now major A roads. At any rate, over the last 100 years, there’s been some consensus on what the walking route now should be – as currently constituted, it is a combination of the St Swithun’s Way from Winchester towards London, then an ancient trackway  east to west on the southern slopes of the North Downs from Farnham and Guildford to Oxted, and then, from Otford in Kent, following the London pilgrimage route south east to Canterbury. 138 miles in all – it took me a rather leisurely and undemanding 13 days…..

I spent some of my travels along the Way thinking about the links between pilgrimage and consumption.  There has always, I guess, been some sort of link between holy sites of pilgrimage and conspicuous consumption and religious merchandising. It was not long after Becket’s murder before the monks at Canterbury Cathedral were selling small glass bottles of Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims!  Medieval pilgrimages could reasonably be described as big business – taking into account the money spent on food and accommodation, the selling of pilgrims’ badges as souvenirs, things like status symbols recalling your chosen pilgrimage site, as well as some of the more unscrupulous clergy generating fake relics. Lourdes became a major international place of pilgrimage, later on, as a result of local authorities’ and shopkeepers’ commercial energy in connecting the miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary to the town’s economy.

And of course you’ve only to look at the description of the Temple as Jesus encounters it in the New Testament to see that this is not purely a Christian issue – pilgrimage sites have become in many cultures important places of social entertainment, giving visitors an opportunity a chance to be at ease and enjoy themselves, as well as taking part in religious rituals and statements of religious faith, as can be seen in Mecca, or the major Hindu pilgrimage sites in India.

Why does this happen?  Maybe it’s something to do with how we view the concept of pilgrimage – if we see it as primarily a journey to a sacred place, from which personal benefits will accrue, then maybe the dynamics of the marketplace too easily flow into the whole practice of pilgrimage – people may be keen to pray but will also enjoy a bit of comfort and even go shopping at the markets that commonly surround famous shrines. We’re focused on the goal of the journey and celebrate the achievement of that goal. And, of course, that’s an approach aligned with much of our Western culture – achievement/goal-oriented, and linked to growth and consumption. But there are other ways to envisage a pilgrimage – for instance as a response to personal crisis or a change in personal direction, a crossroads in a life, a problem in relationships – or perhaps just to have more time for God, a strengthening in faith, a greater discernment of his will, a deeper spirituality, forgiveness or healing. – an opportunity to move out of the non-stop busyness of our lives – ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.

In my case I also found it exhilarating to walk through a not very familiar part of the English landscape not really experienced since my childhood, and also to connect to so much history through the very beautiful village churches the Way passes through  – though unfortunately because of Covid-19  very few of them were open and by the look of it even fewer were functioning with full services – which is sad, because many were very old, some with Saxon or Norman remnants, and it would have been good to see some of the insides – one had a wall painting from 1380, I discovered.  

One of the books I took with me on the pilgrimage was The Rule of St Benedict, and, however lamentable my shortfall compared to the sort of life the Rules describes, it felt very relevant to my journey. One of the very important Benedictine practices to develop spirituality, I read there, is the perceived lack of a split between the sacred and the profane – the way in which ordinary things are seen as sacred, and ordinary tasks – for instance in the monastic cellar – are deemed as God-filled as the Mass (eg RSB Ch 31). You don’t have to be special, in other words, or separated in special ways to be ‘spiritual’. The Rule sees God in the most simple and ordinary experience of daily living – ‘so that in all things God may be glorified” (RSB Ch 31). Material goods are to be accepted as ‘of God’. This is connected with the virtue of humility, that “a monk (should be) content with the lowest and menial treatment (Ch 7). Humility – a very counter-cultural virtue today – is seen as vital in any spiritual ‘ascent’ and one of the vehicles for the development of this virtue is work. Attributed to Benedict are the words “to work is to pray”. Somehow, I connected this concept with the ‘work’ of my walking and the opportunities it gave for reflection and celebration.

Another Benedictine focus is silence, which perhaps is a cause for concern in the frenzied, rushing modern world – almost a fear. According to Benedict, any group that values silence will be made stronger by it. Silence in Benedictine spirituality helps people to develop the habit of listening to the Spirit within. According to the RSB, some time in each day is to be set aside for a period of silence. And although on a few days a friend based in London travelled into the countryside to accompany me, which was very nice, it was also good for a lot of the time to be by myself and to experience silence in the countryside.

Sanctifying time (Ch 8-17 RSB) is another Benedictine focus  – the Rule lays out a range of rules for prayer, work and meals occurring at specific hours, along with the Western Christian liturgical calendar, which “energises” monastic life and sanctifies both time and an individual’s passage through it, the natural rhythms of prayer, work and rest, conversation.  That’s something too, however inadequately, I tried to follow in my walk – finding particular times for reading, walking, prayer and rest . One of the appealing parts of my progress was that all the churches en route had nice benches to sit on – I could almost phase each day’s walk around sitting on church benches, for 10 minutes or so at a time as breaks, and to have lunch on!

I arrived in Canterbury not wanting to rush into the Cathedral or buy some of the food I hadn’t had for the past two weeks, but rather to reflect on my journey and what I had learned – in a sense finding ‘joy’ in the ‘enough’ of the journey rather than its goal. I did though go to Choral Evensong in the Cathedral – a huge treat to hear live music after so many months without it!

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