On Pilgrimage

This Blog you will be reading as I am in turkey, making a visit to those sites associated with St. Paul and St. John the Divine and the Church of Constantinople. This will be a pilgrimage, not a tour.

 So the first question I ask myself is ‘What is the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist?’ I remember talking with a colleague in London who said that the aim of his work was to turn ‘spiritual tourists’ into ‘Pilgrims’. It seems to me that the difference lies in the purpose of the travel.

 Fr. Andrew and I were talking about this trip on Wednesday. We were talking about the amount of conviviality there might be on this pilgrimage, and reminded ourselves of the fun that pilgrims had on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas a’Beckett at Canterbury in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. In the days when the thought world of Christianity dominated the whole world of many people, then there was no difference between tourism and pilgrimage. All travel that was not for business was pilgrimage. The only reason people wanted to go anywhere was to be a pilgrim.

 These days there is a separation between the thought world of Christians and those who are not. So for secular people, pilgrimage has become tourism because the commitment to being ‘inside’ the world of Christian faith as one travels is absent.

What difference does this make?

 First of all, I think that there is a common factor between tourism and pilgrimage, and that is the ‘moving from one place to another that is not ‘home’. Life is about ‘going out and returning’. Travel is a special kind of ‘going out and return’. I have often said that ‘every physical journey is a journey of the soul’. That is, the time taken out of normal life to travel is time taken out of the ordinariness of life to reflect, and to be in a different ‘surrounding’. This difference causes ‘reflection’. Often this reflection is done in company, so that we get to know other people and to exchange ideas and so become enriched in ways that might not otherwise happen.


Since I used to go to Germany every two years from Australia, I had an inbuilt time of reflection. This happened until my friends’ place in Germany became ‘home’ too, and the journey became a king of going from ‘home’ to ‘home’ but with 24hours stasis in between. That is no longer a pilgrimage. I needed to build into each trip something new , so that it would become a genuine pilgrimage. But then, because I am in the thought world of Christianity, as I travelled, I reflected upon what I saw and experienced as a Christian. That made the trip a pilgrimage for me.


This fits in with what a pilgrimage meant for mediaeval people too.  Sometimes the pilgrimage was a form of penance through the punishing of their bodies. A person might walk barefoot or on their knees the last mile or two to the shrine of the saint. The time taken out of life to go on pilgrimage had the same effect as ‘penitentiaries’ where people had time to reflect on their lives. Sometimes the travel was for joy.


I particularly love the story of St. Brendan who built a boat to sail across the sea. His purpose was stimulated by psalm 107. “Those who go down to the sea in ships, and ply their trade on the great waters. These have seen the works of God, and God’s wonders in the deep.’ So Brendan wanted to see some of God’s works and wonders. And he did! But his eyes were trained up for the seeing.

The other thing about pilgrimage is to go to the actual places where events happened in order to enter more fully into those events. Being in ‘the very place’ where something happened helps me top understand those events because of the physical context. When people walk barefoot most of the time and their feet become tough and calloused, it is not surprising that when such people encounter westerners they say ‘What beautiful feet you have’, and then we understand ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that bring good news, that tell of peace!’ It is difficult to describe just how powerful it was for me to be on Lindisfarne with a very significant question to ask of God, and to be in the same place as Aiden and Cuthbert who dedicated themselves to God’s service, in that very place! Pilgrimage exposes us to the context of the religious world that we hold dear.


I also often say ‘I love to travel, but I don’t like going to places I’ve never been before’. This is pilgrimage as a metaphor for life. Going on pilgrimage exposes us to the new and strange. But it is an exposure to the new and strange, often in company. So we have the comfort of experiencing this newness together. As well, once I have been to a new place, I like to go back there, so that I can experience it without the added anxiety associated with ‘getting there’ and ‘finding things’.


This twofold movement of ‘newness’ and ‘company and repetition’ encapsulates our life as Christians too. I have written before about the relationship between Church life as a football match where something is at stake, something is new, and the ‘bed time story’ where there is comfort. Going on pilgrimage also encapsulates these two facets of life. I am able to be exposed to the new, but in an environment that is not totally overwhelming.


The other thing that interests me about pilgrimage is the physicality of it. I mean the shifting from one place to another. Here I am ambivalent. The idea of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ and the labyrinth, like the one at Chartres, is that because of changes in politics, people were not able to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So in each place it was possible ‘in heart and mind’ to go to Jerusalem and see this thing that has come to pass.


Theologically speaking the Spirit is present with us just as the Spirit was present with the first disciples. We do not lose anything in faith terms by not having ‘been there’. We know the real Christ in the breaking of the bread’ just as well as Clopas and his friend knew the real Christ in the breaking of the bread. We do not need to go to Emmaus to have this reality available to us.


But you notice, that even when we do ‘Stations of the Cross’ and walk the Labyrinth, we are physically moving. What is it about the physicality of life that is so important. It seems to me that we live so much in our ‘minds;’ that we think that the physical is somehow of less value. The reformation gave us ‘the Word’ and sermons, but devalued the physicality of the sacraments because of the magical abuses to which it was subject beforehand. But we are bodies. I remember being told that it is in the cross-over movement of ‘left foot forward, right arm forward’ that new connections are made in the brain, and that this physical motion makes new ideas possible. Being embodied is what God is for us in the sacraments, in the physicality of our Churches, in Icons and in pilgrimage. All these ‘embody’ the ways that Godin Christ is ‘with us’ That is why we have to express faith physically.  Here is a quote  from the newspaper about the same thing, in relation to the places of accident and death. “…The ghostly white bicycles that mark the place where someone was knocked over, or the fact that when anti capitalists wished to set up camp they settled in the lea of St. Paul’s. …We are all sacramentalists now’ The best thing that we hold as Church is the rehearsing of the sacraments.


Pilgrimage has been part of life ever since the Exodus. Listen to the Psalm 122 “I was glad when they said unto me let us go to the house of the Lord, and now our feet are standing within your gates O Jerusalem. Jerusalem which is built as a city where the pilgrims gather in unity.’


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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