Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in pilgrimage; journeying on foot. Now that it is open to all – religious or not – how can it help connect us with deep meaning, the land and each other?
Life in Britain is increasingly connected. The central heating is linked to our phones, our fridges to supermarkets, our watches to our bank accounts. We can chat to friends in Australia without touching a button. We can eat strawberries in midwinter. Connectivity is one of modern Britain’s great mantras.
Yet, behind the shiny convenience a shadowy side of disconnection looms. Our water source is a tap. Community happens ‘in app’. We travel the skies at unfathomable speeds, strapped into metal boxes watching films. Over land, we turn when the satnav says so. Separation, isolation and disempowerment are central to modern life too.
Today, pilgrimage – journeying on foot to holy places – is being rediscovered, and may help alleviate many of these problems. It is a way of reconnecting with ourselves, others and with nature and spirituality – whatever that means to each of us. Pilgrimage has happened since the earliest days of human evolution and, despite (or perhaps due to) Henry VIII banning it some 500 years ago, it rises again today with a satisfying inevitability.
You may find the word ‘holy’ hard to bear. It can provoke something like an allergic reaction. To some, the word implies exclusive religious identity. But it is thought to derive from the Old English ‘halig’ which has no religious affiliation and means holistic or healthy. Pilgrimage is open to all. Bring your own beliefs.
Pilgrimage is open to all. Bring your own beliefs
A holy place is therefore anywhere that offers wholeness or completion. This could be the source of a river, a hilltop or great tree. It might be a cathedral or stone circle. It may be a place where a hero died or an ancestor was born. And when you arrive there, you might choose to meditate, pray, sing or sleep. The intentions are up to you. Pilgrimage is as simple – and infinitely complex – as that.
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Travelling on foot, the slow way, elevates the place that you seek. Walking there honours the destination. No helicopter or supercar can offer this sort of access. People sometimes say they can’t sacrifice the time for pilgrimage, and the demands of modern life certainly make such pleasures difficult to fit in. But can we afford not to? To ‘sacrifice’ time does not mean to waste it. This word’s origin is the combination of the Latin words ‘sacer’ and ‘facere’ meaning ‘to make sacred’. To make your time sacred through pilgrimage is never wasteful: it expands and enriches your experience.
Pilgrimage connects us more closely with our bodies too. Walking is a great way to exercise with minimal risk of injury. It creates time to think. In jam-packed modern life, pilgrimage provides rare mental space, helping restore our senses as sovereigns of our reality.
And other people become heightened on pilgrimage. If you are in a group, be ready to meet your companions as your mirrors: to encounter in your co-walkers the best and worst of yourself. Moving slowly and stopping often, you’re likely to meet strangers of many backgrounds. I encourage you to make eye contact and greet them all. Pilgrimage is an opportunity to undo social distrust in yourself and others.
British people often don’t know their land very well. We jet to distant climes and often forget the beauty and mystery of our own islands. But we can rediscover exotic Britain by avoiding roads, and travelling upon secret green passages known as public footpaths. The weather becomes our roof, the trees our shelter, and by night the sky really is our television – in high-definition.
Pilgrims may often experience the opposite of beauty too. Pilgrimage offers a front row seat to the impact of modern industry, agriculture, housing and waste-management in Britain. But such first-hand experience, though uncomfortable at times, is an empoweringly real way to ‘take the temperature’ of our land. No article posted on Facebook comes close.
Ancient and modern
But perhaps the best of all is this: on pilgrimage, without motorised transport, central heating, lights, a TV or laptop, your ecological impact is vastly reduced, and that feels really good. Some people take it even further by shopping at local farms and filtering water from streams – maybe even pooing outdoors.
British pilgrimage follows the same paths used by the earliest Ice Age migrants to this land. Our footpaths, green lanes and hollow-ways – even our motorways – have all been hunter-gatherer trails and pilgrimage tracks.
Pilgrimage is an opportunity to undo social distrust in yourself and others
That said, I recommend taking the latest outdoor technology: ultralight down sleeping bags, solar chargers, smartphones with GPS navigation and superfine merino wool clothing. This is not a re-creation of a lost past. It is a timely response to modernity.
Pilgrimage takes away people’s hard-won domestic insulation and convenience, and puts them simply on the ground – in a very real Britain that has always been there, just over the hills and beyond the woods.
Now is the time to make your first pilgrimage, and Britain is the place. The journey is afoot.
William Parsons is co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, an organisation working to restore the tradition of pilgrimage in Britain.
Featured image: Skirrid Fawr, a ‘holy mountain’ near Abergavenny in Wales, by William Parsons
This feature is from issue 88 of Positive News magazine
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