Another form of spiritual practice is pilgrimage. In traditional societies, they all have pilgrimages… [pilgrimages common and regular practice of Hindu families in India]. It’s not just a walk. It’s a journey with intention. Going to a sacred place… They had a variety of intentions… Most were fairly mundane… ‘My mother’s sick, please make her better.’ ‘We’re opening a new business. Please make it prosper and be profitable.’ Some were for spiritual guidance, but most were fairly mundane… But there’s no real division there between the worldly and the spiritual; they inter-penetrate. And when Indians move into a new house they usual get the local holy man to come and bless it because they wouldn’t want to live in a house that hasn’t been blessed.
Most people here might have a house-warming party, but entirely secular…
In Japan, at Shinto shrines, they have spiritual car washes where people drive in and Shinto priests… sprinkle holy water over the car. But why not? If we’re going to have these things, is it better for them to be blessed or unblessed?
So, pilgrimages are a journey with an intention… Muslims have them on a big scale. Millions of pilgrims a year go to Mecca.
In Europe there were many places of pilgrimages.
In England, in the Middle Ages, the most important in England was Canterbury, of course, the shrine of St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. And that’s what the storyline of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is all about. Chaucer is writing the stories of the people on this pilgrimage. Most of the stories are not very pious at all, in fact a great deal of them are about sexual adventures of a very disreputable kind, but that’s probably what pilgrims did talk about – it was fun! They didn’t have holidays in a modern sense – a secular holiday – and still most people in India don’t have just holidays. You have a pilgrimage, which is a ‘holy day’… and of course you have fun and of course you meet new people and have adventures and so on.
The second most important place of pilgrimage in England is The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk, the Black Madonna of Walsingham, where there is a holy well and a Black Madonna who is a focus of a great deal of popular devotion.
But, at the Reformation, pilgrimages were banned all over Protestant Europe. In the 1530s Thomas Cromwell issued an injunction against pilgrimage and people were forbidden to go on pilgrimage. They were told it was idolatrous because it involved going to see these shrines, and these shrines had no scriptural authority because nothing in the Bible talks about Walsingham or Canterbury; it only talks about Jerusalem and places in the Holy Land. So pilgrimage was stamped out forcefully with the use of the army, shrines were desecrated, the image of the Black Madonna of Walsingham was burned in a public bonfire. The same happened in Germany and Scandinavia at the Reformation.
But this left a basic human urge unsatisfied in the Protestant countries. I think it’s a basic human urge to go to a place on a kind of journey. Our ancestors – hunter-gatherers – moved around – they have to move around to hunt and gather, they can’t just stay in one place. It’s the Neolithic Revolution with agriculture that led to settled villages and cities. But hunter-gatherers moved, and as they moved they told the story of the land they were going through, and there were sacred places on the way. The Australian Aborigine song lines are one example of this that has persisted right into the twentieth century.
So I think pilgrimage is deep in our nature. And many species of animals are migratory. They have two homes. Like English Swallows who breed here… then in the autumn they go to southern Africa, flying all the way across the Sahara… then they come back here to breed, often to the very same building, where they make their nest. So I think there’s something deeply biological and archetypal about pilgrimage.
So what happened when the English suppressed pilgrimage under Thomas Cromwell at the time of the Reformation was that the need was unsatisfied, and within a few generations the English had invented a secular substitute called tourism. In the eighteenth century the wealthy sons of aristocrats went on the Grand Tour, and they went to Rome and to St Peter’s and to Greece and to Athens and to the Parthenon, the Great Temples, and the more adventurous people, as it got safe to travel, went to Egypt to see the Pyramids and the Temple. These tourists – and still today – [tourism] is now a multi-trillion dollar global industry – tourists still go to see principally the sacred places. In France, everyone who goes to Parish goes to see Notre Dame Cathedral. If they come to London they go to Westminster Abbey. If they go to Egypt they go to see the Great Temples. If they go to Athens they go to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, the Great Temple of the Goddess Athena. And in the ancient world these temples were centres of local pilgrimage. Stonehenge was built about 2,500BC wouldn’t have made sense unless it had been a focus where people had gone for the festivals on a pilgrimage… [people with an affinity to Athens would all return there for a festival in ancient times; Jews went to Jerusalem for festivals like the Passover].
These are very basic patterns. Modern tourists still go to these sacred places. But they have to pretend to be modern enlightened scientific rational people who are interested in art history. They’ve risen above the superstition of religion where they can get down on their knees and light a candle – they’re somehow above that, that’s for ignorant superstitious people. They’re going there because they’re interested in history and art, so guides fills them with information… facts that go in one ear and out the other because that’s not really why they’re there. They’re there because they’re drawn to these places, but they’re disempowered because they’re modern supposedly-rational modern enlightened educated people. They can’t actually do what a pilgrim would do and make the most of it, so it’s terribly wasted. And they can’t make a sacrifice there, offering some food and bringing some back to share with people at home. Instead they take photographs – and they do try and share those with people back home but they’re usually not that well received. It’s much more fun to receive some food that’s been blessed in a temple and to feel you’re a part of the ceremony… They bring back souvenirs, but in a proper pilgrimage you’d bring back holy water or something of particular sacred significance.
Interestingly, a paradigm change is actually happening in the modern world, completely below the radar, which is the paradigm shift back from tourism into pilgrimage. There’s been an extraordinary growth in pilgrimage in the last 30 years
[Info on history of Camino de Santiago – 285,000 people did it in 2015 – a very recent revival of this]
In other parts of Europe, the old pilgrim paths are being opened up. In Wales and Scotland there are groups opening up these paths. In Norway, 10 years ago, the old pilgrim route from Oslo to Trondheim, to the Shrine of St Olaf, was reopened and it’s now a very popular new pilgrimage… It was closed down by the Reformation. It’s come back again just in the last ten years. And there’s a new initiative here in Britain called the British Pilgrimage Trust… they’re re-opening the old pilgrimage routes on footpaths across Britain. They’ve re-charted the route from Winchester to Canterbury, the South Downs Way, which they’re trying to make into, as it were, the Camino of England… What they’re trying to show… is to do it in our own country… can get to know England a lot better by going on pilgrimages to our holy places.
[My godson is 14 has everything… We’ve all got too much stuff, certainly he has… giving experiences as presents instead… Gave him the chance to do a pilgrimage with me. Go with an intention – pray for people and ourselves – go to choral Evensong – we had a blissful day… We got to know each other much better. Being together on the path is a very unifying thing to do. And an adventure – uncovering grown-over bits of the route… Healing well for people with eye problems… Local people knew where hidden/overgrown bits of shrines were.]
One day pilgrimages are a wonderful way to spend time. Very different from going for a walk in the country… which doesn’t have the same sort of attention, purpose or focus… It could be a micro-pilgrimage to your local church or cathedral… Even walking the last half mile, timing it to arrive for choral Evensong, these beautiful services… extremely good choirs… exquisite music, different every day: http://www.choralevensong.org
Lots of research that people engaged in purposeful activity are happier and do better than people who have relatively purposeless activity. That’s the very basis of occupational therapy.
Zillions of reports that show that people who walk in the fresh air are healthier than people who sit at home and don’t walk, and even healthier than people who exercise in gyms – there’s something about being outdoors in the fresh air and on a journey which is good for you.
…So pilgrimages are good for you. They’re interesting. You learn something about the country, about the culture, about the history in a much more interesting way than arriving there in a bus or a car and just having people tell you historical facts, which are interesting, but it’s much more important to relate to the place, and relate to the history of those who have related to it.