Travelling hopefully to the promised lands
Fr Kit Cunningham ponders the deep human instinct to go on pilgrimage
lye are a pilgrim people, the liturgy tells us. We are trav eng, not just as individuals, but in community. This image has been a consistent theme throughout the history of the Church.
We are travelling to a holy place, not of this world. But because we are body and spirit, we need to have before us some material destination.
We have the image of the heavenly city, whose representative for us is Jerusalem, and this is for an obvious reason: that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem enables us to follow in the footsteps of Christ, both here and in surrounding places. There is no compulsion for the Christian to visit Jerusalem; in fact at times it has been impossible for people to travel there.
We have, for instance, in the Stations of the Cross, a moment when we travel the Way of the Cross. We use our imagination to unite ourselves with a suffering Christ, not just out of some historical recreation, but to bring ourselves in mind and spirit to the realisation of the Redemption. which was effected by Christ's life on this earth.
The Gospel of St Luke is an account of the ministry ofJesus as a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. We follow the readings of the Gospel, but there comes a time when we would like to make them more real by having a greater visual understanding of events.
However, pilgrims did not start with Christianity. We might almost say that Moses' travels in the desert were a pilgrimage to the Promised Land, which he did not reach. The Israelites had their religious feasts, the feast of Passover, the Hebrew feast of Pentecost, and the feast of Tabernacles. These were times when the Israelites appeared before the Lord as we read in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Did not Jesus go with his parents up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover? His public life was one of constant travel. He was a pilgrim "with no place to rest his head" in this world.
Centuries later, the Islamic religion made the pilgrimage to Mecca a central point of its belief, and many other religions have a journey as a key point of its belief. and many other religions have a journey as a key point of their religious practice. We are all aware of the many writings of pilgrims down the ages. Some went great distances. some short . In our own i
land, w had many centres of pilgrim e. Kings. and queens went to alsingluum, one of the four great centres of Christian
pilgrimage. the other three being Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela.
Canterbury of course was a very popular place of pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas a Becket. As Chaucer reminds us in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: When the sweet showers of April fall and shoot Down through the drought of March to pierce the mot, Then people long to go on And palmers long to seek the stranger strands Of far off saints, hallowed in sundry lands.
And specially, from every In Englund, down to Canter bury they wend To seek the holy blissful martyr, quirk In giving help to them when they were sick — translation by Neville Coghill.
You may have your own views about the pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Were they indeed the pious pilgrims that we would imagine? Or were they rather people like many today, who combine pilgrimage and pleasure? They were certainly a mixed bag, those Canterbury pilgrims, and who more extraordinary than the Wife of Bath, who had been three times to Jerusalem, to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, and to such local shrines as there were at Bologna (the Virgin Mary) and Cologne (the Three Kings). One wonders how she had time to have five husbands. But she gives us a glimpse of a woman who has no need of any feminist nonsense, and is perfectly capable of standing up for herself.
And what of the feast that we celebrate in these days, the journey of the Magi?
A cold coming we had of it Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey.
(T.S.Eliot) The instinct of a pilgrim is mercifully very strong in us. The renons to go on .pilgrimage are indeed personal. God only knoWs our true reasons. But in each of us there is a vague hope of some
inner spiritual healing. We would like to feel better after ounourney. Physically we might be worn out. We may not receive the healing that we wish for ourselves or for others. But pilgrimage teaches us to accept with greater faith the illnesses and difficulties that afflict our lives and those of other people.
It is interesting that the Reformation should have abolished the idea of the pilgrimage with its cult of shrines and saints. It was looked upon as superstition, and was all part of that rejection of the signs and symbols which are so important. The long staff and the broad brimmed hat, with a traditional shell and badges from the shrines, all were marks of being a pilgrim.
William Dalyrymple, in writing of his pilgrimage to Compostela in The Spectator, reflects that the medieval pilgrim had a very clear purpose in his mind when he set out — he wished to avoid burning in hell. His own motives, he says, were more mixed, for he was to be married in four weeks time. He thought a pilgrimage would provide an opportunity to think of his past, of his future and of his bride, Olivia.
Walking, he reflected, by its very nature, purged the body and the soul and calmed his mind. The act of walking, he thought, can help to "distil one's thoughts, so that all the worries that obscure clarity and peace of mind, can rise to the surface and be filtered away". In principle, he thought it was a perfect preparation for marriage.
Times have changed, and indeed. the means of travel have eased, even to the extent that the pilgrim has firm paths and roads on which to walk though the journey can be hazardous, not from thieves and vagabonds, but from the motor vehicle. The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom walkers from London to Walsingham have had to divert their route in recent years, and now there is the constant threat of traffic driven at speed on country lanes.
But the calls still there, so over 10,000 accredited pilgrims go'to Santiago de Compostela every
year. There is an active confraternity here in England dedicated to the pilgrimage and devoted to the rebuilding of rest houses on "El Camino".
Lourdes receives over five million people a year, and pilgrims flock to Fatima, Medjugorje, San Giovanni Rotondo, Croagh Patrick and Knock, as well as many others.
So for this Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul 11 has written a bull outlining key aspects of the Catholic Church's millennium celebration. In a letter entitled The Mystery of the Incarnation, he wrote that the year would start on Christmas Eve 1999 with the opening of the Holy Door in Rome, and run until January 6 2001, the Feast of the Epiphany.
The letter emphasises the Jubilee traditions of pilgrimage and works of charity, and makes special mention of a call to the solution of the Third World debt problem. Pope John Paul speaks of some characteristics of Jubilee years , and the first is the notion of pilgrimage "which is linked to the situation of man, who regularly describes his life as a journey".
Another characteristic is the Jubilee Indulgence, which can be gained only once a day. It is rooted in the celebration of the sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist. Participation in these two sacraments is required, accompanied by prayers for the intentions of the Pope, the Our Father, the profession of faith in any approved form, prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and acts of charity and penance. These latter include, where possible, a pilgrimage to one of a number of named churches in Rome and the Holy Land, or a local cathedral, church or some shrine designated by the local bishop. There are five in Westminster, for example, which are: Westminster Cathedral; Ealing Abbey; Our Lady of Willesden; St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace. Islington; and The Immaculate Conception and St Joseph, Hertford.
So we come to the end of our pilgrimage, to the spot we have walked hundreds of miles to venerate, to the solid silver reliquary which contains the bones of St James. Logically, William Dalrymple writes: "I knew it was a fairly slim chance —though far from impossible — that the bones were those of the fisherman that Jesus first called beside the Sea of Galilee, James, the son of Zebedee and Salome. But irrespective of their identity, I felt that the bones had been imbued with sanctity and importance, through the pain of tens of millions of pilgrims throughout the age Oho hadtravelled thousands of miles to pray at the kneeler at which I now knelt."