Pilgrimage can teach us many things: the limits of our physical abilities, the extent of our self-awareness, the depths of our spiritual connections, to name just a few. In the summer of 2017, as I participated in the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage, I learned how difficult it can be to live out what Jesus called the second most important commandment after loving God, namely to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:33).
Pluscarden 1230 was a “re-imagined pilgrimage”. Its aim was to follow in the footsteps of eight medieval monks, who in 1230 AD travelled north from Burgundy to found Pluscarden Abbey in the far reaches of Scotland. For the past three decades, I have studied the Caulite monks who founded Pluscarden. In spite of writing a book on their history, I don’t know for certain which route the Caulites took or how they got to Scotland, hence the term “re-imagined pilgrimage”. This all began when Pluscarden’s modern-day monks asked me to create a pilgrimage route as part of the abbey’s South Range fundraising campaign for a building project that includes a women’s retreat centre.
Pluscarden 1230 consisted of a core group of eight pilgrims who walked the entire 1,400-mile route. Others joined on a weekly rotating basis. Every seven days, our number fluctuated from ten to as many as 25. Each pilgrim pledged to donate to the cause in proportion to the number of miles they walked, similar to other walk-for-the-cure type events.
Yet this was more than a fundraiser. Each participant in the pilgrimage was challenged physically, emotionally and spiritually. These individual challenges were compounded because the Pluscarden 1230 pilgrims was comprised of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, as varied as Chaucer’s pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales. Like the Canterbury Tales, Pluscarden 1230 had a priest and a cook, a sheriff and a forester, even a widowed and well-travelled “wife of Bath”, and many others. How would these assorted people get along?
For the most part, the answer to that question is “surprisingly well”. We shared personal experiences over communal meals. We played games like Scrabble and Nine Men’s Morris. The more musical pilgrims played the fiddle or bagpipes. I told medieval stories after dinner. And, of course, there were many deep and intimate conversations while walking—an activity particularly suited to pilgrimage.
Saint Basil the Great, one of the fathers of Western monasticism, said that living in community is better than living as a hermit. “As a hermit,” he said, “one has no opportunity to practice Christian charity.” People may bring us joy, but they might also be irritating. The neighbours Jesus commanded us to love can be touchy and annoying. But without them, how can we practice Christian charity and test our Christian love for them?
The most famous medieval example of Christian charity put to the test on pilgrimage comes to us from Margery Kempe. Margery was a 14th-century mystic and pilgrim, known to us through the story of her life, which some consider the first autobiography in English. After bearing her husband John some 14 children, Margery had a vision in which Jesus instructed her to be celibate. She was extremely devout and, in the course of her life, Margery undertook pilgrimages throughout Europe and the Holy Land. She was given the “gift of tears”, which caused her to weep incessantly on account of Jesus’s love for her and for all of humankind. This was a beautiful thing unless Margery was part of your pilgrimage, in which case it became too much. Several times, when they could no longer stand her weeping, her fellow pilgrims abandoned Margery.
I told Margery’s story one evening after dinner, and a certain pilgrim got weepy. They worried that I might be sending a message that we intended to leave them behind. I assured them that was not the case. This episode is not so much about the power of storytelling, but about the fragility of group dynamics in a situation as stressful as pilgrimage.
Yes. Bodies strain physically. Souls find themselves in constantly unfamiliar territory, both geographically and interpersonally. This is certainly not as stressful as many other situations in life. We were not in a war zone. We did not suffer from food insecurity. No one is forced to go on pilgrimage, yet it can take its toll, pushing people to their limits.
Returning to Saint Basil’s admonition, Pluscarden 1230 had its own challenges in showing Christian charity. These ranged from larger personality conflicts to petty grievances. One pilgrim is always late. Another never takes a turn washing the dishes. Minor infractions add up when you’ve been sleeping on the floor of church halls for two months. It’s the same on any pilgrimage.
Saint Benedict says that if “a brother… refuses correction” – after talk and negotiation and prayer – the final resort is to “use the knife of amputation” and remove them from the group. But the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage slowly turned me into a “Basilean”, believing that difficult characters are sent on to a pilgrimage not only for their own souls but to help their fellow pilgrims become more patient, more empathetic, more able to see Christ in others.
Phillip C Adamo is a historian and freelance writer living in Minneapolis