The ways in which we use the word pilgrimage have changed so much during my lifetime. And yet, I realise increasingly, the core of what it articulates remains the same.
It began for me at the age of 17. I was the latest in a long line at my Catholic boys’ school to pile into a minibus and go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, organised and supervised by my Christian Brother teachers. They get a bad press, and worse, nowadays, often justifiably on account of the young lives some of them betrayed by their abuse, but not the two who took us to Lourdes. Over those few days in the summer of 1980, they opened my eyes to something that has kept drawing me back ever after.
At the time, it felt like a rite of passage. What stands out most in my memory, 40 years on, was the experience of being part of a group with a shared purpose, however unstated it was. And that included not just my school mates, but also and more significantly the visibly ailing of all ages with whom we mixed as we took part in candlelit procession and waited patiently in the queue for the shrine’s baths.
I came back sure that I had been changed by the example of their faithful perseverance, but not sure how. I vowed to return the next summer as a helper, assisting as the sick were lowered into the healing waters. But a year is a long time at that age, with many other experiences to pack in.
In the decades since there have been many pilgrimages – some of them for work, others out of a curiosity that has never left me. As editor of the Catholic Herald newspaper in the late 1980s, I was on board one of the first Ryanair flights to carry pilgrims to and from Knock Airport in the west of Ireland to see the spot visited by the Virgin Mary in 1879 on a single day, and intriguingly without speaking.
More authentically medieval in the effort required was joining pilgrims one Good Friday to walk barefooted across the mudflats to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and even taking a turn at carrying the cross (though it was well-padded where it rested on my shoulder). It was the first time I realised the element of danger in pilgrimage – of tides, not of falling flat on my face. Pilgrimage can be about placing yourself outside your comfort zone physically as well as spiritually.
The same was true when I took my then small children with me to Bardsey, the “island of 20,000 Celtic saints” off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in northwest Wales. Pre-Reformation, the Pope had decreed that three trips to Bardsey were the equivalent of the much longer trek from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena. The logic behind this offer (if logic enters into it) seems to have been that the narrow strait separating Ynys Enlli (to give it its Welsh name) from the mainland is so very treacherous. We made it, I am pleased to say, there and back, but local poet RS Thomas’s lines about pilgrims on the crossing “travelling the gallery/ of the frightened faces of/ the long-drowned, munching the gravel” were never far from my mind.
It wasn’t the element of danger so much as the sheer oddness that stays with me from setting off on my most leftfield experience of pilgrimage, walking the Way of the Cross in the mountains around Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre. I was there on a journalistic assignment with an aid charity, and the pull of an exact replica of the Marian shrine at Medjugorje, translated to African soil in 2004, was just too strong to resist. By the end of the circuit, it felt very familiar
It was only in the autumn of 2019, shortly before we entered the topsy-turvy world of the pandemic, that it finally dawned on me quite how elastic a term pilgrimage has become in the 21st century. To acknowledge the landmark of our children having left home for university, my wife and I headed off with a group of pilgrims to El Salvador. The focus was not so much on a place, but on a person, Oscar Romero, the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980, hailed in his lifetime as “the voice of the voiceless” for defending the poor and marginalised during his country’s collapse into civil war, and assassinated at the altar by those who wished to silence him.
Romero is regarded as a hero and role model by many to this day, inside and outside El Salvador, so much so that in 2018 the Catholic Church had declared him a saint. Our group was walking, as pilgrims have done for millennia (think of the Buddha Trail in northern India) in the footsteps of one whose belief in God was unwavering, to stand in the places where he had stood, and touch the things he had left behind, in the hope that they would leave some indelible mark on our lives.
That much was deeply traditional, but this pilgrimage was simultaneously thoroughly modern because it embraced a whole range of other ambitions: from the socio-political aim of investigating how Romero’s legacy continues to influence daily life in what remains a divided and unstable society, to unabashed tourism in an off-the-beaten-track, beautiful landscape of mountains and ocean.
In other words, we were walking with not one but two purposes, the first faith-based and the second secular. They coincided – for me at least – with remarkable ease. The connection was seamless between attending a Mass that celebrated the memory of Oscar Romero in a rural community, and then moving next door to hear about that village’s efforts to be better farmers by using eco-friendly methods. Some may see such a combination as a step too far in politicising pilgrimage but for me it showed how and why pilgrimage as a concept remains so very relevant even when denominational attachment (in El Salvador as in the West) is tumbling.
What took me most by surprise, though – because it hadn’t figured much, if at all, in our initial decision to sign up – was the gift of the companionship we found of a group of 30 like(ish)-minded strangers. If Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury bonded in a way that went beyond their shared, ostensibly religious excursion, then the same was true in our case (though perhaps not quite so uproariously), despite all of us being drawn from much more individualistic me-me-me societies. It was there in the shared meals, in the shared concern for the welfare of a group that ranged widely in physical stamina and in age from 18 to 80, and most of all in the gradual emergence, amid the general slowness that linked it to every pilgrimage since time immemorial, of each individual’s back-home backstory and why they were there.
These are things that no longer always happen readily or easily in our fragmented communities, where the emphasis has swung towards looking after what is yours, being suspicious of the stranger, and sticking to your own backyard. Their presence on this trip, and on other but not all of the pilgrim experiences I have clocked up since those first wide-eyed days in Lourdes, is one more factor in the renaissance of pilgrimage in otherwise atomised times.
The same sort of instant bonding, it is true, can be seen in the friendships that spring up in double-quick time on beach holidays, but the shared aspect of searching for meaning that is implicit in the word pilgrimage makes it more intense and enduring. Whatever shape it takes, and there are now many, a pilgrimage shouldn’t be regarded as just another word for holiday. It is more than taking a break from everyday life to recharge your batteries and relax. What pilgrimage is about, however circuitously, is allowing yourself space for a longer, slower, and hence more profound look at life, and doing it in a way that the modern sceptical, scientific orthodoxy of our times in Western society finds hard to accommodate, or even to understand, by stopping, pausing and reflecting, usually in the company of others, the within and the without, the physical and the metaphysical, the living and dead.
TS Eliot inevitably puts it so much better than I can. In “Little Gidding”, of his own pilgrimage to the site of a 17th-century, high-minded, Anglican religious community in rural Cambridgeshire, he writes:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning by Peter Stanford is out now, published by Thames & Hudson. This article first appeared on the British Pilgrimage Trust website and then in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.