‘To Be a Pilgrim’

by JOAN COOK

To be a Pilgrim.jpg

‘To Be a Pilgrim’; Pilgrimage; what do we mean by pilgrimage?

What does it mean to be a pilgrim? Well we certainly heard in our opening hymn what Bunyan thought it took to be a pilgrim, what trials and tribulations are involved when undertaking a pilgrimage, and the rewards of having made a pilgrimage.

Richard Niebuhr describes Pilgrims as;

‘Pilgrims are persons in motion-passing through territories not their own- seeking something we might call contemplation, or perhaps the word ‘clarity’ might do as well; a goal to which only the spirit can point the way’.

When we talk about or hear of ‘Pilgrimage’, what comes to mind is a journey to a shrine, or some place of importance in a faith context. Well, yes, it can be something along these lines, but not necessarily. Emmerson describes Pilgrimage as a ‘sacred affirmative’.

The reasons for undertaking a Pilgrimage may be personal, communal, or spiritual. They may involve physical journeying, a metaphorical journey, time for personal reflection, or have a missionary intention. Pilgrims may prefer to make their journey in isolation, personal, alone; or in the company of a like-minded [or not!] group, community or gathering of individuals. However, we might decide to undertake our pilgrimages, any pilgrimage needs a purpose, but not necessarily an aim, or goal. It may be that our pilgrimage is, our life’s journey.

Our pilgrimage may be an adventure, travelling to far-off places, spending time in a different culture. It may be personal exploration, looking objectively and critically at ourselves, our motivations, patterns of living, being with others. Examining our relationships with others, our place within the communities in which we live and work, as well as the wider community. It could be something as simple as reading texts that will encourage us to take a different view of our world, and how it is.

But for a journey, exploration or appraisal to be something other than ‘A Holiday of a Life Time’, an Anthropological Field Trip, Self-Indulgent Introspection, or simply a good read, there needs to be something more.

What is required, is that there is learning. That either during, on completion, or on reaching the end destination, something is acquired, some new truths are learned, there is greater insight. That whoever we were at the outset, we will have
grown, have made progress as individuals, as members of our species, and are prepared for more involvement with our neighbours and communities. That we have achieved a greater degree of wisdom, and are able to see and understand that things are not always as we perceive them to be.

If our intention were to develop spiritually, then we would expect to have found a deeper understanding of our faith, that the overcoming of obstacles and difficulties reinforces our faith, and beliefs, and perhaps enable us to reach a greater level of connection with whatever it is we ‘hold worthy’. That we are inspired to take this new understanding and use it, using it to help others, tackle injustices, contribute to the creation of a better society, world.

The idea of making pilgrimages is not a new one. There are several Biblical references to great journeying. In Exodus we hear of the Israelites in the Desert, and their journey out of Egypt, a journey fraught with difficulties as the journeyed to their spiritual homeland. Luke tells of Jesus’ instruction to his disciple to go ‘journey abroad’ to proclaim the kingdom of God.

The early Christian saints also undertook pilgrimages to spread the Christian faith, Bede writes of the travels of Augustine, and Ethelburg as well as his own travels to spread the teachings of Christianity. As did St Columba, who travelled through Ireland, and northern France, before settling in Scotland, and founding the abbey on Iona.

The premise of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, tells the stories, or tales, of thirty-odd people (expert opinion is divided as to how many pilgrims there were), making a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Although the content of their tales is not always what we might expect of those making a pilgrimage to a religious shrine!

So, the pilgrims in the Bible were setting out to reach the Promised Land, to spread the word of God; the saints, to establish Christian foundations in other parts of the world; Chaucer’s pilgrims were looking for forgiveness, healing, as well as more worldly gains. The ancient pilgrims to the tombs of Saints Peter, James and Thomas did so for religious reasons, to pray, and perhaps to connect with a Saint who has importance for them.

So where might one go, on a pilgrimage?

Of course, where people may make a pilgrimage varies greatly, according to their individual circumstances, what they are seeking to achieve, as well as their faith. What is important is that the Pilgrims’ route should be testing in itself. The route should challenge the pilgrim, with difficulties, distractions, obstacles to overcome. The route should encourage the learning, the growth and development we heard of earlier, by providing opportunities for the pilgrim to have to deal with difficulties, both his own and those of others, necessitating his giving aid to others.

In his book, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, Bunyan describes various places along the journey taken by his protagonist; the Slough of Despond, City of Destruction, Difficulty Hill, Valley of Humiliation, Valley of Death, Doubting Castle, Giant Despair, and the necessity for Pilgrim to wade through the Dark River, the River of Death, before being whisked up to the Celestial Gate. Although not literal, maybe the obstacles along our journeys’ routes, don’t need to be quite as severe as Bunyan describes!

Today people make pilgrimages to all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons. But this also changes with time. In mediaeval times, Bardsley Island, Ydra Enlli, off the coast of Wales, which is reputed to be the burial site of over 20,000 saints, (as well as that of King Arthur!) attracted over three times the number of pilgrims as Rome! Now when I wrote this address, I ended this paragraph with the line ‘and who has heard of Bardsley Island today?’ Well that had to be changed when I switched the TV on to catch the news one Sunday evening, and I caught the end of ‘Songs of Praise’, not a program that features on my regular viewing, and weren’t they just talking about Bardsley Island!

Apparently, people still make pilgrimages there, staying at the retreat house on the island. Bardsley is recognised as being a ‘thin place’, one of the places where the boundaries between worlds is especially ‘thin’. The author of the poem we heard earlier, the Rev. R.S. Thomas, was a frequent visitor there, as the island lay within his parish.

One of the more popular pilgrim routes today, is the walk to Santiago de Compostela. This was originally a religious pilgrimage, which began in the 9th century when the burial place of one of the disciples, St. James was discovered, and a church built on the site. The church and shrine began to attract pilgrims, and the walk to Santiago de Compostela became one of the major Christian pilgrimages, alongside the walks to the tomb of St. Peter in Rome and the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pilgrims carry a drinking flask, a walking stick, and wear a wide brimmed hat. The sign adopted by those who complete the pilgrimage is the scallop shell, attached to their clothing.

But what about today? Why do people go on pilgrimages in the 21st century?

We still have people who want to visit Holy sites, a place of importance in their religion; the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Kaaba in Mecca, the tombs of St. Thomas in Chennai, and St. Peter’s in Rome, Varanasi on the Ganges, the Haifa-‘Akká , or to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. Either to experience being at a site with fellow believers, or to receive healing, atonement or blessings.

Carl Jung defined people as being one of twelve identified archetypes which symbolise basic human motivations, amongst these is the Explorer, also known as the pilgrim. According to Jung, people belonging to this group are seekers, wanderers, individualists.

I think that modern day secular pilgrims, those not undertaking a pilgrimage for religious reasons, but for their own self-development being members of this group, as they search to discover more about themselves through exploring the world. They hope the experiences they have will lead to a more authentic, fulfilling life, ultimately attaining complete autonomy.

These seekers are not all aimlessly wandering, trying to escape inner emptiness, or feelings of confinement, many of them are actively, and deliberately searching and seeking out new experiences as a way to accomplish those aims, what we might term as spiritual, if not religious!

I would argue that we are all on a pilgrimage! We all endure difficulties in our lives, some more so than others, but no life is free from its dark times. There are those whose journeys encompass the physical and the metaphysical, those who have lost their homes, even their countries. Stateless people aren’t only a product of the World Wars, many of today’s refugees and migrants have no homes to return to.

As we make our personal pilgrimages, we will be joined by others, either for a short time along the way, or for some of the stages we pass along. It may be that some we meet will remain with us for the complete journey, others introducing us to alternative routes. We may illuminate the route for others with our understanding, and they may do the same for us, by the sharing of their truths.

It is beholden on pilgrims to encourage the involvement of others as companions on their journeys, and with them seek to overcome the hardships we encounter with faith and hope; giving everyone the opportunity to learn and develop through providing mutual support.

With any pilgrimage, the outcome will hopefully be improvements in how we work together, our relationships with each other, the enhanced contributions we can make to our families, societies. Eventually achieving the goal of all Unitarians; that is the creation of caring & compassionate communities.

To close, some words you may find familiar, written by Richard Gillard, and taken from his hymn in ‘Sing Your Faith’. (Compiled by Rev Andrew M. Hill and David Dawson)

‘We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk a mile and share the load.

I will hold the Christ light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
‘til we’ve seen this journey through.’

Given in St Mark’s on 5 March 2017,
Joan Cook has the sermon copyright of this sermon.
It is used with her permission

Joan Cook, our Lay Celebrant and Lay Preacher, is a member of
St Mark’s and President of the Scottish Unitarian Association