Thought for the Month: What it means to be a pilgrim
Thought for the Month, with Rev Malcolm Strange, Fromeside Benefice
AT the end of May a group of young people from the ‘Yate and Fromeside Mission Area’ completed a 101km pilgrimage walk from St Peter’s in Frampton Cotterell to Salisbury Cathedral. It took five days, sleeping on village and church hall floors, passing through a variety of landscapes, from the flat of the towpath by the Avon and Kennet Canal to the tougher inclines of the Salisbury Plain. They received the helping hospitality of strangers and encouraged and cajoled each other so that the walking community of some 30 pilgrims completed the journey in time for the celebratory act of worship in Salisbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel on Ascension Day.
Pilgrimage has always been in the human DNA and is a common feature of all religions, as the faithful have journeyed to their sacred sites. It also has secular appeal, as the resent BBC television series on the Via Francigena and Camino de Santiago have shown, with celebrities of different faiths and none making these historic journeys. Countless people make pilgrimages to places which are special to them, such as Anfield on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster or the war graves and battlefields of Europe (especially in the year of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings).
There are many reasons why people undertake pilgrimages: to give thanks, to remember, to seek reconciliation and forgiveness, to discover spiritual strength or just for the sheer challenge of the journey. The truth is that pilgrimages are a microcosm of our very lives, which some people might argue are a pilgrimage in themselves, as we journey from birth to death and for the believer to the promise of an eternal relationship with the God of Love.
Pilgrimages comprise three key dimensions: the physical journey, social interaction and attuned spiritual growth and awareness. What is unique about them is that by journeying away from the everyday, these three strands intertwine in a way they don’t in our normal lives, where we tend to keep them compartmentalised. Pilgrims who started off perhaps as total strangers become connected in a way the early believers of the Christian faith sought to achieve, as they formed those fragile communities which faced up to the dangers and persecution of their time. In essence, pilgrimage creates ‘community’.
In the pilgrimage activity, what the merging of these three strands achieves and gives clear insight to is what human community and relationship could be like. It enables people to grow both as individuals spiritually and through open interaction with fellow pilgrims; their respect and understanding of each other deepens, as they share the challenges they face on the journey and the joy experienced on completion. It does, in the words of the old Strawbs song from the 70’s, truly give them a Glimpse of Heaven!