I’ve rediscovered pilgrimage!

by Susan Durber last modified 21 March 2016 03:04 PM
I’ve rediscovered pilgrimage!

St. Martha's, a church on the Pilgrims' Way, Surrey. Photo: Peter Trimming.

09 March 2016

I grew up in the south of England. And many of the places I loved to explore had names that revealed a lost history. I went for walks along paths that were called the ‘Pilgrims Way’. Sometimes I would explore the ruins of of a long closed convent.

I lived in a road called Friar’s Gate, and the local beer came from a brewery called The Friary. But there were no pilgrims walking the way anymore.

At school I read and enjoyed Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales and his stories of those who were travelling on pilgrimage for all sorts of holy and unholy reasons. However, it was a while before I realized that the Pilgrims Way was not just a name, but the route that pilgrims took on the road to Canterbury, to Becket’s shrine and to the place where missionaries from the Roman church arrived in England.

I learned, at first that ‘pilgrimages’ belonged to a time when the church had become corrupted. They were, at their best, little more than jolly holidays, and at their worst they were exploiting the poor, taking their money to pay to see relics or to have prayers said or indulgences granted.

I learned, in my childhood and teenage years, that pilgrimages were neither peaceful nor just. The only pilgrim I was really taught to admire was the pilgrim in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress – where pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for an inner journey of faith rather than an outer journey to a real physical place or holy site.

One summer I walked along the path where Henry once walked barefoot on pilgrimage and where he prayed that he would be granted a son. But Henry changed dramatically, within a few years, from being a barefoot pilgrim to having his men close the shrine and take its famous statue of the Virgin and child to be burned in a public square in London.

Henry went from believing in pilgrimages, monasteries and relics to being the King who swept it all aside. He was disillusioned, perhaps, that God did not seem to heed his prayers for a son, or reward the bruised feet or the gifts of charity.

But the view of English history that I was once taught – that says that Henry was right to shut it all down because the people were being exploited – has now been profoundly questioned.

This is partly because of a wiser, more ecumenical, view of history. Historians now say that it is not true that all the monasteries were corrupt and exploitative. They say that pilgrimages and shrines were not deeply resented by all the people. In fact, in many cases, they were loved and a source of inspiration and faith.

The injustice, on the contrary, was with those who wanted to take land of the monasteries to sustain a new and growing elite, and to replace Christendom with a new nationalism.

So I have thought again and opened my eyes to a new view of the history of my land. And my feet have found again the ancient paths and the holy places. And in walking and visiting and praying, with my own tired feet and pilgrim’s limbs, I have found something of God.

My faith is no longer just in my head or in my books, but in my body and in the world around me, in the stories of ancient and modern saints, and in the journey that takes me where I had little thought to go, worshipping in words and songs not once mine.

There has long been a reawakening of interest in places of pilgrimage in the UK, and a sense that they are not about injustice at all, but can be profoundly encouraging of justice and of peace. You can go to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in the North East of England and hear how Aidan, in Saxon times, paid money to get children out of slavery.

You can belong, even if you live in England, to the Iona community with its roots in a Scottish island and in Scottish cities, and discover a community of faith that is absolutely committed to finding and inspiring faith committed to justice and peace.

You can find people walking to holy shrines, but also to international conferences on climate justice, and to places at the margins of our modern economies, to find God’s holiness and presence again.

I would once have thought a ‘pilgrimage of justice and peace’ almost a contradiction in terms. But now I have discovered a new sense, purpose and joy in the journey to the Kingdom of God among us.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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