A while back I wrote here about the book I’ve been working on which has occupied a fair amount of my time and attention over our collective sojourns in the various lockdowns. I thought a few more words about it might be in order now; some thoughts perhaps less concerned with political pressures. The book, now finished, is an account of a walk along the Pilgrims’ Way, that 120 mile route that follows the North Downs for the most part, from Winchester – once the country’s capital – to Canterbury; that enchanted heartland of the Anglican Church. It actually follows a route that once led in the other direction; before Winchester’s ascendency, the thoroughfare along the North Downs led to Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge. Journeys in this direction were mirrored by the phenomenon of later pilgrims also heading West to St Swithun’s Winchester shrine before Thomas Becket’s martyrdom reversed this trend, in quite a literal sense. Curious then that the route has often led to a sacred centre of these Isles.
While walking it, as in the writing itself, I attempted to tease out various themes; what did the route mean to me? Why did I feel the need to go on pilgrimage and how, at all, did this differentiate from any other given walk? And perhaps above all, how did I feel about the Christian faith, bearing in mind that I considered myself primarily pagan for much of my adult life? It started with an instinct I suppose; a feel for a certain quality in the air I’d experienced at times; a light in a window when semi-homeless that spoke of a warmth and apparently unlikely but still somehow prevalent hope; experiences in cathedrals, lighting a candle for prayer; and arriving in an Abbey after a week’s walk in the hills further west; an organ recital in spate, a feeling of elation that had much more to it than architecture, exhaustion and music alone.
Modern pilgrimage is on the bounce of course. You can see celebrities explore it on TV, Hollywood pitched in more than a decade ago with Martin Sheen in ‘The Way’, you can read about it in an ever-increasing litany of books. The Camino Frances in Northern Spain in particular has acquired a legendary status worldwide. Writing in his recent book on pilgrimage, Peter Stanford quotes the writer and actress Shirley Maclean who described her pilgrimage as a ‘mythological and imaginative experience’, a ‘walking meditation’ that enabled her to ‘walk backwards in time to a place that began the experiences that made me and the human race what we have become today’.
Part of the appeal of any pilgrimage is its universality of course. You don’t have to subscribe to any faith or even any given belief to undertake one. There’s a general emphasis on spirituality but, like the many medieval pilgrims Stanford writes of escaping the mores of their local parish priest, modern pilgrims are free from what many see as the dogma of the traditional church in general and Catholicism in particular. You can see it as social; a chance for a long walk with cheap wine and digs. Or as a cultural trip; fine food and architecture, framed by a pace that’s ideal to take it all in.
If any of that sounds vacuous, it’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever the expectation, pilgrimages are no holidays, or at any rate not simply so. For one thing, somewhere, somehow, something of the various routes’ history tends to rub off. The pre-eminence of churches, cathedrals and shrines strikes a sense of familiarity; prayer, candles, blessings at masses are all part of the experience, lent a sense of almost existential need by the rigours of the road that make them all the more pertinent, more welcome. It all encourages a degree of reflection about cultural – if not necessarily personal – Christian roots. For my part, I was raised Catholic and never lost the habit of praying in churches. And I’d always walked. It was when the two married for me with pilgrimage that I began to look more closely at my faith. They say that for those who don’t believe, nothing can convince them. And for those who do no explanation is required. But there are always influences along the way, accounts of that which makes sense to given people at a given time.
For what it’s worth, I’ve attempted an articulation of some of the insights that I’ve come to hold dear down the years, some of the things that have served to sustain me, the things that have helped me along. In this account of experiences on a given pilgrimage, I’ve tried to look a little closer at, amongst other things, the roses and perceived thorns of the prospect of formal religion. As for the thorns, I list my own grievances, common to many, about the so-called ‘Magisterium’. But they’re chiefly political points. What I am certain of, as much now as then, is that a system of worship, a belief that chiefly venerates prayer, positivity and love can still hold great value today.
Some issues remain, for my part at least; the doctrine of ‘one true creed’ or apparent monopolies on true salvation that place any given faith on a pedestal above another, residues of recrimination and guilt, an enforced clerical celibacy whose roots lie in the politics of property rather than anything else. But it’s easy to criticise, or concentrate on points of division when that which unites us can be so beautiful and strong. It’s easy to throw the baby out with bathwater, so to speak, or – as a Cornish pilgrim and poet I once met put it – “discard the vintage which cannot be redeemed”.
This is an account of one walk then, years ago; a tentative navigation of the way ahead, an attempted exploration of landscape and questions alike, when arrival felt far off and uncertain but which ultimately was a path towards a greater clarity and healing. It describes a route that anyone can take; all in one go or in stages and which is here, right now, on our doorsteps and offers itself as an opportunity whose like might just help take off the pressure on longer routes over the seas. At the heart of it all is a faith in what prayer and walking can do; of life as a dance not a line (as the medieval mind knew), of what we can do when we simply keep striving for love.