I’m not a religious person.
Apart from births, deaths and marriages, the only time I visit a place of worship is as a tourist. In this last week, I have been to the Cathedrals in Durham, Ripon and York.
I find these places quite remarkable. The pure brilliance of the workmanship that built these huge buildings never fails to astound me. The strength of conviction behind the construction is also a marvel.
As were being given a tour of St Peter’s Cathedral in York today, the guide pointed out references in the fourteenth century stained glass windows aimed at those in the congregation. One of those was a reminder that each believer should, at least once in their lives, take part in a pilgrimage to the resting place of a Saint.
Then on to the underground displays in the Cathedral, where “pilgrimage” featured heavily. One quote, in particular, caught my attention:
“Pilgrimage is a physical journey, but it doesn’t matter how long it is, or how you make it. What matters is what you learn about yourself and the world around you along the way. Pilgrimage changes you. Although travel is easier today, creating space to think without distraction is still difficult. Pilgrimage forces you to confront things you might otherwise ignore. It takes you out of your comfort zone and teaches you to simply be.”
Wow, “religion”, per se, did not feature!
I discovered today that you do not need to be religious to undertake a pilgrimage.
How naive of me.
So, I started doing a bit of further digging
I found this definition on the National Trust website, of all places:
“A pilgrimage is a devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot or on horseback, toward a specific destination of significance. It is an inherently transient experience, removing the participant from his or her home environment and identity. The means or motivations in undertaking a pilgrimage might vary, but the act, however performed, blends the physical and the spiritual into a unified experience.”
Even a dedicated website (Pilgrims Way) makes it clear that the benefits of a pilgrimage go beyond beliefs:
“People go on pilgrimage for as many reasons as there are pilgrims. And you don’t have to be religious to go on pilgrimage! Often, people go on pilgrimage when they are at a crossroads in their lives, when undergoing a change in their life’s direction or relationships. Others may be in search of a deeper spirituality, healing and forgiveness. Or it may be that pilgrimage marks a special birthday, retirement or other occasion for giving thanks. It’s also a great adventure with the chance to meet new people and see new places.”
I think we could all do with a pilgrimage. There is something very deep and personal about spending time away from the daily grind. In our busy lives it can be difficult to find the space and time to contemplate your life, reflect on the past, consider the impact you are having on yourself and others in your life, and take in the sights and sounds that surround you.
The current buzzword for this is mindfulness, but put that to one side. There is something very refreshing to ground yourself, absorb your surroundings, enjoy the beauty that nature brings, understand your place in this world, and examine the important relationships in your life.
I do this on a very small scale when I’m out walking with Maxx, or wandering round a heritage site with Eileen. These only lasts for an hour or so, and do help me with the stresses, strains and complications that enter my life. Imagine if this could be multiplied over a few days, or longer.
It may just be that I’m going through a mid-life crisis, but it sounds like a more reasonable proposition than a Harley-Davidson.
I think I’ve talked myself into committing to a “long walk with a purpose”. I’ll decide after the event, if I don’t procrastinate over it, if it was good enough to call myself a pilgrim.