Pilgrimage – still relevant?
Over the last eighteenth months, I have been walking the Cornish Celtic Way as a pilgrimage, in 22 stages. The ‘Way’ is a walk of about 128 miles starting in St Germans and finishing on St Michael’s Mount, wrapping its way around Cornwall and taking in much of the Celtic heritage of Cornwall. I walked the ‘Way’ in sections accompanied by two very close friends, and it was a really special experience.
Special because walking in this way – an outward journey with an inner purpose – somehow connects us with something ‘other’.
Pilgrimages first came to the fore in the Middle Ages when they were a widespread and accepted part of spiritual life, be it for seeking healing, deepening relationship with God, or as a penitential journey. The impulse to go on a pilgrimage has never really gone away but it is definitely enjoying a resurgence at this time in Britain and Europe. Record numbers are visiting Walsingham in Norfolk and undertaking the ‘Camino’ – a long pilgrimage route to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela. The ‘Camino’ has many routes to the same destination, with one starting in Cornwall!
Today people walk for many different reasons. Perhaps a change in their life direction or relationships; or perhaps to mark a special birthday, retirement, or other occasion for giving thanks. It provides the opportunity to step aside of the busyness of our lives, to seek a time of quiet and reflection. It gives us the chance to ‘walk through’ those issues that we have on our minds, whatever they might be.
Along the Cornish Celtic Way, the scenery is stunning, the going sometimes easy and sometimes strenuous, but the impact of doing this walk is somehow more than the sum of its constituent parts. Perhaps of particular significance on the Cornish Celtic Way is that it allows us to reconnect with our cultural heritage and the natural world. The beauty of the ever-changing landscapes throughout the walk is breath-taking and certainly feeds the soul. But equally the reminders of, and encounters with, some 90 Celtic Saints, in the form Celtic crosses, chapels, holy wells, and the names of very many villages make their impact too. Reflecting on how much we owe to those who brought Christianity to this beautiful part of the world helps us connect with the long Christian history here in Cornwall.
Walking with others adds a different dimension to pilgrimage. Of course, there are times – particularly when struggling one of the many ‘ascents and descents’ one encounters – when the walker is living in their own head, with their own thoughts and reflections. However, at other times when the going is easier or when one stops to catch breath or for refreshment then conversations and sharing can happen. Sharing such an experience can deepen friendship, and it also always adds to one’s own pleasure to share those breath-taking views or the beauty and peace of a chapel.
Another really special part of this walk is the experiencing of hospitality and welcome offered by many of the churches and chapels along the route. On a really hot day with many fairly arduous miles behind us there is nothing better than to enter a cool church to be welcomed by the offer of cool water or squash and a biscuit; or, to be provided with a place to shelter from the rain for a while. We met so many interesting people along the way, shared experiences and tips, were helped when we had inadvertently strayed from the correct path, and given encouragement. I found parts of Cornwall that I didn’t know at all and probably would have never found had I not been doing this walk.
As I walked, I reflected on the fact that Jesus and his disciples walked everywhere they went. They too would have experienced the pleasure of sharing a journey, of being offered hospitality, of having time to think, reflect and talk together. They too perhaps struggled when the way was arduous, or when the heat became intense. They too would have known the joy of a cool drink of water from a well. Their journeys always had a purpose, they were driven by a desire to bring a message to God’s people but I believe these journeys were probably essential times, times of preparation and teaching, of working things out and time to think. And, of course, we know the significance of the walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus for two of Jesus’ disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on that walk (Luke 24:13- 35).
Defining pilgrimage as an outward journey with an inner purpose seems to exactly how I have experienced my own experience of walking the Cornish Celtic Way. Stepping away from daily life intentionally and taking myself away into some beautiful but sometimes isolated places, combined with exercise and exploring Celtic Christianity strengthened my faith and inspired me. It felt a special, set-aside time for God during a time of transition as I reflected on my journey towards ordination. For me, the psalmists sum up the essence of walking this pilgrimage – “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11), and, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (Psalm 25:4).
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.