It is tempting to think that pilgrimage is a thing for the few. Perhaps it is just for those hardy souls who can get the time off to yomp the Camino. But are there other options closer to home? Could it become a bigger part of our daily life?
I have to be honest and to quote Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, I’m not ‘the outdoor type.’ I don’t like to rough it. I come out in hives at the merest sight of a tent. I like to get a good night’s sleep and I like a good shower in the morning. I am a properly normal, modern person in this respect. I just don’t feel the need to walk a long distance to find God. I have the sense that he is very close and so any pilgrimage for me involves closeness.
What is a pilgrimage? It is a walk with a purpose, a journey in which both the destination and the getting there matter; a desire to go somewhere or be somewhere that gives us a transformative experience. It is an act of homage and devotion, and a way of stepping aside from normal concerns and focussing on our spiritual life.
It strikes me that there are lots of pilgrimages already going on, we just don’t call them pilgrimages. The Saturday trip to see football is a kind of pilgrimage. It is a journey with a purpose where we seek an experience of release and joy. It has its rituals and even special costumes and clothes. It has a solidarity about it – a sense of joint and individual enterprise. It is far more than just seeing a group of people kick a pig’s bladder around (OK, I know its not a pig’s bladder any more).
But there are other pilgrimages – trips to favourite plays and musicals count. And then there are the big gatherings. These include music and cultural festivals (usually in a field) and, for Christians, the summer camp/event (again usually in a field).
It seems that we might have been a bit hasty trying to bury the pilgrimage.
A few years ago, I was on holiday with my daughter in Athens. It was at the height of the financial crisis so it wasn’t the happiest place. I love old churches and there were plenty to pop into. What so impressed me was the way so many ordinary Athenians popped into church on their way home or in their daily activities to spent some time and to light a candle.
It seemed to me then, and now, that this integration of a mini-pilgrimage into the day is really valuable. It is hard over here, of course – many churches are closed during the day. But it isn’t impossible.
Recently, I spent time at a beautiful little church in Willesden in north London – St Mary’s. It is that rarest of things, a shrine church. There is a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant boy. You can find out all about the history on the internet, but suffice to say, I was surprised at how the experience moved me.
In this beautiful ancient church in the heart of the metropolis, I managed to take a few minutes of silence and just be. The Lady of Willesden is most striking because she is carved in black ebonised wood. Her look is calm. The Christ child has his arms wide open and a smile on his face.
This little shrine managed to pack in as much theology as a long sermon, it seems to me. But what it mainly has is holiness. The church is open nearly every day and anyone can pop in – on the way to work or otherwise. I spoke to a fellow pilgrim who told me that he pops in at least once a week to get ‘some calm into his life’. I understand completely.
You may not have a shrine church on your doorstep, but there are so many other micro-pilgrimages available: a favourite seat in the park in which to contemplate the God of love; a coffee shop where we can look and feel wonder at the diversity of humankind; a stroke of the cat and cup of coffee – time to be thankful for our animal friends and the senses of taste and smell.
Why not join me on the great pilgrimage of everyday life?
Rev Steve Morris is the parish priest of St Cuthbert’s North Wembley. Before being a priest he was a writer and ran a brand agency. In the 1980s he tried to become a pop star. He is the author of ‘Enterprise and Entrepreneurship: doing good through the local church’ The Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics, £4.99. Follow him on Twitter @SteveMorris214 or find out more at www.stevemorrisauthor.org.
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