Pilgrimage to a holy place: an image of the soul’s journey to God

‘Journey to the Holy: The Pilgrim as a Spiritual Explorer’: Says Frank Gelli

I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim” runs the end line of writer John Bunyan’s famous hymn, “He who would valiant be”. Indeed, Bunyan’s celebrated work and English literature classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is an allegory of the Christian life as a spiritual trek. A journey and a return, through manifold tests, trials and temptations, back to the Creator.

Christians have always believed that the Holy has especially manifested itself at certain sites. Jerusalem is the most important but so also are the tombs of eminent saints and martyrs, like those of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and St Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. The key motive is devotion, a desire to beg help from Heaven, for oneself or for others. The pilgrimage can also be undertaken in thanksgiving for graces received or as an act of penance, to atone for certain sins or simply to strengthen the pilgrim’s faith.

The Christian tradition of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem goes back a long way. In 326 AD St Helena, mother of that Roman Emperor Constantine who rescued the Church from pagan persecution, travelled on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A zealous woman of faith, Helena wished to visit the places connected with Christ’s life, death and resurrection. She then built churches on the Mount of Olives and announced the discovery of the True Cross. Her example gave the impetus to the great Jerusalem pilgrimage of the Middle Ages. A later pious traveller was an Iberian nun called Egeria. Her detailed reports of the Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem also stimulated Christians everywhere to pursue the same experience. The stream of pilgrims never dried up. Actually, it still goes on.

A pilgrim is not to be confused with a tourist. His expedition must involve spiritual preparation and prayer, deliberate facing of hardships, financial and physical sacrifice. It demands discipline and effort. Sometimes a violent man went to Jerusalem because of remorse for the crimes he had committed. England’s King Henry IV was struck by disease after usurping the throne of his predecessor Richard II, whom he had murdered. A seer told the King that he would not die until he had seen Jerusalem. Henry prepared himself for the task and he did indeed die in Jerusalem – only, it was not the holy city in Palestine but a chamber so named in Westminster Abbey, after he was taken ill there. Divine irony, as well as chastisement, perhaps…

The pilgrim could be either solitary or travel in company. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a case of the latter. After Archbishop Becket in 1170 was slain at the altar in his Cathedral, pilgrims from all over England flocked to his shrine at Canterbury. It became one of five great centres: Rome, St Michael at Mount Gargano (Michael being the Archangel of that name), Santiago de Compostela and, of course, Jerusalem. The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 23 stories, related by members of a group of pilgrims on their way to St Thomas’ shrine. Chaucer was not a pious writer and his tales are sometimes licentious or merely entertaining but others show genuine piety and zeal. The Prioress’ Tale, for instance, shows martyrdom as a gift of divine mercy and a bringer of grace. Alas, at the Reformation the shrine was pillaged and destroyed by the monstrous Henry VIII. Today prayerful pilgrims have largely been replaced by heedless, camera-clicking tourists.

Thank God, Britain retains two living pilgrimage sites. One is at Walsingham (once housing a replica of Jesus’ house at Nazareth) in England and the other at Haddington, in Scotland. Both dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Protestant iconoclasm devastated them but pilgrimages were revived in the last century. I have many times led my parishioners to Walsingham and gone alone to Haddington. Uplifting places. An old friend of mine, Lord Lauderdale, now with the angels in Heaven, was the prime mover behind the Scottish Marian pilgrimage. He was a faithful Anglican and told me: ‘I feel my duty to repair some of the harm my ancestors did to this tremendous place’.

A somewhat peculiar if temporary mutation befell the Jerusalem pilgrimage after 1009. Until then Christian pilgrims went always unarmed and the Arab authorities in Palestine did not molest them. That was until Cairo’s despotic and erratic Caliph Hakim had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre demolished and began imposing harsh restrictions on Christians. Other incidents followed later. Pilgrims then armed themselves for self-defence. The Jerusalem pilgrimage rapidly transformed into a crusade. The sad results are well-known. However, Crusades over, the ancient tradition of a peaceful religious journey was happily restored. When the young St Ignatius of Loyola visited Jerusalem in 1553 in fulfilment of a vow, the only minor hassles he met was not from Muslims but from local fellow Christians!

Unlike the Haj to Mecca, mandated for Muslims in the Qur’an, there is no single, central place of pilgrimage which all Christians are commanded to visit. For an analogy with Islam, you perhaps should think of Sufis and Shia, who, alongside the obligatory Haj, often travel to various shrines of sainted men and women. In some cases people of the two religions even mingle together at the same place. F.W. Hasluck, in his fascinating ‘Christianity and Islam under the Sultans’, tells of many Christian sanctuaries in the Ottoman Empire frequented by Muslims and of Islamic ones revered by Christians. A priest told me that it is not uncommon today to find Muslims visiting the Catholic shrine of Fatima in Portugal. The name of the Prophet’s beloved daughter presumably is what attracts them there.

Finally, there is a surprising connection between pilgrims and explorers. This has been traced by the profoundly religious poet T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. He declares that in the end, like the traveller who set off to explore distant lands, the pilgrim will find himself back at home where he started and know the place for the first time – and be much enriched for it. A thought well worth meditating on.

Gelli bio

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