Apparently going on a pilgrimage (religious or otherwise) is increasingly popular. Latest statistics for The Camino - one of the most popular European pilgrim routes in northern Spain - attracted 270, 000 people in 2016. This figure is for those who completed and received a certificate; many others would have only walked parts of it and therefore not qualified to be registered. Thousands still flock to other religious sites such as Rome, Lourdes and Jerusalem every year. UK pilgrim routes are being popularised as the combination of walking – alone or with companions – history and spirituality draws the curious and committed. Places such as Iona, Walsingham, Canterbury, and Lindisfarne are now major visitor attractions.
Pilgrimages are not only for the religious. During these centenary years of the First World War, thousands are making their way to visit the sites of major battles on the Western Front and the vast cemeteries where the fallen are buried. Visitors stand in silent awe at the enormous loss of life and the suffering inflicted on a generation.
Going to National Trust or other ancient properties can feel like a pilgrimage. The houses, homes and gardens visited speak of another age and another Britain, as unrecognizable to us as we would be to them; if they were miraculously transported to 2017. Places have their unique history and the more significant the history the more resonant the place in the imagination of the visitor. Maybe we are endeavouring to live in that past, briefly for a fleeting time of immersion in the invisible but imaginable, is this part of the attraction?
To go on pilgrimage is to be part of a long and respectable history almost two thousand years old. Even Jesus himself participated in pilgrimages as a child with his family to Jerusalem for High Holy Days, and Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Psalms of Ascent”, sung by the faithful as they made their pilgrimages up to Jerusalem. Many medieval Christians also started to practise walking the Stations of the Cross, with symbols in the church guiding pilgrims to follow the footsteps of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion.
Other sites in Europe became popular during the centuries where it was too dangerous to travel to the Holy Land. St. Peter’s in Rome has traditionally been the most popular pilgrimage destination, due to the presence of the Apostle Peter’s earthly remains.
Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, became England’s best-known pilgrimage destination when he was martyred on the orders of King Henry II in 1170. Pilgrims have journeyed to Becket’s shrine for centuries, and its fame has been immortalised in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1383-1400), where twenty-nine pilgrims tell stories to each other on the way to seek healing and transformation.
During The Reformation, going on Pilgrimage fell out of favour, as various superstitions were associated with it. Despite this, the fundamental nature of pilgrimage, to make a journey to a religious centre to deepen one’s faith, has remained strong in the spiritual life of Christianity.
More recently, going on pilgrimage has increased in popularity once more. Catholics, Protestants and even Evangelical Christians are all rediscovering the transformative power of journeying to a sacred site. Leaving the regular world behind and visiting spiritually significant places offers the chance to contemplate and enjoy the wonders of God, before returning, feeling refreshed and renewed. Many people find pilgrimage attractive as it offers an opportunity to get away from the distractions of everyday life and to work towards a life lived in closer communion with God.
Whatever our beliefs, travelling with a degree of uncertainty and vulnerability to a place which stands in contrast to our usual life style and surroundings can provide fresh perspectives and new insights into ourselves and the world. In late September 2018 a pilgrimage is being planned from St Nicolas' Church, Kings Norton to Rome. It will be a chance to visit some of the most historic sites in Western Europe and to soak up the atmosphere of the cradle of Western Christianity. If you are interested to know more, contact the Parish Office at St Nicolas' Place.