by frankbeswick

Pilgrimage is practised by all religions, whose members like to visit sacred sites.

That pilgrimage has a place in the human psyche is shown by the fact that in a country such as England, where it was abolished in the sixteenth century, it is slowly creeping back. The Anglican Church [Church of England/Episcopalian] has revived it, and there is now a growing interest in traditional pilgrim routes, which have featured on television programmes. Along with pilgrimage goes an interest in shrines and the holy people associated with them. Pilgrimages need not be long, a short journey to a shrine counts as a pilgrimage, but they are always meaningful.For reasons of brevity I am focusing on Catholicism, but general points about pilgrimages can be drawn from what I say.

Photo from the shrine of Fatima courtesy of Falco, of Pixabay

Finding the Sacred

Since very ancient times people have thought or felt that some places were sacred. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that people travelled long distances  to visit Stonehenge and the sacred landscape surrounding it. Why? Here we reach the limit of archaeology: we can find the remains of past people, but their stories are lost. 

But pilgrimage is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian experience, for from an early period Israel has had three pilgrim festivals, when Jews gather to celebrate the covenant between them and God and the blessings that accrue from it.  This shows that one purpose for pilgrimage is to reinforce community bonds..What is being celebrated by  pilgrimage is not just a physical community, but a sacred community with God at its head and heart.  Christianity does not need to have a specific place to visit, but Catholic Christianity has space for it in its rich cultural store.

To some degree pilgrimage can be a journey to the centre. The place can be designated central for several reasons. For example, Jerusalem is central for Christians because that is where the most significant events of the Christian faith took place. But Jerusalem is at the centre of a sacred landscape in which there are several other sites significant in the Jesus story. By visiting the centre we can identify with the events and become participants in the sacred drama. 

Yet for Roman Catholics there is another centre, Rome, which replaced Jerusalem after the troubles of the Jewish rebellion.  In a way it was inevitable that Rome attained this position, as it was the imperial capital and the final home of Peter and Paul, the two most important apostles.  Rome shows us other purposes of pilgrimage. It is the base of the leader of the Catholic Church, and there is a chance to see and hear him, an experience that I have had once when as a sixteen year old I saw Pope Paul the Sixth. Pilgrimage to Rome also gives an opportunity to visit sacred buildings and to experience the sacred artefacts therein. To attend church services in the institution's centre is a memorable experience. 

Yet there are many shrines in the Catholic world, for the religious drama of God's encounter with humanity in the church has spread throughout the world. There are sites associated with visions of Mary, such as Lourdes and Fatima, which shows that sites where religious experience has happened become pilgrim sites. There are other sites associated with spiritual heroes, such as Canterbury, where Thomas a Becket was martyred, which was in medieval times a pilgrim site and is now becoming one again. Some of these pilgrim sites are linked with healing, such as Lourdes, where many healings deemed miraculous have occurred.

But essential to all pilgrim sites is the atmosphere. Lourdes is said to have a peaceful atmosphere about it, and my son Andrew, who has visited Fatima in Portugal with his Portuguese wife, speaks of the special feel of the place, as though the presence of Mary is making itself felt.

The Journey

"Solvitur Ambulando!"  the Romans used to say. This means "It is solved by walking." Taking a walk to think out a problem is therefore a time-honoured strategy. There is something about walking that is conducive to reflective thought. When at theological college in Ireland I used to walk out at night to reflect on philosophical questions, and these times were, I believe, the most productive study periods. Many pilgrimages still involve long walks. For example, the pilgrim route to what is said to be the shrine of St James at Compostella, in Spain, is still walked by many pilgrims. Called the Camino de Santiago, it involve a long walking route of 30-35 days at 14-16 miles per day. A month on foot with much time for reflection. The pilgrim route to Canterbury, now being revived, involved walking down to that great cathedral and the shrine of Thomas a Becket, destroyed by England's greatest vandal, Henry  the Eighth. 

Of course, walking is an option. The Lourdes pilgrimage has never been a  walking journey, and it has inspired the creation of the jumbulance, a coach turned into an ambulance for the sick and their young helpers, the handmaids and brancardiers, who tend them. Handmaids do the nursing tasks of feeding and cleaning; brancardiers do the heavy tasks, such as lifting the sick.Pilgrimages to Jerusalem often involved sea journeys,as must pilgrimages to the sacred isle of Iona in the Hebrides in Scotland, where St Columba lived and worked. As a youngster, when we took a trip to St Winefride's Well, in North Wales, my mother's favourite shrine, we took the bus. The shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham is visited by coach, but the trip concludes with a procession, a memory of the old walking tradition of the shrine.

Some pilgrims make all or part of the journey barefoot, as a sign of penance for their sins.My Irish mother-in-law, Kitty, whose girlhood home was not far from the great shrine of Our Lady of Knock, where Mary was seen by Irish peasants, used to walk to the shrine barefoot on August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. She would join the thronging crowds of villagers and farmers, women, men and children, to arrive at the basilica [important  church not a cathedral] where they would attend mass in celebration of the feast.The barefooted tradition is still upheld in County Mayo, where Knock is situated, for once a year some pilgrims still climb stony Croagh Patrick barefoot in honour of the patron saint of Ireland.   

The journey to the shrine should be a time of reflective thought when believers think about their lives, how well they are living and their relationship with God.For mediaeval pilgrims to Walsingham there used to be way stations, chapels where pilgrims attended services. One chapel survived the Reformation, the Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims left their shoes to walk barefoot the final mile,.and after centuries of disuse was restored as a place of worship.The journey on foot is therefore a journey of the soul, a stage in the soul's journey to God, a time for spiritual improvement. 

Roots in the Past.

The church never tried to abolish ancient customs, but preferred to absorb and transform them. Thus in the nineteenth century the church took  the ancient Irish custom of celebrating the Celtic festival of Lughnasa [late July/early August] when the populace celebrated by going onto a hill and partying, with a more sober religious feast in which the legend of St Patrick's lenten sojourn atop Croagh Patrick in Mayo was celebrated with a pious trip up the hill, known as The Reek [a Gaelic term for a hill.] On the summit a chapel was erected along with a cross.Mass was celebrated for the assembled pilgrims, many of whom ascended  the steep and stony path barefoot.This event takes place on the last Sunday of July, known as Reek Sunday. 

Maureen,my wife, has done The Reek. She was staying with her cousin a year or so ago on her farm near Ballyhaunis and so took the opportunity to do the pilgrimage. She was accompanied by two cousins and the husband of one of them, who did the route barefoot, despite the fact that the path is steep and stone-cluttered. The ascent began after first light of dawn and ascended along the narrow ridge of the mountain, to be there at the summit in time for mass. Maureen tells me that it is harder coming down than going up.She tells me that her mother used to do the ascent of The Reek barefoot! One mighty tough lady. But she did live to 97. 

In the  ascent various spiritual and cultural factors combine. There is the Catholic faith, but in its Irish context, with the memory of St Patrick maintained, and with him the second factor a memory of the long history of the faith in Ireland, which needs to be celebrated and affirmed in an age when secularism is aggressively promoted. The pilgrimage is a way in which Irish Catholics affirm their faith, identity and tradition.There is a strong sense of solidarity with other pilgrims on the ascent.

A third factor is the spiritual experience of climbing a mountain.In the Bible some profound religious experience occur on mountains: the giving of the commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration all occurred on mountains.The summit of Croagh Patrick is often cloudy, as you would expect in the wet Atlantic climate of the West of Ireland, but in sunny conditions you can look down at Clew Bay, strewn as it is with islands, and glory in the beauties of nature. Seeing God at work in creation is a religious experience in itself.

Ascending Croagh Patrick is just part of the religious and cultural repertoire of the Catholic Church. But it is  not exclusive to Catholics or Irish. Non-Catholics can happily ascend The Reek at any time. When you walk with pilgrims on the ascent you set your roots in the past, join with people in the present and together with them look forwards to a better future. In other words you are looking upwards in hope.


Updated: 02/13/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/13/2020

Yes, trekking to midnight mass has something of the character of a pilgrimage. However, for me church is a mere quarter of a mile away. But I attend the day time mass at Christmas now. I have found that nowadays I need to get to bed earlier than I used to, and where we are December nights are quite cold.

Nine churches in a day is a pilgrimage combined with a novena. A good idea.

blackspanielgallery on 02/12/2020

Hi Frank,

This is a nice piece. One pilgrimage in this area was, and still is albeit more difficult, to visit nine churches on Good Friday. The Catholic population is large enough that neighboring parishes are close, and several had multiple churches for people of different nationalities. Today several churches are closed, or only opened on special occasions such as weddings. This is a result of the shortage of priests, and a society becoming more secular.
Indeed, families who trek to Midnight Mass on Christmas could be considered on a pilgrimage, although not at the level described in the article.
I read this hours ago, but had too little time to write a comment. Sorry about the delay.

frankbeswick on 02/12/2020

Pilgrims retrieved slippers, otherwise the journey home would have been uncomfortable.

My mother was fascinated by the history of English Catholicism in the penal period, and as the shrine stayed in Catholic hands throughout the period she was specially attracted to it. Anyway, it was not far from where we lived or where we took holidays. We are from the North West of England, which is not far from North Wales, where the shrine is situated.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/12/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical informations and product lines.
As I mentioned elsewhere, my favorite Marian appearance is Knock: how blessed your wife and her family must feel to call that area home. My second is Fatima (pronounced FAH-tchee-muh in my carioca, Rio de Janeiro-accented Brazilian Portuguese), so I particularly value what your son says about the special beauty of Our Lady Mary still there.
But I wonder whether the owners abandoned their slippers or retrieved them on the way back from the Slipper Chapel; and why St Winefride's Well was your mother's favorite shrine (not that it wouldn't warrant that, just the particular one of many reasons).

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