"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.