PILGRIMAGE

The Association of English Cathedrals has declared that 2020 is not only the Year of Cathedrals, but also the Year of Pilgrimage. And why shouldn't they?

A Year of Cathedrals is an opportunity to bring to public attention what the Association does all the time anyway: celebrate the great churches of England (and at least one in Wales), whether that's their religious and missionary practice, their social outreach, their history or their material and aesthetic culture. Our cathedrals have, in some cases, been doing some of these things since Saxon times, and there's plenty to explore.

A Year of Pilgrimage is a bit different. The ancient practice of pilgrimage rather died out in England after Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell dissolved the monasteries and banned the veneration of saints' relics that had generally formed the ultimate destination of a holy journey. But pilgrimage is making a comeback, and not just for people with a few bits of saints' bones in mind.

The Church of England Cathedral in Norwich

Let's unpack that a bit.

The Religious Pilgrimage

Back in the pre-Reformation day, a pilgrim would travel from their home, usually on foot, to some sacred place as a form of penance or sacrifice and as an act of worship. Everyone was born a sinner, and was expected to earn their way to salvation in the next life. You earned this through good deeds and prayer - so many Hail Marys gets you so much time off from Purgatory, and so on. Donations to the Mother Church were another way of easing your passage to Paradise (naturally, the rich had an easier route to Heaven, despite all that business about camels passing through the eye of a needle), as were demonstrative acts of piety, for example, going on a pilgrimage. Your own prayers were all well and good, but the prayers of a priest or monk were more valuable (and were priced accordingly) and the intercession of a saint was more valuable still. Hence all those pilgrims turning up at shrines dedicated to the saint whose remains it held, and asking for that saint's help in talking to the Big Man (and leaving a donation for the shrine's upkeep).

Even back then, the journey itself was part of the process. It would be a time away from the cares of everyday life, time to explore your surroundings and time with your own thoughts. The journey provided chance for spiritual exploration in preparation for reaching the holy place and the relics held there. Churches, shrines and monasteries were sacred spaces, held apart from the mundane world, and you couldn't just pop in on the way home from the shops - these things required a certain preparation, a cleansing, at least mentally, in advance. Otherwise, how could the experience be special, as communing with God and His saints deserved?

A tenet of Christianity, then as now, is the principle of living life following the example of Christ. The act of journey-as-penance-and-soul-searching very much follows the example of Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, itself an echo of the Israelites’ 40 year wandering through the wilderness of Sinai. Christ, of course, was tempted by the Devil during his journey; modern pilgrims can hopefully trust to avoid such snares. Indeed, for the more religious pilgrim, the avoidance of the Devil’s snares laid in everyday life is partly the point of pilgrimage in the modern age.

The Secular Pilgrimage

That's the religious background, anyway. But hopefully you can see the appeal in a secular age, where people so often struggle to find time for themselves and their spiritual wellbeing. Nowadays we tend to talk about that in terms of mindfullness, mental health or just general emotional wellbeing. Even if purely from a secular perspective, pilgrimage offers a chance to step out of everyday cares for a bit, and to search within yourself, to reconnect to the natural world and carve out some Me Time. Whether that leads to an encounter with the divine is another matter.

My new walking boots - don't worry, they won't stay this clean

There are physical health benefits too. So many of us have sedentary lifestyles now, that the concept of taking a long walk over several hours seems outlandish, but actually holds a vast potential for exercise and fresh air, and time for your eyes to not be resting on a screen. These weren't perhaps such important concerns four hundred years ago, but they are a part of the appeal to the modern pilgrim, religious or otherwise. And yes, the pilgrim must walk, at least the last bit of the journey (it might be considered cheating to use wheels on the journey, but there's a question of where you start counting - the ancient or medieval pilgrim set off from their doorstep, but I think we can allow the modern pilgrim to get a bus or train to a sensible 'official' starting point).

Let's not forget the tourist and historical angle, which I personally find quite a big draw. Ancient pilgrims probably didn't think they needed to reconnect with nature or their environment - many of them worked the land or lived within spitting distance of rolling countryside - but we live much of our lives in town and cities, walking tarmac-covered streets (or more often, driving on them), and that's one more factor contributing to our frantic, always-busy lifestyles. A pilgrimage taking you through countryside lets you see new places, or old places in a new light, and brings us out of our polluted, built-up worlds. Plus, many of our sacred places (and the British Pilgrimage Trust highlights a number of pre-Christian sites) are sacred because of their age, and have been visited by pilgrims for millennia. Many are worth visiting in their own right, perhaps especially the destination church sites. Why not go some way to experiencing them as earlier visitors would have, as the end-point of a long contemplation of God's creation in the natural world, and of your own soul?

Cathedrals

Now, I love a good cathedral. Give me a big old church to wander around and I'm happy. So I'm delighted with the excuse to go visiting some of our grandest old buildings and dive more deeply into their history and the history of the country they've contributed to. Many of them stand on or near the sites of monasteries that previously housed saintly relics, and some of those relics or shrines have found their way into the cathedral, where they still act to draw divine attention, or pilgrims and their prayers (don't tell Cromwell!).

Cathedrals are places of destination. That’s what the spires and towers are for. Sure, they direct the eye Heavenward (and where the eye leads, the heart shall follow, right?), but they also made the cathedral (or church) stand out in the medieval rural landscape. They are 'holy magnets', to quote the British Pilgrimage Trust's Guy Hayward. Modern urban skylines detract from this effect, but there are still places (in hilly West Yorkshire, for example), where you can be coming down the slope of a vale and see a church spire poking up, beckoning like a finger in the distance. I don't think you fully appreciate that until you're walking a long journey where those spires are way-points and you can see one looming on a far hillside. 

The distant tower of St John the Baptist, Coley Hall, Calderdale

Combining a celebration of cathedrals and a celebration of pilgrimage therefore makes a lot of sense. Cathedrals (or their earlier monastic establishments) were often the end point of medieval pilgrimage, so naturally the cathedrals of England are being used as focal points for the revival of the practice. There are some strong associations between individual saints and great cathedrals (Saint Cuthbert at Durham, for example, or St Alban at, well, St Alban's), most famously perhaps St Thomas Becket and Canterbury Cathedral. This is an example that leads us onto thinking about not only Chaucer's pilgrims and their historical background, but the whole system of English government under the Plantagenet kings, like Henry II. That's how I want to treat great churches on this website; as stepping-off points into the wider fields of history, and as doorways to bigger stories.

The Association of English Cathedrals and the British Pilgrimage Trust have put together pilgrimage routes to all the Church of England cathedrals, and I've decided to have a crack at a few of them. With time constraints and a limited budget, my aim is to visit twenty cathedrals, on foot, for 2020. We'll see. First up is my local, as I like to think of it: Bradford Cathedral.

© 2023 by The Artifact/Richard Watson. Proudly created with Wix.com

  • @RichardTWatson

All images my own, unless otherwise stated. Background image: Saint Barbara's Church, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.

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