Jennie Cappleman considers what a pilgrimage actually is, and how to embark on one
This article was published in the January to April 2021 issue of Rapport magazine.
Living in Bedford with its many associations with John Bunyan it is impossible not to think of Pilgrim’s Progress and his hymn To be a pilgrim. But what does it really mean, to be a pilgrim?
For me there are two kinds of walks: purposeless and purposeful. Purposeless walking has become important to me because it inspires creative thoughts and helps in the preparation of sermons and indeed the writing of articles on things like pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is definitely walking with a purpose though we should perhaps think of it as a journey with a purpose because it doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of walking. The first pilgrimage I made was to the Holy Land travelling by coach to visit places associated with the life of Jesus. Pilgrimage is a journey with a sacred destination and with a spiritual intent.
Perhaps one of the most significant pilgrimages I have made to date was walking the St Cuthbert’s Way in 2011. This very beautiful route was developed a few years ago and starts at Melrose Abbey, in the Scottish Borders, where Cuthbert’s monastic life began (although on a different site from the ruins in the town) and finishing at the abbey ruins on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast where Cuthbert ended his ministry and days. This pilgrimage was inspired by what I can only describe as a spiritual experience I had at Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral and then the discovery that one of the former abbots of St Alban’s (my diocesan Cathedral) experienced a miraculous healing when he attended the opening of Cuthbert’s coffin. Cuthbert and pilgrimage became the focus of the study leave the diocese gave me that year.
One reason this pilgrimage was significant was that unlike the Holy Land pilgrimage and the more recent one I made along the Camino in Spain, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, I was not part of an organised group with designated leaders. I set out from Melrose with just one companion and we used maps, a guidebook and the waymarkers to find our way. Route finding seemed a significant part of this journey because it felt more like life itself, for which pilgrimage is in many ways a metaphor. Each waymarker, with the St Cuthbert’s cross symbol, was an encouragement that we were on the right route as well as directing us on the next stage of the journey. There were a couple of times when we missed the waymarker, eventually realising that the terrain didn’t match the map or the description in the guide book, and we had to retrace our steps. As a route it had plenty of hills to climb, and brooks and rivers to cross, along with hazards like crossing the East Coast mainline and waiting for low tide for the crossing to Holy Island, providing plenty of parallels with our Christian journey.
In good company
I find that on every pilgrimage I have the story of the road to Emmaus consciously or subconsciously in mind as I walk. For the St Cuthbert’s Way I prepared a Vade Mecum (a little pocket-sized book from the Latin meaning go with me) to help us consciously walk as pilgrims with Jesus as company. In the Vade Mecum I included prayers, one of which we used at the start of each day, and some of the Psalms (120–134) known as Songs of Ascent because they were used on pilgrimage in Old Testament Times, along with Bible readings and a few stories from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert. I also prepared a simple Celtic service of Compline for the close of each day and a communion service for the Sunday. For this, I asked a local priest to intinct and consecrate wafers for us which I carried in a pyx.
It is important not to go looking for some great spiritual experience on pilgrimage. Indeed, weariness from walking long distances day after day for approximately a week and the accompanying blisters and aching joints (and even lost toenails!) means that you might be relieved just to arrive at your destination knowing you won’t have to start walking again in the morning. I have found that it’s after a pilgrimage that I begin to discover more fully the things I have learned about myself and about following Jesus. There is no doubt that walking has an amazing way of freeing up our minds and spirits allowing us time for reflection, and on pilgrimage giving God opportunity to speak to us.
A pilgrimage near to home
Perhaps you’re thinking that this is all very well, but you don’t have the time or even the physical strength to undertake a pilgrimage. But don’t worry, a pilgrimage doesn’t have to be a long walk. There is a small Bedfordshire church that is unlocked which a friend and I would occasionally walk to, where we would first go to the altar and pray silently on our own and then aloud for each other. We probably only walked about five miles in all, but that was a pilgrimage.
So find a place near you which could become a place of pilgrimage – even your nearest cathedral, perhaps taking a bus to a distance from it which you could manage to walk. Britain’s holiest places by Nick Mayhew Smith which details sacred sites in most, if not all, counties of England, Wales and Scotland might help. You might also be able to find a labyrinth you could walk prayerfully. The famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral was created for those who couldn’t make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I have created a labyrinth that can be printed on to a sheet of A4 paper (see top right) and prayerfully followed with a pencil or just a finger so that you can make a pilgrimage in the quiet of your own home.
Rev Jennie Cappleman
Jennie is a retired parish priest, retreat leader, spiritual director and inquisitive walker.
Guidelines for ‘walking’ Jennie’s labyrinth
Pause and be still before you begin. Use each cross to pause and reflect where you are on this journey. Stop a while when you reach the centre and then trace your way out slowly, pausing at each cross once again. Acknowledge the end of the labyrinth which could be just Amen. Take time after ‘walking’ the labyrinth to reflect back on your experience.
Jennie’s labyrinth can be accessed from this link
or please contact the Friends Office if you would like a hard copy posted to you.
Blessing of the Pilgrimage
Bless, O God, the earth beneath my feet, Bless, O God, the road that I must take, Bless, O God, the purpose that I seek, O God of gods Your blessing on my rest. Bless my desire Bless my intention Bless my hope, O King of kings Your blessing on my sight.
Carmina Gadelica III
Camino Pilgrim Walk to the Birthplace of English Christianity