What is Pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a holy place. It offers a way of engaging with the surrounding landscape and a space where we can reflect and pray.
A pilgrimage can be made on foot, by bike, by bus. It can be undertaken alone or in a group, with friends, family, or strangers. All a pilgrim needs is an openness to what the journey might offer, and a willingness to be changed.
The desire to journey to significant places is part of human history and pilgrimage is a feature of most of the major world religions. Christian pilgrimages have existed since the disciples first ran to see the empty tomb. These disciples were soon followed by others, with the first pilgrim’s guidebook to the Holy Land appearing as early as 385AD. The spread of Christianity meant other places gained importance, with the major European sites of Santiago de Compostela and Rome being joined by many other smaller churches and shrines, built to commemorate events in the lives of saints and communities. By the Middle Ages, the practice of pilgrimage was part of everyday religious life.
Pilgrimages were taken for a number of reasons over the centuries. A particular site might become associated with physical or mental healing, either for a specific ailment or in a general way. A journey could be made as a form of penance for sins, such as the famous pilgrimage made by Henry II for his absolution after the slaying of Thomas a Beckett. Other pilgrimages were undertaken as a prayer request and some were made in gratitude for answered prayers.
Today, many thousands of people make pilgrimages to hundreds of different sites. The destination, however, has become less important than the journey. The opportunities offered to the contemporary pilgrim to reflect on their lives, bringing to them a fresh perspective, can have a transformative effect.
Similarly, pilgrimage can help bring understanding of our spiritual progress as we find space for prayer and reflection during a journey undertaken by foot in the company of the saints who have travelled in such a way over the centuries.
Rural church communities have a huge amount to offer aspiring pilgrims. We can share our resources – beautiful buildings, wonderful countryside, welcoming people – offering space to reflect and recharge, hospitality and rest.
Pilgrimage enables rural Christians an opportunity to demonstrate that God is working His purpose out in rural contexts just as much as urban and suburban, sharing our unique local situations in ways which tell our story in new and engaging ways.
The Revd Dr Canon Sally Welch
Vicar of St Mary’s Charlbury