Tuesday, 6 October 2009

We are all pilgrims.

If you follow the various pilgrim blogs and sites you will not get very far before you come against the thorny question of what is a real pilgrim? For some it is that you walk a considerable distance, or go even further on a bike or a horse. Many pages have been written by all sorts and conditions of men,with many opinions. There has also been anger and distress about such and such a group not being real pilgrims. Even the Cathedral get in on the act and add to the melee. They add that a true pilgrimage is about being and getting to Santiago. For them it is the arrival that counts. However to most pilgrims I have talked to there is a greater interest in the journey. The arrival at the bones of the Saint is interesting ,a relief and even joyous arrival but it soon palls leaving something of a disappointment that it is all over and it is now time to go home. There is a sharp divide between those who have stayed in Albergues and Hostals and walking along the way and the mainly parish groups who come by motor coach from various parishes within Spain. To those who think that they have got there the hard way, they are at best an intrusion at worse 'they' prevent 'us' from doing the real pilgrim stuff in the Cathedral because they take up space to which the are not entitled to occupy and they are not pilgrims but tourists. What is the truth of all this? I think that a little clarity can be brought to this matter by asking what sort of theology is in place in the extraordinary activity of Pilgrimage. Helen, Constantine the great's mother went to Jerusalem in the early fourth century on pilgrimage. She when to discover what was left of the Holy sites, where they were and what could be saved of them. She went to see for herself and to experience as many of the echoes of Christ and the Apostles as possible.This was the first great pilgrimage of the rich and powerful. I do not thing that there is any record of her trying to make it as difficult as possible for herself to get there. She used the means of transport that the average mother of the Roman Emperor would use and got there as fast as possible. The place was what was important. Now we could stop at this point and say that proves that it doesn't matter how I get there, it is the being there that counts. But if we do, we short change many people. However we do note that a theology of place is developing. The tired walkers spend many hours out in the wilds contemplation their lives and their relation to God and the world in which we live.To them this is important. ( I know that many will say that they do not believe in God.That nature is all that there is. With a little further thought this becomes rather a non question. Look at it this way. A classical description of God is the other of which a greater cannot be conceived.For some this greatest is at the level of the natural order, for others a much higher being is obvious. But for our enquiry, if nature is the greatest to be conceived, then that is God. The real question becomes is God personal. Does he have a persona or is it a random inanimate force of which we are the victims, because we have been by that force, brought into being. I believe in the persona of God or to be much more precise the Christian understanding of God becoming human flesh in Christ Jesus!) To these walkers there is an experience that goes beyond words. For a great number this is life changing. These changes are different from the visit the Santiago's bones. It is a different experience. In the scriptures we find many accounts of life changing journeys. The exodus from Egypt, return from Babylon, the missionary journeys of the 70 in the Gospels and Paul trips with Barnabas to name a few. These biblical examples point to truths about the Christian life as journey.These mirror and point to the central belief of the journey to heaven; life as pilgrimage. And coming full circle, understanding of this Christian life is enhanced beyond measure by walking 'pilgrimage'.It is then that the biblical pictures come alive. So we have to admit that there is a theology of journey at work. So in Santiago Pilgrimage two distinct theologies are at work. One of Place and another of Journey. They are separate experiences. So a walker may say of one on the coach ' You have a defective pilgrimage of journey', but the pilgrim who have arrived at the Cathedral by coach can say that the walker is deficient as a pilgrim to the place. This points up for me, that it is not for us to judge another's pilgrimage. But rather that we should engage in the most comprehensive pilgrimage of which we are capable. The subject of pilgrimage is not to be found in how someone, unconnected to me does it , but rather that we engage with the Divine in as many ways as we are able, who is the true subject. Please make a comment, whoever you are and wherever you come from, on my posts it does aid clarity and helps to draw out a true understanding of pilgrimage. IAN


  1. Thanks Ian for this post. I spent sometime agonising over whether I was a pilgrim or 'just' a long distance walker. In the end I decided that it wasn't really an important question for me, but undeniably, the walk from Le Puy to Santiago has been an important part of my lifetime journey.
    I did walk quite often with someone who occasionally took taxis or buses, as she suffered from serious knee problems. She was viciously attacked one day by someone who saw her climbing out of a taxi, and this 'pilgrim' told her in no uncertain terms that she was 'not a real pilgrim'. But that day my friend had walked 10km before the pain had become excruciating. Her husband had called a cab for her, then he walked on to their day's destination. This friend had a serious purpose as part of her journey. She was carrying medals from a friend of hers who had terminal cancer. She carried them all the way from Cahors, then placed them by the Saint's tomb. The medals were imbued with every prayer my friend had prayed for her friend along the way, heartfelt prayers. She failed to walk perhaps about 80km of the distance between Cahors and Santiago, but there is absolutely no doubt she was a 'true pilgrim'.

  2. There are five times as much people doing the Camino as those who receive the Compostela, I am in the late sixties and walked and stayed in a free and easy manner. As Sillydoll says, staying in an albergue does not make a pilgrim.

    And what is the "proper way"? and what is a "real pilgrim?" Sillydoll suggested that the forum could be divided into the spiritual and practical aspects of the Camino, let each do it as one wishes and do not be judgemental. I finished the Camino having completed one of my wishes, no one can say that he or she is a better pilgrim than I, I did not feel the need to queue to get a Compostela, I felt I achieved a great feat and felt very much at ease spiritually, no-one will take this away from me.

  3. Hi Ian,
    This is an interesting discussion and one that I suspect will continue for some time. In the west of Ireland where I am from there are many sites of pilgrimage some small and very local others, like Croagh Patrick, attracting pilgrims from a wide area.
    In Ireland due to the size of the island distance in itself (the journey) was never going to be a significant pilgrim challenge. However many of our pilgrimage sites seem to have a physical aspect/challenge such as climbing a significant peak (Mount Brandon/Croagh Patrick) in bare feet or going without food for 3 days (Lough Derg) built into the pilgrimage ritual. This could be seen as a sort of condensed version of the physical hardship of the more orthodox pilgrimage journey-and one that could be attempted within the physical restraints of the site(s). Sometimes these pilgrim tasks can be a simple 'pattern' of walking a designated path to/and or around a site a number of times others can be more extreme. In my experience there is generally if not an expectation at least an explicit opportunity to choose to undergo some physical hardship as part of your pilgrimage experience. Therefore a dicotomy between the journey/ hardship and destination/site makes me a little uneasy and doesn't 'fit' my own West of Ireland pilgrim expectations. However I think "hardcore pilgrims" to often focus on the more obvious manifestations of hardship e.g. distance in kms walked/and in what time, weight of pack etc when in fact spiritual, emotional and less overt physical issues can be equally if not more challenging for some pilgrims.
    I remember as a youngster the special praise one received for climbing Mount Brandon in bare feet-we all had feet like hobbits and prefered to go barefoot so it was not that much of an effort for us! But what was clear to me then was that the efforts of the old ladies who attempted the climb, even if they kept their shoes on and had to be helped up the last stage, were actually much greater than our youthful endeavours.
    One can never know the weight of anothers cross, what fears, doubts or physical incapacities they have battled with to reach the site. In that context its impossible to judge anothers pilgrimage even if one wanted to and quite frankly I don't.