Pilgrimage is usually understood as a journey to a sacred place. The journey itself is a spiritual process. Pilgrimages tend to be a bit epic – whether that’s Islamic people travelling vast distances to go on the Hajj, medieval folk walking to the sites where saint’s remains are said to perform miracles, journeys to The Holy Land, or to the graves of ancestors of tradition (all those people going to Gracelands to see Elvis spring to mind). There’s a sense that a pilgrimage has to be big and dramatic. You have to go a long way. The walking should be intense. Maybe your feet should bleed.
I’m a Pagan. The idea of suffering as a spiritual good is not beaten into my path. I’m not atoning for my sins, I don’t need to bleed out some imagined misdemeanour. As I’m a Pagan, I hold nature sacred. This means that my sacred places are not ‘away’ requiring a huge journey to get to them. My sacred places are hills, valleys, streams, trees… in short, sacredness is around me. All I have to do is look out of the window or go outside. Last but not least, I know that not everyone is mobile. Many people have a limited capacity to walk. Many people cannot afford long trips to distant lands where the difference between tourism and pilgrimage may not be clear cut (also true of much mediaeval pilgrimage). Could pilgrimage be re-imagined as a more inclusive and available idea?
I’ve always walked, for transport and for leisure. It’s always been a key part of my Paganism, because in walking I experience the land, encounter what’s living around me, and have time for contemplation and just being.
Last summer I started thinking in earnest about whether Pagan Pilgrimage could be a thing in its own right, and what it would mean to wander about as a Pagan Pilgrim. I’ve spent time thinking about what I do, sharing walks with other people who think about this sort of thing, and wondering how to write about walking. I’ve been reading authors who write their experiences of the land – Robert McFarlane, Nan Shepherd, Llewelyn Powys, John Clare, Thoreau, Ivor Gurney… I’m looking for others as well.
I’ve long been interested in landscape history because this is often the only trace working people leave. Left out of official records, little bothered with in the classrooms of my childhood, there is a story in the land made of pathways, earthworking, old hedgerows and place names, industrial and faming relics, that tells of the people who lived close to the soil. This is a story I am drawn to.
I want to get past ideas of the picturesque, the manufactured landscape to be pretty around big houses, the focus on the summit or the approved view, and make a relationship with the land that sees beauty in the truth of existence, and does not need to airbrush out all evidence of life and death.
I’m going to try and write something about this exploration every week – because I’m failing to make time for bigger book projects, and this is the most realistic way of getting it done. The blog will be a first draft, bite sized ideas as and when they occur to me. If there is a book, it will be a better organised, redrafted thing. In the meantime, I thank you for sharing the journey. Please do pile into the comments section, I would greatly value input, and I will be keeping track of names so as to properly quote people if that turns out to make sense.