Ideas of pilgrimage

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.

Let’s wander!

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “Ideas of pilgrimage

  • Norman Andrews

    Yesterday I took a walk up a local hill, from family history I know my folks were living up there 200 years ago , I view this has a kind of pilgrimage , I often just stand and thing about how their lives must have been, also just being there looking at the trees , the grass blowing in the wind that kind of thing seems to give me a great sense of peace,


  • manonbicycle

    Absolutely, to me the more meaningful sites are often the local ones, the less known ones; a remote church, an old orchard, a stream or tumulus etc.. Approach them under your own steam, using ancient paths and less used routes.

  • locksley2010

    The Woolley Woods near my parent’s house, I treat going to them as a pilgrimage. The woods are only 600-500 years old at the base of Wincobank Hill, Sheffield. The hill has the remains of a fort on top.
    But the Woods are where I first felt the spiritual connection to Earth and I like to walk in it with reverence as it is sacred to me.

  • Redfaery

    I first came into contact with My Lady in her guise as Benzaiten-sama, the Japanese water kami of the arts and learning (and luck!). So when I went to Japan for academic reasons, it ended up being the most profoundly transformative experience of my life. And I didn’t expect it.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Most of my wanderings were in cities and towns, though sometimes quite long ones of ten, twenty, and more miles a day. Many were long just get there wanderings, but occasionally I would explore the side streets for oddities, beautiful places, or even just curious street scenes and street theater.

  • pieceandblessedbe

    Two books that may be relevant spring to mind, Pathlands: Tranquil Walks Through Britain by Peter Owen Jones and The Druid Way by Philip Carr-Gomm. If you haven’t read the Druid Way it sounds as if it should contain instructions on being a druid, but really its an account of consciously walking the Sussex Countryside.

  • Argenta

    I really loved this article, and it abounds in references, which may be of some interest:

    And, if you’ve already read it, I wonder if you liked it, too 🙂

  • Nimue Brown

    Thank you for all the reading suggestions, I shall be adding those to the list or piling in and reading them.

  • eilidhnicsidheag

    Pilgrimage is the core of my spiritual practice. Walking the land is a wonderful way to connect to its spirits, and walking with sacred intention day after day after day leads me to a meditative state that nothing else can match. As for the destination, even though I agree with you that sacred places don’t have to be ‘away’, I also believe that there are some places where the veil tends to be thinner than average, whether from particular earth energies or from centuries of accumulated spiritual practice and the energetic residue that leaves behind. Choosing one of those as my destination gives me added focus.

  • liam moredburn

    I enjoy your blog and your books and this post very much resonates with me. I am a follower on the Druid path and I am trying to find a way to incorporate both pilgrimage and monasticism into my spiritual life. Knowing and honoring both the land I inhabit and my ancestors are important to me although I tend to agree with the post above that there are some places “where the veil tends to be thinner” (an excellent way of expressing it ). I now live in Toronto but I grew up on the Niagara Peninsula which has a long history of settlement, first by various native tribes and later by (primarily) the British. One great advantage you have is that you can walk the land of your ancestors. This is a bit of an issue for many of us of the British Diaspora. I had an English mother and a Scottish father, a typical combination for British-descended people here in Southern Ontario. I don’t have a long history in Canada although I am very attached to this region. I have no native blood so I don’t identify with that history other than in an academic sense. What I did do was go to the flea markets and pick up some old books on the history (native and colonial) and geography of this region to give me a better sense of what has gone before me. The region is full of excellent walks (the Bruce trail and the Grand River) and Niagara Falls is a sacred place for me – even with its casinos and tourist attractions. Thanks again for an interesting read on Christmas Eve (I celebrate both Yule and Christmas – ecumenical!)

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