A pilgrimage of wellbeing
A pilgrimage was once a great way to show spirituality in the middle-ages. It was an activity for poets, peasants, kings and many others too, and some of our great works of literature have been based on the journeys to great places of worship. However, in 1538, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned all forms of pilgrimage in Britain. From then its popularity declined until now, as we are seeing a resurgence in this form of activity across the world. According to the Confraternity of St James, there are increasing numbers walking the Spanish Camino to Santiago, and old routes are being rediscovered across the UK.
The British Pilgrimage Trust says it is time for Britain to revive her pilgrimage tradition. The required infrastructure is already in place – off-road footpaths, under-used churches, and early next year, Cicerone, the writers of guidebooks for walkers, trekkers and hikers, will launch its own guide to The Pilgrims’ Way, from Winchester and Southwark to Canterbury.
Here in London, we have the national pilgrimage to St Edward the Confessors tomb, at Westminster Abbey on the nearest Saturday to St Edward’s Day – 13 October. St Edward, famed for being pious and unworldly, was once England’s patron saint. To this day, many people make a yearly pilgrimage to his tomb, walking from their own church through the streets to this holy place, just as they did for centuries.
People walk pilgrimages for many reasons, including better mental and physical wellbeing, as walking ‘is humanity’s best medicine’ – according to the Greek physician, Hippocrates. Others do it as a great form of social activity as people encounter others that they might never otherwise meet, making new friends in unexpected ways and places, especially in a larger church group.
For those with a faith, a pilgrimage can help them find a deeper spiritual understanding. Striving to reach holy places on foot, it helps us rediscover a relationship with oneself through life. It is through the trials of the journey, which mirror the trials of life, that we can discover a greater sense of understanding. Pilgrimage also gives us time to think, reflect and pray while on the journey.
My own experience ranges from walking parts of the Camino de Santiago, and in July 2015, the Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester to Canterbury in 15 days. While on these routes I would regularly stop at distance markers give thanks for a blessing in my life, and to pray for a need in the world, or to find deeper spiritual understanding. Through the journey, I’ve faced backbreaking muscle spasms and the most painful blisters, mostly of my own making as I packed too many worldly possessions in my backpack, or I’ve been tempted to go further off route in search of a more luxurious room or a larger range of beers.
It is only when I set myself back on the journey, I realise I don’t need all the luxury and that God provides everything needed on my route in life. Through this quest, I’ve been able to find one of those holy places where the veil between humanity and God seems at its thinnest, that my spiritual intelligence and the resonance of my ancestors, make the pilgrimage worthwhile and an important route before me.
So I encourage anyone to get out and walk or to go out on a pilgrimage or to join some friends to walk from your church to Westminster Abbey for the national pilgrimage at St Edward’s tomb. Especially, if you only travel on the tube in London, as it is a good way to see a different side of the capital, to meet people from different walks of life and to find space to reflect on our role in this world and to create a greater sense of wellbeing.
Pilgrimage is not something only done by mediaeval Christians, or for those of a traditional faith background. It’s a great way to increase wellbeing, health and vitality, and ultimately finding out the way before God.
More information is on the events pages on the national pilgrimage to St Edward’s Tomb at Westminster Abbey.
Photo of St Edward’s tomb, courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.
Matthew Hall is a Communications Assistant for the Diocese of London and loves walking, hiking, long distance pathways and wandering through wilderness places across Europe.