Some Thoughts on Pilgrimage

A talk given by the Rev Sam Aldred as part of the Gower Pilgrimage Festival 2022

I want to offer a few thoughts on the place of pilgrimage today. Why so many feel drawn to pilgrimage, especially those who might not be natural churchgoers. And why pilgrimage is experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity in what we might call the western world.
In the middle ages, pilgrimage tended to be undertaken as part of a penance, in remission for sins committed. A journey to a holy site was an act of spiritual humility. This is not really the case today. I want to suggest that pilgrimage today is a vital and tantalising antidote so some of the unhappinesses of modernity. It is an expression of truth, beauty, rootedness, and spiritual joy in what is very often a grey, rootless, and fearful age.

I’ll start with recounting something that happened to me at the start of the summer, which gave me the idea for this talk. It was a conversation that left me feeling rather dispirited. I was waiting to go into a graduation ceremony in Swansea’s new arena. This was in my role as Chaplain to the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. As we hung around in our academic regalia, preparing to endure three hours of polite clapping, I found myself in conversation with some of those involved in developing the university’s technical offerings. The talk was of a new Virtual Reality facility, being built for the university at huge expense. It would allow students to walk into a room entirely covered in interactive screens. In that one room, students could be transported anywhere in the world. This was more than just an art instillation. The room would be fully interactive. One could explore mountain ranges and museums, hospitals and stately homes, all without leaving SA1. There would be no distinction, we were told, between physical reality and virtual reality. I’m not an especially technologically-minded individual, and I’m sure my incredulity showed on my face. The IT folk tried to put in terms which a simple parson would understand. “Imagine your church” they said “reconstructed down to every last detail in a virtual setting”. People would not have to visit the church itself any more, with all the difficult of access that entails, they could experience it from this room. I resisted saying that the example was an unfortunate one, as the students would only have to walk 5 minutes to visit the actual St Mary’s Swansea, but I understood his point. The problem is that I do not see this as an exciting development, to be embraced with joy, but as something saddening and vexatious. This is because it seems to ignore, or at least distort, several tenets of the Christian approach to life.

1) Knowing that God made us to enjoy creation, and to rejoice in our createdness.
2) Acknowledging that life cannot always be easy, but that with God’s help we are given the strength to carry on regardless.
3) That though we are many, we are made one in walking with Christ down the path of life.
4) Being rooted in the local but reaching to the eternal.

Pilgrimage, by contrast, affirms and blesses all of these aspects of our humanity. I’d like to spend a few minutes on each of these points.

Firstly that idea that God has made us to enjoy creation and to rejoice in our createdness. From the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, to the very last verse of the very last book of the Bible, we see a God who has put His very self into this world of ours, and who loves it unconditionally. He looks upon His creation and – in those immortal and beautifully understated words – called it “Good”. Goodness radiates from the earth because God made it and He is the source of all Goodness. Like a piece of silver bears the hallmark of house which crafted it, so every living thing contains the imprint of its creator. There is, if you like, a spark of divinity in each living thing.

And, fundamentally, we humans are part of that creation. Humans are not somehow above the landscape in which we exist, but rooted in it, dependent on it, and subject to its changes and chances. We were formed from the dust of the earth. In the fulness of time we will return to dust, just like every other animal, just like the pebbles of the beach, the soil of the fields, and the sand of the shore. All of God’s creatures share a common origin in Him, bear something of His truth and goodness, and hymn His glory in their myriad ways.

This truth is expressed most beautifully in one of the most wonderful parts of our liturgy: the Benedicite Omina Opera – or “Song of Creation”. When I am out walking – often following parts of what has become – wonderfully! – the Gower Pilgrimage Way – I love to pause and recite the
Benedicite in the language of the old Prayer Book.
O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord :
O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord :
O ye Waters that be above the Firmament, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Showers and Dew, bless ye the Lord :
O ye Winds of God, bless ye the Lord :

O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord : …
O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye Whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

So it continues. It is a song that captures the sense of the whole earth praising God simply by being what God desired it to be. The birds by flying, the cows by chewing, the bugs by flying, the trees by swaying in the wind. And humanity, last and greatest of creatures, by stewarding creation and praising God with language and music, art, poetry and architecture.

When we walk as pilgrims, we walk mindfully and tangibly in the midst of creation. The journey is as important as the destination. In travelling from Point A to Point B – in today’s instance from Port Eynon to Penmaen – we become aware that all created things are joined together. The Gower is a great example of this. We see how the marshlands of the North join to the sandy beaches of the south, via the fields and hills in between. These are not separate worlds, but part of a continuum. God crafted them all in their variety, but they are held together in Him. A pilgrimage is a sacred walk, acknowledging the unity of Creation under God, and our place in it.

How different is the virtual world, in which we can transport between places at the click of a button. This lifts us out of creation and into the realm of the intangible and unreal. We can kid ourselves into thinking that we are somehow masters of the world, not part of it. If we wish to be in Istanbul or Innisbrook we need only will it and it is so. Was this not the original sin of Adam and Eve? God made them happy and healthy creatures in an earthly paradise, but they desired more. By eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they hoped to become equal to God Himself. Thus began the millennia of misery. So that’s the first great opportunity of pilgrimage in today’s world. It pushes back against the unhealthy idea that humanity can somehow exist above and independent of the rest of creation. It reminds us that we too are creatures, and not – as we so often behave – little gods.

That second point then. Life will not always be easy, but that with God’s help we are given the strength to carry on regardless. In a virtual reality world there is no need ever to suffer physical or moral discomfort. If we grow bored of something, we click off it. If we see something we do not like, we shut it down. If we encounter something that we think is challenging or hard, we can fast-forward past it. How unlike the world which God has made for us. It is a charge often levelled at people of faith, that they are escapists, living in a fantasy world. I can’t speak for other faiths, but this is quite the opposite of the Christian view of life. In Jesus Christ, God entered into the midst of His own creation, to bless and sanctify our human struggle. Along the pilgrimage of life, Christ stands alongside us, willing us onward, giving us His strength, His courage, His grace. Christ did not come to give us an easy ride, but to be our armour and breastplate, our sword and shield. I think of that wonderful story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, from the Book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar, we are told, “full of fury” casts the Israelites into the flame. What happens next is one of the most wonderful mysteries of the Old Testament. I quote:

“Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”

That fourth figure, surely, is Christ. The preincarnate Christ in in the flames alongside the suffering Israelites.

The lesson there is a beautiful and holy one. If it was indeed Christ in the flames, who saved the three holy men from death, He did so not by extinguishing the flames, but by standing alongside them in the heart of the fire. So it is forever and always. In Christ, God stands alongside us and enables us to complete the race that is set before us. He does not promise to give us an easy ride, but to be with us along the way as our help and our salvation.

A pilgrimage is a microcosm of this journey of life. It is not always easy. It is not always beautiful (I think of the poor group who walked from St Mary’s church to St Theodore’s Port Talbot during the heat wave last month – not a particularly beautiful walk). We might stumble and stray. We might ache and blister. The conversation of your fellow pilgrims might grate. But we walk not because we are compelled to do so, but because it draws us deeper into the mystery of the God who loves us and wills us onward in faith.

That third point. Though we are many, we are made one in walking the path of faith. I’ve been ministering for three years now in St Mary’s Swansea. As a city centre church it really does attract all sorts and conditions of people. I remember my second week, I was preaching on Sunday morning, and there was both a fist-fight at the back of church, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury in the congregation. In my third week I was having a genteel conversation over a cup of tea in the café, whilst a homeless couple had sex in the disabled loo. In my fourth week someone broke in to the choir vestry during the beauty of choral evensong and nicked a chorister’s mobile ‘phone. All sorts and conditions of people.

One of my most profound memories of my ordained life so far is Ash Wednesday a couple of years back. There weren’t many of us – perhaps fifty – but in that group there were black, white, Indian, Chinese, Romanian, Polish, Welsh, and even a few English. There were Anglicans, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Gay, straight, and trans. And I anointed each of them in turn with ash, together with those timeless and sobering words: “remember O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

The secular world loves to divide us up. We are divided socially, economically, racially, sexually, how we voted on Brexit or in the General election. We are told that these characteristics constitute our identity. But in that church on Ash Wednesday we were united in two ways. First, by our common humanity that lies beneath all those exterior factors. And secondly by our faith in the saving power of Christ. The secular society in which we live, tells us that we are free because the constraints of faith have been removed from us. Now we do not have to believe one particular thing, we are free to believe whatever we want.

Freedom in this sense can be pictured as standing at a crossroads with twenty thousand paths leading off from it. At first, perhaps, it seems liberating. Endless possibilities! Endless ways to make our own truths, our own futures, freed from anyone else’s ideas or opinions. But more often than not we stride a few feet down one path, before returning to that crossroads, and tiptoeing down another. We try another path for a few yards, Then decide it is not for us, and return to where we started. Our freedom actually becomes a prison. We are trapped in by the false promises of choice. This is a truth I hear with increasing frequency from young men and women around my own age. It is certainly my experience. Like most people of my age (I’m 34) I was not raised in the church. I never opened a Bible, never attended services. It was an alien world. But I always felt called to that sense of timeless truth and beauty I found when I entered a church building. When you are told you can believe in anything, you either believe in nothing, or believe in all manner of strange things. This is why so many young people are now drawn to the more traditional forms of worship. The old prayer book, the ancient hymns, plainsong and Gregorian chant. There is a sense here not of something fleeting (or worse – what are often called “modern hymns” were actually written before we were born and sound like dated pop songs). Instead in this traditional worship we find ourselves saying words and singing songs sung by our grandparents and their grandparents. Some dating back a thousand years or more. What has all this got to do with pilgrimage you may well ask?

Well, all who are Christians walk the one route given to all people, in all places, of all backgrounds, in all of time. The path of pilgrimage. We walk hand in and with Jesus to that heavenly home which is our hope and joy. As Psalm 16 puts it: “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy”. When we go on pilgrimage we do not all set out on our various routes, walking where we wish as we wish. Instead we come together, many people of many backgrounds, treading the same paths that the saints of old walked before us. In a literal sense we are treading the path of life, making known our lived continuity in Christ with those who have come before us in the faith. To be a pilgrim is to walk a path well trodden, to know that the journey and the destination are part of the whole, and to be united in a living faith.

Finally, that fourth point. To be human is to be rooted in the local but reaching to the eternal. This in some ways is the aspect of Virtual Reality I find most troubling. To live a life virtually, one does not need to take any awareness of one’s surroundings. Local culture, local heritage, local politics, local language – all of it is subsumed into a vast amorphous global conversation, what David Jones – that great Welsh poet and artist called “the cosmocracy”. It is, to put it in theological terms, a denial of the reality of the incarnation – the idea that God was born in a specific place, in a specific family of a specific tribe, to a specific woman. The impact of the incarnation was universal, but it was rooted in the local.

On a pilgrimage we have our feet set firmly on the ground. The saints who gave given their names to these churches – Rhydian and Illtyd, Madoc and Cadoc, Cenydd and Dewi – walked in this landscape and blessed it in so doing. They baptised in these waters, preached from these hilltops, spoke to and gathered the people to them, who lived here. In a pilgrimage we are walking – both literally and spiritually – in their footsteps. We are inheritors of their mantle. In doing so we recognise that the universal truths that Christ came to proclaim – justice and right worship, hospitality and universal love – are worked out locally.

It is one thing to send a tweet saying “hashtag I support immigration” and quite another thing to help the immigrants who come to our homes and churches for aid. It is a very easy thing to put a rainbow flag on your diocesan logo and feel you have made a difference, quite another thing to deal with charity and forbearance with the often difficult individuals whom we meet day in and day out. The Virtual World lifts us out of the landscape and into the amorphous realm of meaningless slogans and management speak. The Pilgrimage life roots us in a landscape and lets us work out practically the great and holy truths that God has given to all people in Christ.

So that is how I think pilgrimage offers us an antidote to some modern woes. In a world that pulls us into the virtual, with all its uprootedness and tyranny of choice, it grounds us in God and His World, reminding us that he has given us all we need to run the race that is set before us, and walk with joy the pilgrimage of life.


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