A brief history of pilgrimage

The idea of pilgrimage – a spiritual journey to a sacred place – is buried deep within our understanding of spirituality and religious practice.

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Ever since those first disciples rushed to see for themselves the place where Jesus had been buried and was now no longer present, men and women have travelled to sites made significant either by the deeds carried out there, words spoken there, or the fact that a holy man or woman lived there or whose remains are present.

This practice has had a huge influence not only on the spiritual history of the British Isles but on the physical infrastructure as well. Routes have been laid down by the feet of the faithful, glorious buildings made possible by the donations of those who visit the place where relics lay in state, and a network of abbeys built to support the needs of those travellers.

The reasons behind Jewish and Christian pilgrimage lie in the Bible. A theme that runs throughout the Old Testament in particular is that of a wandering nation. Abraham was the founding father of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and it is to him that the first imperative to go is given ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing’ (Genesis 12:2) Abraham lived as a nomad , and this tradition was continued by Moses who led his people through the wilderness for forty years after their escape from slavery in Egypt.

God himself preferred not to have a settled base, as his words to David when he proposed building a temple in Jerusalem revealed (2Samuel 7:5-6) Later however, a temple was built by Solomon, which stood from around 1000BC until about 587 when it was destroyed and the Jews eventually banished from the city.

A second temple built in around 538BC lasted until its destruction by the Romans in 63BC and it is this second temple that saw the flourishing of pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the two feasts of Passover and Sukkot reminded all Jewish people of their wandering history.

Although there is less overt mention of pilgrimage in the New Testament, nevertheless there is evidence that Jesus obeyed the call to Jerusalem at festival times. The records of his life in the Gospels depict him as frequently on the move ‘foxes have their lairs and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). After the resurrection the disciples continue to travel, journeying throughout the known world as they spread the story of Christ.

With these imperatives in mind, and with a natural curiosity and desire to see the sites where the key episodes of Christ’s life took place, it would not be surprising to discover that Christian pilgrimage began almost as soon as the empty tomb was discovered. However, the terrible persecution of those early followers of Christ would have done much to prevent a formal system of travelling to the holy places from developing.

Such journeys may have become easier with the declaration of the Emperor Constantine that Christianity was to become the formal religion of Rome, supported by the mother of the Emperor, Helena, who journeyed to Jerusalem and other holy sites in 326 AD, bringing back to Europe many souvenirs of her visit in the shape of nails from the crucifixion, pieces of the true cross and other relics.

It may have been Helena who encouraged Constantine to build basilicas at the places where Jesus birth and burial occurred – certainly such events paved the way for other Christians to visit the sites mentioned in both the Old and the New Testament, and there is evidence that they did – even in 325 pilgrim guides were beginning to appear, as the nun Egeria described her experiences of travelling through the Holy Land, sharing with those who were not able to make the journey themselves, something of the nature of those places.

Constantine also developed other Christian sites such as the Lateran Church in Rome to house the tomb of St Peter, and pilgrimage became an accepted way for people to demonstrate their religious intentions. But it was not only the major sites which became ever more popular as a way of expressing devotion to the saints.

Gradually a body of history developed on the life and actions of local saints, missionaries to the shores of Britain who sought to carry the news of the Gospel to this hostile land. These missionaries left in their turn those whom they had converted, who follloiwed in their footsteps, demonstrating the love of God in words and actions. The places where miracles and revelations occurred – healings, conversions, miraculous events – became in their turn sacred, although on a more domestic scale.

Those who could not afford the time or money to make the lengthy and dangerous trip to the pilgrimage sites of Europe and the Middle East could find, in a shorter, more local journey, something of the experience and benefits of such a trip. Each pilgrimage, however short, afforded an insight into the spirituality of the journey.

In time the sites associated with the Celtic saints of the 7th and 8th centuries, Iona, Crouagh Patrick, Lindisfarne, became places of pilgrimage themselves as men and women sought contact with the great names of Celtic Christianity. These sites and others around England became more popular as travelling to the Holy Land became more problematic.

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The final fall of Jerusalem in 1453 meant that European sites such as Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain became the main goal of those wishing to make a lengthy pilgrimage. This latter housed the remains of St James, reportedly discovered in 835.

Pilgrims began visiting this shrine from the 10th century, the first recorded English pilgrims arrived in the late 11th century and by the 12th century was highly organised.

Routes from all over Europe converged on a single route through Spain, supported by an infrastructure of hostels, guest houses and large churches for devotions along the route, often themselves housing shrines and relics, and becoming in their turn, pilgrimage destinations in their own right.

Within England itself, shrines were also founded around the country’s major saints. Walsingham, the site where in 1061 the noblewoman Richildis received a vision telling her to build a replica of the house of the Nativity rapidly became popular, aided by the establishment of an Augustinian priory there in 1153 and several visits from the monarchy.

The shrine of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by Henry II in 1170 rapidly became a site of pilgrimage, with even Henry II himself bowing to the inevitable and making a penitential journey there himself.

These shrines, along with lesser home-grown saints such as Swithun at Winchester and Oswald at Worcester, became very popular and as pilgrimage became part of English religious practice, the country was crossed and recrossed with pilgrimage routes, encouraging trade and a growing range of businesses dedicated to the needs of pilgrims.

During the ‘golden years’ of pilgrimage – from the early eleventh to the early sixteenth century – it has been estimated that up to one fifth of the population of Europe had connections with pilgrimage, either as pilgrims themselves or maintaining its infrastructure. Elaborate tables of penance were drawn up during the fourteenth century to illustrate which sites gained most time off from purgatory for each particular offence committed.

The Liber Sancti Jacobi, a twelfth-century manual for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, gave both route directions, liturgies, and a reminder that a pilgrimage was not simply an excursion but a serious penitential undertaking – clearly even by then there were concerns that such a journey was not always undertaken in the correct spirit.

These seeds of decline were fertilised by the growing danger of travel through not only the Middle East but Europe itself, stricken with conflicts both national and internal, and came to fruition with the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when both the church and the state worked to suppress the phenomenon of pilgrimage.

Despite the vast numbers of people who undertook pilgrimages, however, there was always some resistance to the idea. From as early as the fourth-century writers such as Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa questioned its necessity, believing that God could be found everywhere, not just in holy places. There was danger in taking the focus of the soul away from spiritual progress to concentrate on the merely physical journey. This combined with a growing awareness that a journey away from a persons home might allow them the sort of sexual and moral freedoms which were corrupting and irreligious.

Those who made large amounts of money from offering hospitality to pilgrims at vastly inflated rates, taking advantage of their lack of local knowledge and customs, also came under criticism. Thomas a Kempis commented that pilgrimage rarely brought the pilgrim spiritually closer to God.

By the time of the Reformation, opposition to pilgrimage had increased. It was better to spend the money on the poor than on travel, it was argued, especially when the opportunities for misbehaviour were so plentiful. Curiosity about the material world was seen as preventing concentration on the world to come – the interior journey was the best pilgrimage. As Luther wrote ‘Rather than walk about holy places we can thus pause at our own thoughts, examine our hearts and visit the real promised land and paradise of eternal life’.

The pilgrim destination also, where the body parts of dead saints were knelt by and prayed at, was beginning to be seen as idolatrous. Although the destruction of shrines and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII has been traditionally viewed as heralding the end of the heyday of pilgrimage, perhaps more responsible was the gradual change in mindset experienced during this period. In the feudalism of the middle ages the bond constituted by the relationship between the lord and the peasant, whereby protection is offered in return for service, is mirrored in the bond between saint and worshipper.

The individualism of the Reformation saw a drop in devotion to saints by those who felt themselves freed from ‘middle men’. Christians accepted the grace of God as a free gift, without the ties of mutual obligation.

In 1536, the Bishop of St David’s ordered pilgrimage to that shrine to cease and relics to be removed, and Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral was also destroyed. Gradually most of the shrines throughout Protestant Britain and Europe were destroyed during the sixteenth century, with a corresponding growth of emphasis on the internal or spiritual pilgrimage, the inner journey of faith. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress summed up this metaphor of life itself as a journey through to the eternal city of Jerusalem, and this sentiment was echoed by churchmen and officials.

The rise of the Romantic and NeoGothic movements brought pilgrimage once again into the realms of acceptable practice. The nineteenth century saw a resurgence of interest in the Holy Land and Rome, encouraged by companies such as Cook’s Tours, who provided tours to both places. The appearance of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year old girl at Lourdes in 1858 gave rise to a new site, dedicated to healing, with other sites including Fatima, Iona, Taize and Medugorje gaining credence in the twentieth century.

Today, places within the UK such as Iona and Lindisfarne receive over 150,000 visitors a year, while Santiago de Compostela numbers its pilgrims in the millions. Other sites within the UK are developing opportunities for pilgrimage – those involved in running cathedrals are exploring ways of meeting the challenge of turning tourists interested in the historical facts and architectural triumphs of their buildings to pilgrims who can be open to the peace and beauty of the cathedral which offers an opportunity to reflect and pray.

Dioceses such as Oxford and Norwich are working to develop networks of pilgrim paths around their areas, the Thames Pilgrim Way being just one initiative. Smaller churches too are adapting their buildings to provide hospitality to walkers and pilgrims, who pause in their journey to offer prayers for themselves and others. An awareness of the possibilities of pilgrimage is becoming a significant part of Christian spirituality once more, bringing with it opportunities even for those for whom a journey to distant lands is not a possibility.