A little market research
For the past two months I have been reading, thinking and praying about pilgrimage. Because I am a writer by nature – the best way for me to crystallize those insights is to write them down. For the past three hours that is just what I have been doing, and I shall doubtless continue to do more of the same. Whilst this process is helpful for me, I am uncertain whether it is of any interest to others. Should I think about a wider audience through e-publishing, I wonder?
I have decided to paste some excerpts of the first 3000 words below. I would love to know whether they pique your interest or not. It really doesn’t matter either way, but I would love to know. Thanks.
To say that the Christian life is ‘just’ lived at walking pace makes it sound like an easy thing – as if we can just saunter our way from first calling to heavenly arrival without even breaking a sweat. Anyone who has ever walked a substantial distance on foot will know that it is not so. In his youth my father was a very keen walker – travelling great distances between Youth Hostels with his canvas knapsack on his back. Years later, when my brother and I came along, he was still keen to walk. With our much shorter legs we often found it hard to keep up. What was a pleasant stroll to him often felt like more of a route march to us, and I often struggled at the back. Realising this, he took me on one side and explained that the secret to enjoying a long walk was not to concentrate on the distance, but on the contents.
Leaving my childhood walks with dad on one side, the story of this book begins on a hot August afternoon several years ago in Northern Brittany. En route (by car!) from one pretty town to another, we stopped at the little harbour of Port a la Duc. In fact, to call it a harbour would be to exaggerate. It had formerly been a small harbour, but now the inlet had silted up so much that it was little more than a trickle. On the other side of the road from the inlet was a small string of pretty cottages, and I stopped to take some photos. It was then that I noticed a small grassy path leading up past the cottages and over a small hill before disappearing out of sight. Beside it was a notice board, its paint peeling in the salty air, with a picture of a Templar on it. The sign explained that Port a la Duc was once an important point on the pilgrim trail. In centuries gone by, people would cross from Weymouth by rowing boat, disembark at this tiny port, and then begin the long trek of almost 1000 miles to Santiago de Compostela. My mind reeled at the thought of it. Here were people who had rarely even left their village crossing the ocean and embarking on this gargantuan journey. Along the way they would be reliant upon the protection of the Templars (as depicted on the sign), the kindness of strangers and the companionship of each other. They would face hunger, exhaustion, and possibly disease – not to mention the fact that they would be strangers in a foreign land and unable to speak the language. Why, why would they do it?
Today people who can afford it think nothing of jetting off to the other side of the world, and we see holidays as a right. Pilgrimages, though, are not holidays. In an age of deep scepticism about the apparent certainties of organised religion, there is a keen appetite for spiritual connection. Cathedral worship is burgeoning as never before, and people are taking pilgrimages again. There has been a marked resurgence in the appetite amongst Christians and ‘spiritual enquirers’ of every hue for pilgrimage. In 1985, for instance, 491 people received a certificate of completion on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. In 2010 the number was over 270,000. Jack Hitt, a self-confessed atheist, has written a best seller about his journey on the Santiago pilgrimage,. Martin Sheen has toured America with a film on the same subject, talking about discipleship as the reason we were made. Even sceptical British journalist Peter Stanford has swallowed his pride and written ‘On the road: a 21st century pilgrimage’. What is going on?
To make any journey on foot is counter-cultural in a world where speed is of the essence, and a person may be isolated from their global neighbours by the speed of their broadband connection. However, it is precisely those people with their high speed broadband connections and their ‘always on’ culture who are leaving the tablet at home and taking to the pilgrim’s road. Writing in what seems like an age of technological innocence in the 1970s, Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote about the ‘Three mile an hour God’. The curious title was born of the idea that the God of the Bible has always been experienced ‘on the move’, but that the moving was at walking pace, rather than anything quicker. Unlike other religions, Jews and Christians did not carry their gods with them as they travelled, rather they carried God himself with them. The thing is, we struggle to notice him when we travel too quickly.
All these things are descriptions of pilgrimage, but they should be descriptions of discipleship itself. Disciples, at least initially, were those instructed to leave their homes, depart with only the barest essentials to carry, and proceed on a journey which Christ would set out for them. Along the way they would lean on each other, expect miraculous provision and protection and come at last to their goal. Atheist Peter Stanford, in his honest and delightful book The Extra Mile , expresses it like this:
The very act of going on pilgrimage might be seen as making the body do what the soul desires.
Pilgrimage, it would seem, is worth another look…