To be a Pilgrim: Reflections on a journey


by Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald Lombard, O.Carm

A few days ago I went to Vézelay, a pilgrimage visit. I had been visiting my sister in the east of France and after my visits to her with a car it has been my custom to visit this great hill top shrine on the edge of Burgundy with its Church and relics of St Mary Magdalene.  Here St Bernard of Clairvaux preached the crusade in 1146, and in 1946 they held a crusade for peace and reconciliation. More importantly, while being a significant place of pilgrimage itself, Vézelay is one of the starting points for the Camino to Santiago de Compostella. I first discovered Vézelay when I saw  three stars “not to be missed” marked in the Michelin guide more or less where I wanted a stop.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as early as 1979. All this highlights the importance of this holy place, that for centuries it has been a worthy pilgrimage destination.

The idea of pilgrimage, of a journey to a place of special holiness, is deeply rooted in human nature. It applies to most religions and takes place in most parts of the world. Our concern is specifically the Christian pilgrimage while taking into account that many pilgrims to Santiago, for example, may be nominal Christians at best. This can be seen in the 2010 film The Way where religious motivation for the Camino was not strong.  Besides Santiago, the main Christian destinations are always Jerusalem and Rome and then more local destinations like Canterbury or Holy Well in North Wales, not forgetting Aylesford and Faversham.  More modern destinations would be the great Marian shrines such as Lourdes and Guadalupe in Mexico. The first point about pilgrimage is therefore that it is a journey to a sacred place, somewhere often made holy by centuries of pilgrims, a place where the presence of God can be especially felt.  The aim of the journey is often healing, both physical and spiritual, it brings about renewal, repentance and a deeper commitment to the faith.

Pilgrimage is also an important part of the Carmelite DNA. We often speak of the early hermits on Mount Carmel whose Crusade was to fight spiritual warfare in the Holy Land.  First of all though they had to get there, the first Carmelites began their journey as pilgrims. Unlike other pilgrims though, their vow was to stay there and not return. Then several decades later their discernment indicated a need to return west. In this we can see a sign of their openness to the will of God.  We can remember those early Carmelites as pilgrim hermits.

Pilgrimage is therefore a key part of Christian life and the pilgrim in the Middle Ages was recognised as such by the Church.  Having begun with the end of the journey, the destination, then equally significant is the starting point and the beginning of the journey. Today, there can be too much emphasis on the sacred destination, modern transport makes getting there so easy. Even today pilgrims have first to gather and there may well be a service, possibly a celebration of Mass, to begin the pilgrimage. In previous centuries, this would have been a far more formal affair, the pilgrim was dedicated and blessed by the Church and given the badge of the pilgrim, the famous scallop shell for Santiago for example. The pilgrims beginning their journey were clearly separate and different to ordinary people around them. This would have been recognised by those local people. For many, even a few miles down the road would have made them total strangers in the area so their special status was their protection. The first element of a pilgrimage therefore is the separation from the normal routines of life. The starting point is almost as important as the destination. The special beginning and end make the pilgrimage different from other journeys and the pilgrim different from other travellers.

Preparation and anticipation have their place before the formal departure.  Medieval pilgrims would have been going off into the unknown with only the vaguest idea of the route.  There were guides such as Matthew Paris’ itinerary from London to Jerusalem, written about 1150.  That showed how the journey was certainly not for the faint hearted.  It takes courage to be a pilgrim.  Today there is an abundance of information available on the internet so that good planning becomes possible and itself part of the pilgrimage as the anticipation and excitement grows. 

However, central to a pilgrimage is the journey which the pilgrim must follow. As I’ve noted, modern transport has made very much easier the important journey which makes the pilgrimage. There are however many real modern pilgrims. They are the ones who undertake the journey in the traditional manner, usually on foot but possibly today on a bicycle. The demands of the journey therefore become very evident.  The pilgrimage journey will be hard, keeping going day after day. The pilgrim will become tired, there will be blisters and sunburn. For the medieval pilgrim, the journey would have been dangerous, getting lost was always possible.  There would have been  illness, bandits and wild beasts always threatening, to mention just some ever present realities of the journey. Whatever the motivation, specifically religious or not, the  pilgrim will have to face serious questions about who they are and what is happening in their life. The longest journey is the journey inwards as a mystic once wrote. The exterior discoveries will lead to interior discovery of each person. While the exterior discoveries themselves will be important too.  Indeed, even a simple journey can have a pilgrimage aspect. Driving along the Somme Valley in France, memories of the First World War are everywhere and those lead to reflection about our humanity. The courage of the fallen must be honoured. There are other discoveries too, the medieval pilgrim would have marvelled and been overawed at great buildings like the many Cathedrals on the way, built in an age of faith to the greater glory of God. Cities like Constantinople and Rome would have been far beyond anything they had ever seen or imagined.  Discoveries good and bad have therefore their place in the pilgrimage and journey. Pilgrimage and tourism frequently coincide. A challenge today can be occasions of making tourists become pilgrims. A visitor may come to Faversham as a tourist and leave as a pilgrim.

Pilgrimages are also about community.  Sometimes, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, the group begins the journey together.  At other times, those travelling the same stage day after day will soon know each other and so begin to form community.  They will share together and maybe pray together.  Christianity is always community, being the body of Christ wherever we are.  “Where two or three are gathered, there I am in their midst” as the Lord said.

And so one day finally the destination will appear over the horizon. I remember seeing Glastonbury Tor after a week’s walking, the encouragement to keep going for the final few miles. The approach of the destination will be a moment of excitement, of anticipation. That is then followed by the routines and special events after the moment of arrival. Queuing for hours may be required as well, just as at the moment of writing, many will have queued for hours to file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall. Honouring her and her Christian faith this time has its pilgrimage element as well.  Arrival at the sacred spot where I began this reflection may also soon become an anti-climax as the sense of accomplishment declines.

Yet for pilgrimages in this world, there will be the return home.  For the ancient pilgrim that meant returning the way they had come. Someone could spend nine months on the way to Jerusalem and back with just three weeks in the Holy City itself.  How many today, I wonder, go back as they came instead of taking modern transport.  Going home will be a different experience, as we may know from walks which are there and back.  There will be a wide variety of emotions, very different to those on the way out.  Finally though, the pilgrim comes home again when the experiences of the pilgrimage can be shared and help others in their pilgrimage through life itself.

In the end, all our pilgrimages form for all of us the one-way route to the heavenly Jerusalem.  It was the intention of the early Carmelites to remain in the earthly Jerusalem.  Their pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem led however, in other directions. As Christians we pilgrimage under the guidance and protection of those who have gone before us on their own pilgrimage and are now saints.  We too will one day join them in Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  Then we will all be saints among the saints in the halls of heaven.

This reflection was originally published in the 2022 Guild Magazine