A PILGRIMAGE is a journey of faith, and leading an annual pilgrimage has been an important part of my ministry. A pilgrimage may be to a holy place, like the Holy Land, or to a shrine associated with the life of a saint, like Lourdes in SW France, or it may follow a sacred way, like the many paths to Santiago de Compostella. Whatever its nature the goal is to deepen faith, to learn from those who have walked before us in the Way, and to discover anew the Spirit who dwells in our hearts.
Many people travel today, but most travel as tourists. Tourist go to view, generally remaining outside the local situation; their purpose is enjoyment, not spiritual growth; they have come not to serve, but to be served; not to learn, but to acquire, consuming disproportionally local resources. Tourists are the subject, those visited are the object. In a journey of faith these roles are reversed: we are the object, God is the subject. We travel in order to become part of where He is, and not to remain outside as a voyeur. Although pilgrims do many of the same things as tourists, and enjoy themselves as they travel, the purpose of the journey is spiritual growth, and it us who must expend our resources if our purpose is to be achieved.
At the end of this page is a talk I gave in 2008 about finding God in travel.
I led my first pilgrimage in 1989, and since then I have led a pilgrimage more or less annually. The most recent (April/May 2017) was to Bari in Puglia, the heel of Italy, for the Festival of the St Nicholas (described below), and the pilgrimage for 2018 will be to Armenia.
PILGRIMAGE TO ARMENIA 2018
This year’s pilgrimage to Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion (in AD301), was a deep experience. Christianity has shaped the land, and its legacy is seen in its many monasteries and churches, and in the values by which the ordinary people live. It stands out as an extraordinarily safe and hospitable country. Its faith has been tested by many adversities, above all in the Genocide of 1915, but it remains strong. The journey prompted me to ask what it means to adopt Christianity as a religion if it is to be a part of our identity and not merely a badge to mark us out from others, and during the pilgrimage I offered a series of Reflections on this theme, which can be downloaded here: read now.
VIA TOLOSANA 2019
Next year’s pilgrimage will be along the Via Tolosana through southern France and on to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, culminating with the celebration of the Feast of St James on July 25th. The journey begins in Arles and continues along the Mediterranean coast, then through the foothills of the Pyrénées, crossing into Spain at Somport, just south of Oleron-Sainte-Marie. At Puente La Reina it joins the other routes from France and continues via the Camino Francés to Santiago. The dates are July 11 – 27, 2019. The itinerary can be viewed here: read now. Participation is by personal invitation. If you would like to receive an invitation please contact me via the Contact Page and include your email and phone number in your message.
NB: MARK FOSTER – If you read this, Mark, please contact me again.
JESUS & PAUL … My first pilgrimage in 1989 followed in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land, and since then I have led two further pilgrimages to the Holy Land. I have followed St Paul on his journeys through Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, visiting almost all the ‘Pauline places’. Other biblically-themed journeys have been to the the Seven Churches of Asia (from the Book of Revelation), and following route of the Exodus through Sinai and Jordan. In 2000 and 2010 I led a group to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, a remarkable and moving experience.
IN THE STEPS OF THE SAINTS Several pilgrimages have focussed on the lives of the saints: St Benedict and St Francis in Italy (2003), St Teresa of Avila & St John of the Cross in Spain (2007), and, in 2015, following the final journey of the Czech martyr Jan Hus from Prague to Konstanz (2015 marked the 600th anniversary of his martyrdom).
Prayers at the memorial to Jan Hus
at the site of his martyrdom in Konstanz
My most recent pilgrimage (2017) was to the Festival of St Nicholas in Bari. Bari is the destination of an annual pilgrimage, whose origins go back to the early Middle Ages. As we made our way we reflected on the life and miracles of St Nicholas; we experienced some of the special places in Puglia, like Matera and Alberobello (both World Heritage sites), and worshipped with the local Church. The culmination was the three-day Festa San Nicola, which concluded with the Mass of the Holy Manna, a wonderful, joyful service in the Basilica San Nicola – it was a special and unique experience. Each day we had a time of worship together, and I gave a series of talks, To Possess the Holy, about St Nicholas, his life and the translation of his relics. If you’d like to read the talks you can download them here: To Possess the Holy
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELLA is perhaps the best known pilgrimage destination today. The Camino draws as many pilgrims today as it did in the Middle Ages. Arriving in Santiago in for the first time was like my first sight of Jerusalem. As well as following the Camino Francés through northern Spain, I have also followed the Camino Portuguès from Lisbon, and three of the French pilgrim routes, the Via Lemovicensis from Vézelay, the Voie des Plantagenêts from Mont St-Michel, and the Via Podiensis from Le Puy-en-Velay; I plan also to follow the fourth French route, the Via Tolosana from Arles via Toulouse.
The Cathedral of St James
HERITAGE & CULTURE Pilgrimage is also a way of exploring Christian heritage and culture. Asia Minor, now modern Turkey, was an important cradle of Christianity, and on two journeys I visited the early Christian communities, firstly in Cappadocia, and then along the southern coast from Antioch, via Tarsus to Myra. In Cappadocia there are many rock churches unchanged from when they were hewn out of the cliffs, some with astonishing frescoes. Celebrating the Eucharist literally on the same ground as the first Christians, brings the Early Church alive. Syria, which I was fortunate to visit in 2009, not long before the civil war engulfed the country, is not only the place where St Paul was baptised, but also contains some important early Christian as well as the better-known classical sites. Christian/Muslim relations were the focus of a pilgrimage through Andalusia in, and the aftermath of living under oppressive regimes was the theme of a Baltic Journey to Riga and Tallinn in 2006.
A competent, devout and very caring man, who manages nicely to control a group,
is good at timekeeping and gives excellent talks.
Oberammergau Pilgrim, 2000
On my pilgrimages I aim to give a connected series of talks, some of which have been published. In addition to the two mentioned below, The Life Hidden with Christ in God, a Lent Course on the Books page, began as a series of pilgrimage talks following the journey of St Paul through Greece.
Let Who is Thirsty Come is a set of meditations that I gave on the first pilgrimage I led to the Holy Land in 1989. While the talks were related to the places that we visited, they also stand alone as reflections on the Christian life and faith. Topics include the birth, ministry and resurrection of Jesus; Mary, the Church, forgiveness and discipleship. Read now.
Following the Via Podiensis in 2014 the talks took the form of an account of the journey made by a medieval pilgrim, Médard of La Chaise Dieu. Médard’s Journey can be read here: read now.
Finding God through Travel
Address given at St John’s College, Cambridge (27.01.08)
It wasn’t a difficult journey, but it was wet, and we arrived soaked. It was January 1988, twenty years ago almost to the day; my first visit to Jerusalem. From the Upper Room we walked along the empty streets of the Jewish Quarter, the white paving stones glistening in the rain. Leaving the houses behind us, we descended the steep slope of the Kidron Valley, then up the other side to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. It was the route that Jesus took after the Last Supper, and it is an experience I will not forget. The Church of All Nations marks the place where Jesus waited before his betrayal. In the centre of the church is a large rock, the Rock of the Agony, revered as the very place where Jesus threw himself to the ground and prayed: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; take this cup from me. Yet not my will but yours.’ The place is charged with emotion, and kneeling around that rock, I knew, in a way I had not known before, that Jesus had died for me. And I wept.
God is everywhere, but it some places his presence is more closely felt, and travelling on pilgrimage to those places where, as T S Eliot put it, ‘prayer has been valid,’ is to find the God who touches and changes our lives. Time and again the Bible pictures finding God as a personal encounter, as in the call of Abram. God addresses him personally: ‘Leave your own country, your kin and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you.’ So he set out from Harran and journeyed to Canaan. The same happened to Moses at the Burning Bush, to Jacob at the River Jabbok, to Paul on the road to Damascus, to Francis in the Church of San Damiano in Assisi. In the same way, visiting the places made holy by these encounters, God draws near to us, and touches our lives. To walk to Gethsemane with Jesus and the disciples, to climb the Areopagus in Athens like St Paul, to stand in the cell where St Benedict wrote his Rule, to kneel where St Francis died, is to do more than just remember, it is to let the story come alive, it is to enter into the event and re-live it with all its power to move us and change us.
More than this, it changes the way we think about God. My first visit to Israel in 1988 was the first time I had been in a non-Christian country. It was strange to be in a minority as a Christian and to have my faith challenged by the other children of Abraham, the Jews and the Muslims. In the El Asqa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem I encountered a silence that had a depth and a reverence seldom found in our English churches. On another day, at Sede Boqer, on the edge of the Negev Desert, two Jewish girls were praying at the tomb of David Ben Gurion: a simple act of devotion that touched me and moved me. Experiences like this make it hard, I find, to write off Jew and Muslim as simply wrong or misguided. But this has not meant a weakening of my Christian faith; rather the reverse. Coming close to those faithful to another way has strengthened me in my way. I still find in Jesus the most compelling picture of God, but at the same time I find myself better able to relate to those who see things differently.
Reaching out to others requires us to be firmly rooted, otherwise we fall over. It seems to me that the trouble we have with multi-culturalism, indeed why we invented the idea, is precisely because we don’t know who we are and what we believe – in a word, because we are rootless. Pilgrimage both deepens our roots and deepens our appreciation of other cultures. We find the God who transcends the faiths.
Pilgrims also follow in the steps of the saints like St Paul, and this also is a deepening experience. St Paul is not everyone’s favourite, but re-tracing his journeys I find my admiration for him and for what he achieved grows. Its not just the distances that he travelled, nor the hardships he endured, nor his resilience in the face of adversity, but the way he took the situations he faced and used them to proclaim the Christian faith. In Athens he sees an altar to an unknown God and uses it to proclaim Christ and him crucified – and he does this with confidence in front of the Athenian religious establishment! In Corinth he sees the way the church is split into factions, and that inspires not only the great Hymn to Love (1 Cor 13), but also the wonderful organic image of the Church as Body of Christ, in which each member has a distinctive part to play, which has had such a radical effect on the way we understand the Church today. Again in Corinth, appalled by the widespread practice of sacred prostitution – it is said that the Temple of Aphrodite was served by 1000 priestess-prostitutes – he speaks of the human body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Promiscuity and sexual licence – union without love – has spiritual consequences, he says, an inner corruption that affects more than our love life, as the AIDS generation knows to its cost. Travelling we find the wisdom of God addressing us across the centuries.
Paul, Benedict, Francis, Teresa, John of the Cross … were no plaster saints, but fallible humans with all-too human faults, but God used them. As St Teresa of Avila said, God does not demand a perfect work, but an infinite desire. Travelling with the saints we find the God who will work through us also; his grace transcends our faults and our limitations and our fallibility, and enables our desire, so that we too might become his fellow-workers.
Almost any human encounter, any human journey, has this potential to reveal God, to speak to us and touch us in our depths. We have all, I imagine, at some time enjoyed the companionship of others on a journey, been enthralled by new experiences, or been moved by the beauty of nature – the glory of the sunset, the might of waves, the majesty of mountains, the mystery of the night sky, but all too often, again as T S Eliot said, ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning.’ Grasping the meaning depends on how we travel: Do we travel as tourists, or as pilgrims? As tourists we go to view; we remain outside the local situation; we are the subject, those we visit the object. Our purpose is enjoyment. As pilgrims these roles are reversed: we are the object, those whom we visit are the subject. We go to learn from them and to share their lives. There is, of course, enjoyment in pilgrimage, but our purpose is spiritual growth.
The pilgrim knows that God is not to be discovered by sitting still. We say, ‘I know where I stand!’ Well, God is not interested in where we stand but in where we are moving, and to move is to change and grow. The Bible pictures God as the One who is not so much above, as ahead, calling us to follow, to transcend ourselves; and much of the Biblical story is about journeys. The story of Abraham is one such. When we meet him his name is Abram, which means ‘high father’; he is a local chieftan. Obeying the call of God he sets out to seek his destiny, and at the end of his journey, when he has reached the promised land, he is given a new name: ‘Abraham’, which means ‘father of many nations.’ In Hebrew understanding, a name called forth a particular identity or character; so changing your name changed who you were, and the way you understood yourself. Destiny and identity are bound together. So it was for Abraham; travelling faithfully he found God, and he also found his true self. The same happened to Simon who became Peter, and to Saul who became Paul. In the same way countless thousands have found that on the road to Jerusalem, to Santiago de Compostella, to Canterbury… , to wherever prayer has been valid, not only have they found God, they have also found their true selves. And this is to encounter God in the depths of our own heart. To him be the glory, now and for ever. Amen.