Tourist or Pilgrim?
The Rectory, June 1997
Two anniversaries this year have focused the mind the churches on the idea of pilgrimage. It was in 597 that Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, landed in Kent to bring the gospel to the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. This was the same year that Columba died on Iona off the West Coast of Scotland. Augustine was perhaps something of a reluctant missionary but, having been urged by Gregory to leave the relative comfort of his monastery in Rome and travel across an insecure and dangerous continent, he came to this inhospitable island and gradually established the church here. Columba, a more attractive personality full of passion, love and faith, left his home country of Ireland with twelve other monks and set sail for Scotland to continue the work of spreading the gospel and establishing monastic communities. Iona became a famous centre of spirituality and learning and from there the gospel spread to Northumbria and the whole of northern England. The faith was they spread was less institutional in form and commended itself through the sheer attractiveness and holiness of its saints and leaders.
This year people have taken part in The Pilgrims' Way, an ecumenical venture which took place in May and June, with stages from Rome to Canterbury and from Canterbury to Iona and Derry in Ireland. Nearer to home one of the clergy of our deanery, David Jones from All Souls, is cycling from Nottingham to St David's in Wales where he was first ordained. For him this is a pilgrimage and one in which he also hopes to raise money to support the church in Uganda.
What about us? The holiday season is here and many will be going away. Perhaps you will visit some churches or go to some ancient ruined abbeys. Will you be a tourist or a pilgrim? What is the difference? I think it all about whether you are travelling with expectancy or not. Do you visit a place to pass the time, to acquire more knowledge and learn more interesting facts, or do you go open to the possibility that you may be addressed and challenged now in the present by your encounter with a past that is far from being simply dead stones? The recent rediscovery of the faith of the Celtic Church, the Church of Patrick, Columba and Aidan, has brought new life to the faith of many Christians - who have responded to that church's awareness of God in creation, its deep trust in and intimacy with God, its simplicity of life and emphasis on personal holiness. History has given way here to an encounter with a living faith and tradition that is valid now.
I think there are two dimensions to this expectancy. It is about the place you visit but also about the people you travel with and meet. Places where prayer has been valid have an enormous pull upon the human soul. Our God seems so elusive, inexplicable and intangible that I think we need to touch the places where he has been known and honoured. We are material beings and it is through the sacrament of material things that God touches us. Our need to touch stones and to walk in holy places is as old as the Bible and surely validated by the incarnation. To be there with expectancy is to be there expecting to be challenged by the faith of those before us, by their struggle, their faithfulness and the fragments of the knowledge of God that they leave us with.
We need also to be open to those whom we are with and those whom we meet on the way. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is composed of stories supposedly told by pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. The impact of the pilgrimage on those taking part would come as much from their encounter with each other as from their destination. Recently at a PCC reflective evening we spent most of our time talking about prayer and realised how little we normally share with each other our own struggles and experiences of praying, yet how helpful it was to do so. Taking time to listen to one another, including those closest to us, and being open to new encounters, is part of pilgrimage.
What makes the difference between being a tourist and a pilgrim is this openness and expectancy. Being expectant is not the same as having expectations. Too often we decide beforehand what a holiday or visit should be or will be like, we judge it by our own needs and desires. It may prove to be disappointing or satisfactory, but it will rarely be the occasion of some new disclosure or challenge. Travel with expectancy and I hope your holiday this year will contain an element of pilgrimage, of newness and surprise.