I have been intrigued by the concept of Pilgrimage for many years; though it is normally thought of as a journey made by those with religious belief to a site of religious power, the concept can, I think, also be applied to anyone making a journey - physically, emotionally or intellectually, between one place (physical or metaphorical) and another, and being changed in some way by the process of that journey as much as by what is sought - or discovered - at the end.
There are thousands of pages out there exploring pilgrimage in great detail and with considerably more intellectual and practical knowledge than I have myself. I have never been on pilgrimage (which does not mean that I never will), but was reminded of my interest once again by watching a fine, 3-part series ('The Sacred Wonders of Britain') presented by Neil Oliver which has been on UK television recently and which may, in time, appear on YouTube or PBS. He visits sites which have been considered sacred in the UK, covering, in the course of the series, some 5000 years. The final episode visits some of the medieval sites here, which hold particular interest for me. So I thought I would share with you here three encounters with (in these particular cases, Christian) Pilgrimage that I have had, which have touched and changed my own life in some way.
The first is in the form of what is, to me, an immensely moving sculpture. It is of pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostella, the great shrine to Saint James in Northern Spain, upon one of the pilgrim routes to which the little town of Pons in the Charente-Maritime department of France stands. The sculpture actually sits on a traffic island on the outskirts of the town and I first saw it when staying with a dear friend at her cottage a few miles away. We were visiting in temperatures of 38C - but the (almost life-sized) figures in the sculpture are wearing clothing of heaviest construction, wrapped as if to protect the wearers from bitter cold and lashing rain.
They seem almost alive and they bring to life, for me, one of what seems to me to be an important feature of physical pilgrimage - that of encounter with adversity, whether it be of the weather, or of the physical limitations of one's own body. This installation, embodying such immensely realistic depictions of real people on a real journey, brings me each time I see it into immediate contact with the vulnerable humanity of travellers from many centuries. It touches my heart in a very profound way and I love it very much indeed
My second encounter came with a visit made in 2013 to the Cathedral Church of St David in Pembrokeshire, West Wales;
Again, the physicality of the site is striking; the cathedral sits at the end of a wild and rocky route and anyone wishing to visit over past centuries would have had an arduous journey - even now, with the luxury of travelling by car, it was not always easy. But I did also experience the sight of the newly restored shrine of the Saint, complete with five beautiful modern icons.
Saint Non - the supposed mother of Saint David
Pilgrims were, at the time of my visit, attending a service at the shrine and it was impossible not to be moved by the obvious intensity of their experience; though not believing in the same way as the Christian participants, that encounter with deep reverence had a great impact upon me. It also reinforced my feeling that - easy as it is, nowadays, to look upon pictures and watch films about these places - it is not the same as standing in actual, physical proximity with other humans as they - we - experience something apart from every-day experience, in community - the essence of Victor Turner's Communitas.
But for all the failings of book, image and film - they are still a very worthwhile resource - and so to my third encounter with Pilgrimage; a short (20 minute) and I think little known film - 'Pilgrimage' made in 2001 by maestro film maker Werner Herzog, who always seems to get further under the skin and closer to the heart (though it may be a dark heart) of an issue or phenomenon than almost any other director I can think of. The music is by another maestro, John Tavener. Together, the images and sound are transcendent - I hope you enjoy it; it certainly gave me pause for thought in my otherwise ordinary daily life.