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To be a Pilgrim

Do you remember the old hymn?

It was once a staple of school assemblies and a particular favourite of mine. I think it was the rousing tune and the idea of overcoming lions, giants, hobgoblins and other foul fiends!

No doubt, the language would be considered too archaic these days. Perhaps the theme of dogged determination and persistence in the face of adversity doesn’t chime with 21st-century sensibilities.

Well, the hymn is nearly 400 years old (though it is still in the Methodist hymnbook – StF 486), but the practice of pilgrimage is much older than that – and certainly not exclusive to Christians.

In fact, although most religions embrace pilgrimage, it’s not necessarily a religious act at all. The five series of ‘Pilgrimage’ on the BBC attest to that.

Often challenging and filled with opportunities for personal and spiritual development, in essence, a pilgrimage is simply a deliberate and unbroken journey to a special place. Often this journey is on foot, but this is certainly not always the case.

There are no rules here. Like beauty, a special place may be in the eye of the beholder. We might think of traditional places of pilgrimage like the Holy Land, Lourdes or Canterbury. It may be a place that is associated with particular events or people, such as the battlefields of Ypres or the birthplace of Shakespeare. It may simply be a place you feel drawn to, somewhere you really want to go – perhaps because of its natural beauty or spiritual significance.

But pilgrimage isn’t all about the destination.

The pilgrim may be very conscious of the journey’s end – it’s why they set out, after all. But pilgrimage is also about the journey itself.

It’s about putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, deliberately following a certain path, and carrying on even when it gets tough.

It’s about the people you meet along the way. Fellow pilgrims, perhaps, will swap stories and offer encouragement. Or encounters with curious onlookers who wonder what drives you towards your goal.

It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone, deliberately opening yourself to new experiences and allowing yourself to hope for something else. It’s about being open to change and being willing to trust that whatever happens on the journey will ultimately bring you closer to your goal.

Along the way, pilgrims can expect to encounter periods of doubt, distress or even boredom. It takes commitment, courage and determination to keep going when it’s pouring down, your feet are hurting, and you’re not even sure if you’ve read the map properly.

But it’s at times like these that we might expect to gain the most from our pilgrimage.

I’m reminded of the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24 v 13-32). These two had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. While they were there, they had witnessed some momentous events, but they were going home – disappointed and distraught.

The ‘stranger’ they encountered literally turned their lives around: opening their minds to a new reading of scripture, inspiring them with the truth of the resurrection, and sending them hurrying back to Jerusalem.

For a Christian, all of life is a pilgrimage. The destination we are drawn towards is the most special of all. But each one must walk their own path, and the journey will be as unique as we are.

None of us will be the same person by the end of it.

But, as a much more modern hymn points out:

We are pilgrims on a journey

And companions on the road

We are here to help each other

Walk the mile and bear the load.


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