Pilgrimage through the ages

Setting out on a pilgrimage is, when we engage our heart, body and soul, to begin a journey of discovery. This yearning to explore and to leave familiar places, even if only for a while, is one that has very, very deep roots in our shared history of these islands.

Early Pilgrimage in Britain

The first seeds of Christianity in the South-West were brought through trading ships and the cultures and legions of the Roman Empire. Many places along our pilgrim paths today, however, were first planted by remarkable generations of women and men – like Petroc and Nectan – in the early medieval period, following the decline of Rome in the early fifth century. These pioneers were deeply influenced by the Eastern origins of Christianity and the example and teaching of St Martin of Tours and others like St Ninian, with their distinctive emphasis on simplicity, passion for the poor and knowledge of God through Scripture and the natural world.


The Celtic Tradition

One common motif of what some call the ‘Celtic Christian’ tradition was one of journey.  While a mixed bunch, embracing diverse languages and cultures in the North and West of the British Isles and Brittany, these Christians of the Irish Churches were united in understanding the whole of life as pilgrimage; of journeying towards – and in the presence – of Christ in very real and tangible ways. This echoed the Biblical journeying of the people of Israel for a homeland;  seeking the heavenly Jerusalem in our earthly lives. Their understanding of the natural world as an immediate reflection of the beauty of the Holy Trinity is another theme which many people today find appealing, as we seek to reconnect with an environment from which we have become disconnected. Their attentiveness to Creation is one that inspires many contemplative folk of different traditions to this day.

Pilgrimage to Shines and Holy Sites

In the Middle Ages the established Church promoted the idea that making a pilgrimage to a holy site or shrine to pray would mean you might be forgiven for your sins and be more likely to go to heaven. People often travelled to shrines hoping to be cured from illness or disease, often leaving small votives symbolic of the healing they were seeking. People would pay money to enter the shrine and to pray by the holy relics. Pilgrims often would touch and kiss the shines.

Pilgrims would be given a metal badge stamped with the symbol of each shrine or holy site. These badges were then traditionally fixed to the pilgrim’s staff or hat so that people would know they had visited the shrine.

In Devon the best example of medieval pilgrimage can be found in Exeter Cathedral where the tomb of Bishop Lacy is polished smooth by the touch of many pilgrim’s hands. Bishop Lacy (c1370-1455) served the diocese and cathedral for 35 years, travelling widely across the county until a disease of the shinbones prevented him riding. For many years pilgrims came to his tomb to pray and seek his blessing, leaving votive figures of human and animal parts. For many years this knowledge was lost until, in 1943 when the cathedral was bombed and over a thousand fragments of votive were discovered hidden in the stonework. It’s inspiring to pause for a moment and reflect on what life must have been like for the people who, presumably at the time of the reformation, were brave enough to hide those offerings in the stonework above the tomb.

Although the votive fragments are too fragile to be on display you can still visit Bishop Lacy’s tomb and see some 3D models of them


Pilgrimage Today

Still, in our generation, we experience that deeply human yearning for wholeness in our often broken and fragile lives

Pilgrimage is a space and time we can make for us to spend time apart from day to day life. To be still and listen. To attend to that emotional need of human existence. It can bring opportunities to connect to the others who share our path, and to allow the voice of that which is transcendent and beyond our understanding to speak into our lives. Our way is mapped out, so we walk the path that others have done before and chose our own path of our inner journey.

Each pilgrim walking this way will have their own reasons for undertaking this pilgrimage. It maybe that you are at a significant time in your life, or perhaps are simply relishing the break from the daily rush and routine. As you set out on your journey, may you allow your body and your mind to still, breathe deep and start to feel at one with the landscape around you, and may you draw closer to that which gives you life.