The act of pilgrimage lets your mind and body wander to where potential lies. Guy Hayward explains, step by step
Pilgrimage takes you out of your everyday life and puts your body in the land. But it also gives you a new inner purpose. At any one moment, we almost all have at least one question we want answering, or something we want to bring into our lives, or let go of. At the start of a pilgrimage you can decide what your “intention” is.
Once you’ve set your intention, you need a good destination. This could be traditional, like a cathedral or an ancient shrine or, less obviously, an ancestor’s grave or a place where you’ve felt loved.
One excellent scheme is to walk a river from source to sea, perhaps the one closest to where you were born or live. In this way your start place can be linked to your destination to encourage a narrative thread.
But then you have to walk, either alone or in a group. You don’t know who you’ll meet, what significant conversations you’ll have with your companions, or how much you’ll resonate with what you come across. These conditions put you in the position of the Fool in a Tarot deck. The usual image associated with the Fool card is a happy-go-lucky person – usually a young man – who is so open to what his journey will bring that he’s walking off the edge of a cliff. The Fool looks like a pilgrim – he’s ambling along with a staff resting on his shoulder, with his bag of belongings balanced at the other end. Walking off a cliff is obviously a dangerous thing to do, but the Fool does just that, and is happy about it. And yet the Fool has the top position of the Major cards, a bit like an ace.
Why does it have this high position? Because the Fool has unlimited potential. The space below the cliff can’t be seen, it’s unknown. And that’s where potential lies: in the space that’s not yet known. An attitude like the Fool’s can accompany you through life. It’s a child-like or ageless attitude to wonder at everything around you, with the assumption of total possibility at all times.
Think of the occasions in your life when you can rely on what’s coming next. You have your routine, you like it even, but for whatever reason, you feel you’re doing things as you’ve always done them. When I’m living in that mode, time flies by. Now think about the times when you’re truly in a state of active reception of new things. You’re alive to possibilities and you need to be alert. Eyes and ears wide open, every new thing examined. More happens per second, so time feels slower. Novelty therefore expands time.
On a pilgrimage, you’re constantly being introduced to newness – in plants, animals, birds, landscapes, skies, paths, villages, architecture, locals, strangers, stories, sounds, smells, textures, weathers. Each day provides an introduction to these things, and all are met at a walking pace that allows proper immersion into the experience, as opposed to driving by in a car at speed.
Newness is not boring. One might think that walking at this slower pace, and not getting the sophisticated stimuli you’re used to, could be a recipe for twiddling your thumbs, but it’s surprisingly engaging. Always being navigationally alert to when you have to make a turning off the path fosters the elusive practice of presence. Walking long-distance requires you to be present to your body as well, in order that you and your body make it to the route’s destination! And the experience of presence isn’t slow because it isn’t relative to time, it kind of exists in its own category, separate from time.
Your mind will wander on pilgrimage, but the creative calibre of your wandering mind is increased. When walking you don’t have that relentless feel of mental chatter, but a lighter, more relaxing sense of mental wandering, a bit like daydreaming. Long-forgotten emotions bubble to the surface, and stories and memories are triggered by some unknowable magic. And the open vistas have a habit of opening your mind; they give you “vision”. By contrast, prolonged focus on a small laptop screen can narrow one’s mind.
The quality of conversation with your companions has a depth not usually experienced with those same companions outside of pilgrimage. There’s something about walking alongside one another for long periods which brings down the walls of intimacy. Walking together allows for times when there’s no talking, yet you’re both still progressing towards your destination with a shared purpose. You’re both looking forward, which is less confrontational than looking square in the eyes. You and your companions will reveal more than you otherwise would. Occasionally there are distractions – a bird, a view – that pull the focus away from the dialogue, giving it space to pick up later. And when you meet a local person along the path, your active interest in the place where they live opens them up to reveal themselves, especially considering you’re just passing through and are therefore no permanent threat! These strangers can be of any social status, so you may get to meet people you normally wouldn’t speak to.
According to a survey by britishpilgrimage.org the top four reasons for making a pilgrimage are, “Emotional wellbeing”, “Connecting with Nature”, “Spirituality” and “Cultural heritage”. Most of the basics of walking pilgrimages – having a solid purpose, being in a state of foolishness, attending to novelty, having an open, relaxed mind and conversing fully with others – all contribute to emotional wellbeing, which would suggest why that reason comes out on top.
Engaging with cultural heritage, the fourth most popular reason, is what one immediately associates with pilgrimage. The kinds of places that pilgrimage routes visit – churches, prehistoric sites etc – are packed with stories of the communities who lived there, and their death and decay too. We are human and therefore things of specifically human concern interest us – be they folklore, songs, craft, art, architecture, or tales of endurance, generosity, grief and love. Walk around a graveyard and you can read the names of people who have come before us, of high and humble status. Places of pilgrimage are often aligned with the purpose of “hatch, match and dispatch” (birth/christening, marriage, and funerals). And the routes too are artefacts of cultural heritage. You engage with all the purposeful walkers who have walked these routes before you. By connecting with arts, crafts and the lives lived in a place over hundreds and thousands of years, we make conscious our collective inheritance, our collective unconscious. This gives an expanded sense of being, a feeling of wholeness (the word “holy” comes from the Old English halig meaning whole, healthy, holistic).
The next reason for pilgrimage, spirituality, comes predominantly from connecting with the spirit of place. This is not reducible to what a place looks or sounds like, but how the place makes you feel inside, as well as the more intangible experience of you feeling its own essence. And this is where words fail me, because, unless I’m missing something, English doesn’t have a vocabulary for describing spirit of place. The best explanation I can offer is that places have a soul, which is hidden behind a place’s visual appearance, its sensory attributes and its function. I crave to know the soul of a place. And just like with people, some of those souls are healing, others less so. A place’s essence seems to be defined by a unique ratio between the quality of activity over time in that place, and the innate raw essence of the land in which the place sits. For example, the soulful essence of the source of the River Thames is probably more related to the land, whereas the pilgrimage destination of Walsingham in Norfolk is more about human devotional activity.
This is an extract from “Walk this Way”, Guy Hayward’s guide to a good pilgrimage in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of the Idler.
Guy Hayward is Director and Co-Founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust (britishpilgrimage.org) in 2014, and leads guided pilgrimages around Britain. Guy completed a PhD at Cambridge on how singing forms community, founded choralevensong.org and is half of musical comedy double act Bounder & Cad. His website is guyhayward.com and you can follow him on FB / IG / TW on @drguyhayward / @pilgrimtrust / @choralevensong / @boundercad.