It is estimated that across the world over 250 million people make pilgrimage every year. Whether from Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish or other traditions (or none), women, men and children set out to journey towards a special place, with the most popular destinations including Mecca, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Bodh Gaya, Amritsar and the Ganges and Jordan rivers.
Pilgrims use the travelling (traditionally made on foot or by animal) as a time of reviewing themselves and their beliefs, to reconnect with the natural rhythms of life, to meet others and to refresh their deeper selves. The element of re-connecting is a core issue for environmentalists and spiritual questioners alike, and it is perhaps not surprising there is a global Green Pilgrimage Network.
In the next few weeks pilgrims from across the world will be arriving in Paris to draw attention to the UN climate talks at the COP21 Summit and to call on international leaders to agree a fair, ambitious and binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was privileged to briefly join one of these pilgrimage streams in October – meeting German and Scandinavian travellers on the Sankt Jacobsweg in Nordrhein-Westfalen – and to share in some of their hopes and aspirations.
On 13th November dozens of pilgrims will be setting off for Paris from St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in London, scheduled to reach the French capital ten days later where they will be hosted by local families. Their adventures can be followed on the social media and they will join hundreds of others arriving from other countries and continents calling for deep and urgent action to mitigate against the climate chaos which is already damaging more vulnerable communities and places, and which pervasively threatens future generations.
Yet pilgrimages are much more than a few hikers walking a well-trodden path. Pilgrimages are profound political statements for they are radical expressions of counter-culture. While most of society appears to be walking blindly towards a cliff-edge, bound up in a state of stupefaction, pilgrims are taking time out from a 24/7 lifestyle to re-discover connections.
In effect, those who participate in such purposeful journeys are demonstrating three values which our consumer would ignore to its peril: rest, relationships and reward. And as they express these in action, we can note they are literally walking the talk!
Taking time out and away from busyness and stuff is to rediscover the need for a ‘sabbath’ (Hebrew- Shabbat) as part of human fulfilment. We all need to share in regular periods of slowing down, refraining from work and shopping, and to appreciate and celebrate the gifts of life with others. Indeed some Christian and Jewish theologians will point to the seventh day of creation in the stories from the book of Genesis as being the pinnacle of divine activity. Humanity was shaped on the sixth day, leaving the day of rest as being the culmination of God’s plan!
Secondly, people use pilgrimages to rediscover relationships. The special interaction with the way they travel on – the landscape, the space, the places they encounter. They may meet new friends or reflect on older friendships and re-examine their value. Reconnection with the elements and the weather, the soil, the seasons and sustenance are all part of this rediscovery. So can be a re-assessment of one’s belief or faith – one’s relationship with the divine – God or the Universe or the Force of Life.
Thirdly, the majority of us seek reward in superficially materialistic terms. We look for happiness that is provided in an insatiable supply of ‘goodies’, consumer novelty products, fashions, tangible achievements, financial acquisition, achievable targets, and so on. However, that attitude to synthesised happiness never fulfils. There is always something else to buy or acquire or consume… The unreachable slips through our fingers and we are never satisfied.
But pilgrims have a sense of sufficiency. When we possess almost everything, we appreciate nothing. Yet living on the edge or on the way encourages us to appreciate everything. Once we develop an acceptance of “joy in enough” we may experience a deeper sense of reward and completion. We take pleasure in who we are, and are less obsessed with what we do or that which we own.
So pilgrims and pilgrimages offer us hope in a deeper and different potential. In a society where we are told ‘there is no alternative’, they can remind us always that “another way is possible”, and if we step in the right direction we may actually find ourselves on it….
All best wishes – Martyn