When does a traveller become a pilgrim?

When I started to dream, several years ago, of wanting to Journey I wondered what the experience should be called in my mind. Would it be an adventure? An odyssey? A pilgrimage? A quest? An expedition? Or would I simply be on a tour? I knew the word ‘holiday’ did not once enter my thoughts. I do not know why.

When I confided in others about my dream they said things like “Are you doing this to find yourself or something?”   “No”, I’d reply, “I have not lost my Self”.

When the dream became the reality friends said “Goodbye! I hope you find what you are looking for.” “Thank you,” I’d say, “but I’m not looking for anything.”

This is why I was so pleased when I read the poem ‘What if This Road?’ by Sheenagh Pugh. It seemed to explain the reasons, or lack of reasons in fact, for my Journey. It conveyed a sense of simply wanting to shake up my road and to follow where it lay itself down – and that seemed all that I wanted to do.

But now, as I keep finding my way, seemingly unintentionally, onto the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle I am wondering if I really am an unintended pilgrim?   What, in fact, makes someone a pilgrim?    ‘Official’ St Jacques pilgrims obtain a pilgrim’s passport,  a credencial, which they get stamped at key towns along the route.  But what about the hundreds of people who hike the trail each year for exercise and the pleasure of the scenery?  Are they pilgrims merely by walking on this spiritual path, ‘the Milky Way’, and heading for Santiago?

Bazoches village

Originally pilgrimages had a religious or spiritual purpose. Many faiths conveyed an expectation that the faithful would undertake a pilgrimage for example to Mecca, Delphi, Jerusalem, or St Peter’s in Rome, at least once during their lifetime.   Because the pilgrimage usually entailed some hardship and effort, it was a proof of religious devotion and the culmination would be to have a spiritual experience in a sacred place. The destination mattered greatly.

In modern times we speak of pilgrimages without there being any religious or spiritual connotations merely that the journey is of great importance to the traveller, such as an earnest fan making a pilgrimage to Elvis’s Graceland home.

So a modern ‘pilgrimage’ does not necessarily have to have a spiritual connection, but it must have deep meaning for the traveller, and the destination again matters.

If there does not have to be a spiritual purpose to a pilgrimage what then is the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim? Could one say that a tourist observes during his travels, whilst a pilgrim relates emotionally to the places he visits towards his destination?

The Confraternity of St James (www. csj.org.uk) contends that the true idea of pilgrimage is to experience – maybe for the first time – solitude and a degree of hardship and personal challenge. By doing so there is time for contemplation so that one can reflect from a distance on matters at home or on life in general, and maybe see them differently from such a detached perspective.  By opening yourself to vulnerability you can develop personally in unpredicted ways.

As a former chairperson of the Confraternity, Laurie Dennet, writes : “… the accommodation to silence, solitude, sharing, trials of one sort or another – invite personal growth on the pilgrim’s part, beyond that usually required by the circumstances of everyday life.”

And yet when our son hiked around Mont Blanc over 10 days at the age of 18, experiencing considerable discomfort, silence, vulnerability and personal growth did we speak of him being on a pilgrimage? No, even though we knew something special was taking place – a rite of passage into adulthood, we said.

So when does a journey involving hardship, determination, endurance and contemplation become a pilgrimage?

Is it when there is a higher purpose? Can we say that the purportedly murdered British hostage, Alan Henning, was on a pilgrimage – the brave taxi driver who transported aid to Syria knowing the risk but seeing the need? And David Haines, the aid worker?   If so what courageous and honourable pilgrims they made, worthy of the highest esteem.

For the more humble amongst us does our journey become a pilgrimage when we undertake it with an open and enquiring mind, willing to learn from our experiences, to engage with those we meet along the way in a spirit of generosity, and emerge from it having gained some valuable insight which takes us further along our life-path of self-development?

Where does this musing leave me?

I do not belong to or practice a religious faith, nor do I have a significant final destination, (though Santiago de Compostela has now become an important calling point in my mind).   However, one goal of my Journey through life at this point in time is to acquire a deeper understanding of my own spirituality. This Journey that I am now making around Europe may perhaps be leading me towards enlightenment of a personal kind on my journey through life.   I am not really suffering any hardships, but I am facing personal challenges and overcoming them, and I am and will be experiencing more solitude than I have ever previously known. I am learning that I am happy with this so far, which is heartening. Whether the silences and attendant contemplation lead to an outcome is yet to be seen.

So I think I have yet to discover whether I am a pilgrim, even of a very modest, personal and unofficial kind. Maybe in the end it is simply what you believe yourself to be? Meanwhile I keep smiling whenever I get my regular reminders that unknowingly I have found my way, or been led, back onto the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

Chartres road

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