My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.
There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.
There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.
There are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.
Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.
A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.
As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”
This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.
My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?