Like all good things, British pilgrimage is simple: choose a destination, set an intention, and walk there.
But all good things are real, and reality gets complicated – so to help you along the path we offer guidelines, things we have found can help to make your pilgrimage to S.I.N.G.
S: Slow Down – Seek Holy Places – Stop More.
I: Set an Intention – Be Instinctive – Improve the Way
N: Need Less – Notice More – Be Natural
G: Give Gifts – Practice Gratitude – Be Good.
Slow means walking – because pilgrimage doesn’t work by supercar or helicopter. Pilgrimage puts you in a good place – but to get there, walking is key. It’s the only way in.
Seeking is trying to find holy places – spots where you feel more complete, places that offer connection and wholeness. These might be majestic buildings or muddy riverbanks. Holy places are more encounters than locations.
Stop means that sometimes, even walking is too fast. When you find a holy places, stop and experience your encounter. Don’t stroll by.
Intention is your personal goal. This may not be clear, and it may change along the way. Sometimes you make pilgrimage to learn why you are making pilgrimage. Nonetheless, at the start, be conscious – be deliberate – and choose an intention. Say it to yourself, and really try to mean it.
Being Instinctive means listening more closely, and being open to subtler influences. It’s trust, allowing your older deeper intelligence to lead. It’s listening to angels, or going with your gut fauna. It’s feeling the force, and going with the flow. Surrender to the whim of the journey.
To Improve the Way is the basic responsibility of all pilgrims and humans, to become agents of good things happening. It means seeing problems and solving them, taking responsibility to better the future. It’s about leaving a legacy, not a debt. It’s good manners.
Needing Less offers freedom from the weight of possessions. Literally. Stuff weighs a lot, so carry less of it. Lighten up. For a little while, live from a small bag, and see what you really miss. Be free of the things you own for a while. Let you become sufficient.
Noticing More is about engaging your senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. Give them stimulus. Taste the leaves of trees. Feel the waters. Smell flowers. Listen to the wind. See the horizon and the ladybird. Be more sensitive, by sensing more.
Be Natural means honing your eco-intelligence. It means choosing the green option at all turns, and dropping the illusion of being separate to nature. It is embracing your animal intelligence, and being more at home in the world, your body and your life.
Give Gifts if you expect to take blessings. Reciprocity – balance – is a law of nature. Walking itself is a great offering, but give even more if you can. Silver is a good gift. So is song, and silence. So is a little round stone you found. It’s about gesture, and being a good guest on the path.
Practice Gratitude. Recent studies show that people who feel grateful for being alive have 300% better lives, careers and sex than everyone else. So say thank you, and try to mean it. Good manners grease the wheels of joy and prosperity.
Be Good – because why else are you here? Find the good path, and follow it. This is not a practice. No matter how insignificant we may truly be, we all have our vital parts to play. Do – and be – your best. Pilgrimage is your opportunity.
Walking doesn’t cost time, it makes time. Slow travel on foot gives your life space to breathe, and welcomes inspiration and spirit (L. spirare). It is far from a loss. Time on foot is experience that really happens. Through ‘sacrificing’ hours and days, you make your time sacred (La. sacer facere). You ‘give away’ ‘your’ most precious and limited resource (though one freely given to you): your time on Earth. But this is the price, and without offering this gift, how can you receive the benefits? The good stuff simply takes time. People sometimes say: “I can’t afford the time for pilgrimage”. We say: “How can you afford not to?”
Placing yourself on the ground, with miles to tread at the speed of man (or slower), makes you inheritor of a very ancient lineage – of wanderers, roamers, wayfaring strangers and secret kings of the road – and most of all, of pilgrims. Your walk gains a much older and broader context, to grow from a hike into a Way.
Pilgrimage is honest, pure and real. As the world meets you, so you meet the world. Down on the ground, flashy glamours dissolve and only what’s real counts. Other people, places, Nature and yourself become full sensory experiences, unmediated and raw. You meet the hills with your muscles, you breathe the wind and you sleep on the soil. It’s incredibly immediate, and in a modern world of relative values and fragmented certainties, it feels like a direct line to the truth.
This may sound exaggerated. What a slowly walked pilgrimage does is hard to describe on the internet. Computer screens are like car windows, rendering reality into glassy images. But the slow way on foot is nothing like this. It is a visceral and sensational melee of texture, aches and wonder. Walking slowly is high-value travel, unlocking deep experience. The slow way has always been the good way.
Making the Path Better
To improve the way, start with yourself. Pilgrimage is an internal and external journey. The world around you is a shared realm, but you are responsible for your inner domain. So make your pilgrimage an opportunity to shine gentle light in your dark corners. It’s not all a beautiful wander through bucolic Albion – there are landfill sites, fly-tipping, and there are even motorways. Be willingly aware of elements of yourself that you don’t like, your weaknesses – as well as your strengths.
Treat your thoughts, words and actions as equally important expressions of yourself. They are all your deeds, and they are all keys to your pilgrimage destination. What you do is the gift you offer, which practically speaking is who you are. So be your best you. Your heart knows how. At least try it for a while. No-one will be watching and holding you back, laughing and commenting. Friends, family, co-workers – you leave them all behind to walk the pilgrims’ path. With your context entirely changed, you can be more truly yourself than ever. This is your moment.
As well as focusing on improving yourself, also consider your pilgrimage as a chance to help improve the world beyond your bodily boundaries. Realign a wrong – balm a woe – redress an error. Be the heroic fixer that no-one saw coming. This can be as subtle as picking up some litter – helping someone – or planting a tree. Look for the great works you can leave behind, especially those without reward or recognition.
Socially, you can leave a trail of trust and happiness in your wake. Challenge yourself to greet – with eye contact – everyone you pass. Offer them a smile if you can. You will be astonished at what such a simple thing can achieve.
Pilgrims travel without the insulation and protection of house, car, road etc. They are more free among the world, open to the elements, which makes them vulnerable, unprotected and real. Embracing such an openness generates and replenishes trust through real encounters, and experience always trumps fear-mongering. Learning to trust will give you confidence, in yourself and others, and it will allow others to trust you. And trust remains the very pillar of our rational co-operative society…
Agree to honour what comes. If it rains, it rains. This will pass, and soon the same sky will dry you with sunshine. If you meet someone who looks to be the kind of person you would ignore in your home town, try to withhold these normal snap judgements. You do not know the importance of what they might have to tell you. Encounters on pilgrimage are more highly charged than in ordinary life. Synchronicity and co-incidence happens more regularly. So get ready.
‘Less’ is both theoretical and practical guidance. In simple terms, don’t carry much. Take the bare minimum you require to get you there. Hair curlers are probably not necessary for almost any pilgrimage scenario. Streamline your needs.
Try setting a daily budget of less than £20. If this is scary, go a little higher – but make this number as low as you can possibly imagine, and stick to it. Your bank account may be one of your most crucial sources of power in normal life, but on pilgrimage it can be an obstruction, insulating you from experience. So leave this bubble behind for a while. Let the path provide.
Pass The Blessing On
Pilgrimage is famously not just about getting there. As everyone knows, it’s also about the journey. But most important of all is going back home.
In the pre-industrial tradition – i.e. forever before a hundred-odd years ago – pilgrims arriving at their destination would have before them the entire journey home. “There and back again” as Tolkein tells it. But since the invention of trains, buses and planes, most modern pilgrims willingly strive one way, then expect an easy ride home.
Now, we’re not saying pilgrims should walk home (though we probably should) – but we are saying it is vital to consider your ‘normal’ home life as the ultimate holy place of your journey.
In the Old British tradition, the carrying home of blessings was achieved in a number of ways – via the collection of a token from the destination, which held the physical presence of the holy place – or perhaps by the taking of vials of holy water, to be spread over the fields to promote crop fertility or the house to protect the family.
But with the modern one-way pilgrimage tradition, we need new ways to bring the blessing home. One such way is to pass it on – by enabling someone else to make pilgrimage after you have completed yours. As you have received a gift, in the form of a journey to somewhere holy, so now give this onward. Tell others about pilgrimage, what you saw, felt, met and discovered. Don’t hide your experiences under the old bushel. Help make it possible for someone else to make their great journey, either through encouragement, or perhaps in the form of lending pilgrimage equipment.
However you do it, be sure to get home and pass the blessing of pilgrimage on.