There are four ways to turn an ordinary walk/hike/ramble into a pilgrimage. These are four simple agreements to make with yourself and the world, four themes to explore, four directions to follow and four riddles to wrestle:
1. Go Slowly
2. Improve the Way
3. Accept More – Need Less
4. Pass the blessing on
Try speaking them, writing them by hand or thinking them loudly. Apply them to situations you encounter as you walk. These pledges will enhance the experience you make/receive/find on your pilgrimage. They will progress you along the path – whatever your destination may be.
1. Go Slowly
Pilgrimage enshrines the act of walking, mankind’s slowest transport. Be sure to take NO lifts or trains, and make your pilgrimage a single continuous and unbroken journey. It may take two weeks to cover what takes two hours in a car, but embrace this slowness. Relax into it. The ritual requires wholeness.
Avoid roads. Take public footpaths to go where cars cannot follow. Footpaths and bridleways are secret passages to holy places, forgotten tunnels to the hidden land that humans didn’t build. Here you may find unmapped holy places, raw expressions of nature such as springs, hilltops and woodlands. You may call them beautiful, or sacred, or creation. Whatever language you use, such places remain exactly what they are – wonderful mysteries of life. And the best way to truly find such places – on all levels – is slowly, on foot. It would be absolutely impossible to arrive by helicopter or supercar. Walking is the way in.
Do not fear that walking slowly will cost you time – on the contrary, it creates 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 dedicating yourself to a long slow walk, through ‘sacrificing’ hours and days, you make your time sacred (La. sacer facere). You ‘give away’ your most precious and limited resource (albeit one freely given to you): your time on Earth. But this is the price, and without offering this gift, how can we expect to receive the benefits? The good stuff simply takes time. People sometimes tell us: “I can’t afford the time for pilgrimage”. We say: “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.
2. Improve the Way
Your first responsibility for improving the way is through yourself. Pilgrimage is an internal and external journey. The world around you is a shared realm, but you are sovereign of your internal domain. Therefore, make your pilgrimage an opportunity to shine a light on your dark corners. Be willingly aware of elements of yourself that you don’t like, your weaknesses – and strengths. Be yourself, know yourself, and let yourself grow away from old unworking-but-somehow-not-quite-discarded blockages. You know what they are.
Be thorough. You know in your heart how to be the best possible version of yourself. So be your best you. 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 focussing 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. Enjoy the ability to secretly improve the land for all. 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. Relish especially those deeds 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.
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.
Crown Yourself the King or Queen you Seek
3. Accept More / Need Less
Pilgrims travel without the insulation and protection of house, car, road etc. They are out, free among the world, open to the elements, and this makes them vulnerable, unprotected and real. Embracing such an openness generates and replenishes trust through direct encounters that always trump anecdotal 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…
Accepting more means agreeing to honour what comes. If it rains, it rains. This will pass, and soonafter 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. Synchronicities and co-incidences happen more regularly. So get ready.
Needing less is both practical guidance and theoretical advice. 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. And there are few power points in the woods. So strip down your needs.
We recommend that pilgrims set themselves 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 obstructive layer, insulating you from experience. So leave this behind, and accept the ancestral path of less. You are sufficient unto yourself. For everything else, let the path provide.
It may help to consider your pilgrimage as a quest. Not just toward a destination, but as a means to connect with the world. Pilgrimage and quest are very similar modes – both are struggles toward a distant glorious future via a dramatic physical act. Accepting this parallel, and subscribing to a mentality of questfulness can give your pilgrimage the best possible chance of blossoming with meaning and beauty.
Your primary pilgrim quest is to reach your destination. But simply getting there will not achieve all your goals. Destination organises the experience of pilgrimage, but is not the core of the journey. The ongoing quest of pilgrimage is to seek holy places along the way, special places that summon you and seem to work. The tingling resonance and special connection can happen almost anywhere – so be mindful for announcements. When you do encounter a holy place, discovering what to do there is itself a sub-quest of unending depth.
As well as holy places, further quests will unfold during your pilgrimage. A good rule of thumb is to ‘Notice what you Notice.’ If something gives you a sense of wonder, move a step closer. Investigate and find what it can do for you – and you for it.
Being questful is partly about letting go of rigidly held ideas about what your pilgrimage is and does – and letting new understandings emerge. Though you can name your destination, you simply do not know where the path will carry you. A pilgrimage is like a river – it has currents and movements of impossible complexity. You can only surrender to the whim of journey, relinquish dreams of your controlling grip, and let your pilgrimage flow. Great purpose will meet you. How can it not?
Pilgrimage as quest involves other correspondingly ancient customs and manners – for example to offer gratitude for what is given, to ask before taking, to offer gifts, and to respect as a guest the homelands through which you pass. These are not arcane ideas or outmoded gestures, but deep and ancient accords of hospitality. They are vital aspects of the technology of pilgrimage.
4. Pass The Blessing On
Pilgrimage is famously not just about getting there. As everyone knows, it’s also about the journey. But what people often forget is that a pilgrimage is also about going home again. In the pre-industrial tradition – i.e. forever, before a hundred-odd years ago – pilgrims arriving at their sacred destination would still need to walk all the way home. “There and back again” is how the saying goes – but finding an equivalent completeness in an era of time-saving shortcuts can be a challenge. Today, since the invention of trains, buses and planes, most modern pilgrims willingly strive one way, but expect an easy ride home. Now, we’re not saying pilgrims should walk home too – though doing so would make this point really clear – but it is vital to somehow make your ‘normal’ home life an equally sought-after sacred destination.
In the Old British tradition, the carrying home of blessings was achieved in a number of ways – via the collection of amulets from a shrine, 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 our modern one-way pilgrimage tradition, we must find new ways to ensure we bring the blessing home. One key trick is with mindfulness, and a constant focus on home, through thought and prayer in holy places encountered. Another crucial way is to take responsibility for enabling someone else to make pilgrimage after we have completed ours. As you have received a gift, in the form of a holy journey, your job therefore is to give the gift away, in similar form. So tell others about pilgrimage, what you saw, felt, met and discovered. Don’t hide your experiences under a bushel. And try to make it possible for someone else to make a great journey, either through encouragement or more material assistance, perhaps in the form of lending pilgrimage equipment.
However you do it, be sure to get home and pass the blessing of pilgrimage on. This way, you can be sure it will continue to circulate, and perhaps revisit you in turn…