To be a Peregrinus

To be a Peregrinus

Susan Binks

When Susan took a special visitor from Africa round as many Northern historic religious sites as could be crammed into a fortnight they found themselves becoming transformed from tourists into pilgrims. Here Susan reflects upon the ancient Christian tradition of pilgrimage - the outer journey and the inner journey. The article first appeared in East End News : The Deanery of Northern Ryedale.

When Fr. Richard Martin, Archdeacon of Kalk Bay, False Bay Diocese, South Africa rang six weeks before the Trinity Sunday Ordination Service in York Minster to say that he would be coming over to support me at the service I was absolutely delighted. Richard had been my Supervisor while I was on placement in Kalk Bay through the Diocesan Companion Link; I knew that his presence would make a special day even more special, though neither of us has anticipated that we ordinands would process out of the ‘jaws of hell’ (York Minster was in the midst of its preparations for The Mystery Plays). Richard met again Bishop Paul and Pauline Percy who had also visited False Bay in autumn 2015. However Richard and I were both completely caught off guard when his stay in Yorkshire became something even more wonderful than the expression of the joys of the Companion Link; it became a Holy Pilgrimage.

 On the way home to Kirkdale from  Manchester Airport we slipped quietly into the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield with its close association with South Africa – with Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu. Later that evening we were in Lastingham for the Installation of Bishop Bill. Over the next two weeks we walked and we walked: St Gregory’s Minster, Rievaulx, Pickering, Whitby, Durham and Lindisfarne; and in York Minster we inevitably were drawn into the Archbishop’s Pilgrimage as it came to a formal close at the Ordination Service. Gradually the outer journey became an inner journey.

The whole idea of making a pilgrimage is very powerful and one that seems to have captured people’s minds in so many different times and places. In medieval times, the shrines of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Edward the Confessor in Westminster, and the little house of Mary in Walsingham were the great pilgrimage destinations. Here in England, even post-Reformation, the idea of the pilgrim journey continued to grip the imagination – as Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the great classics of English Puritan spirituality, clearly shows. People have gone on pilgrimage quite simply because there are such things as very special places. Read any biography of George McLeod, who restored the great Abbey Church and founded a new community on Iona, and you find him constantly describing the island of Iona as just such a ‘thin place’; a place of tangible prayer and service, where the veil between time and eternity, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and the Other, between humanity and God, is just that – very thin – almost transparent. It’s a place where you are just very close to God. Travelling to Holy Island, with a fellow and beloved Christian from the Southern Hemisphere - treading in the footprints of the Northern Saints, contenplating the sculpture of Cuthbert's Pall Bearers, the look-out, the lonely hut where Cuthbert withdrew into devotional solitude – I caught my breath and Richard caught his breath and said: ‘In this place people have prayed, you can feel it in the stones and truly God is in this place.’ Pilgrimages are journeys to ‘thin places’, places of encounter with God.

But it isn’t just the destination of the pilgrimage that is important, but the process: what actually happens on the way to these places matters as well. Perhaps the first thing that seems to happen is learning. To travel on with a wide variety of different people from different places, with different experiences and different stories, but united in a common hope, if you allow it, will always be an education and transformation in itself. It becomes a way of opening windows of fresh understanding on to others, on to oneself, and on to God.

Spending time with the same people, really getting to know them, sharing their joys and sorrows, really entering into their lives, and letting them into yours, begins to produce that precious thing called fellowship, something which goes beyond mere friendship (valuable as that may be), but becomes a deep sense of belonging to one another, a real sense of mutual responsibility for one another’s lives; a new community and a common participation in the Holy Spirit of God.

In the past, one of the great merits of making a pilgrimage was that they enabled you to travel steadily and slowly, without rushing, and when that happens it allows time to think, to develop, to meditate , and to pray. I think we would have liked to have travelled more slowly than we actually did, but the time we had and shared had great elasticity, a special suspended quality. The Celtic church talked about Peregrini, pilgrims who travelled slowly quite content to ‘waste time with God’; in our contemporary culture this is perhaps the most vital ingredient of all. A pilgrimage needs time: time to linger, time to listen, time to let go and let God. Stillness, prayer and simplicity all constitute the deep bedrock along which any committed spiritual traveller dedicated to following in the way of Christ must go. Being ‘Peregrini’, having time for real encounter- this is the starting point, the vital first steps of reconnection with self, with others and with God.

A true pilgrimage is never just an outer one; it takes us deep into an inner pilgrimage, an inner journey of discovery and transformation.  But that journey is always the most difficult, which is why like so many of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is easier to keep it all at a distance, so that what we may call ‘ a pilgrimage’ becomes in reality no different to any other journey we make day by day. But when a journey is a true pilgrimage, a place of encounter with God, a place of encounter with others, a time of learning and change, it is not only the pilgrims themselves that are affected, but those whom they meet on the way as well.

Talking to Richard after his return to Kalk Bay, I think he would say that the return journey is probably even more important than the outward one; because on the return journey we do the work of reflection on what we have experienced and begin to integrate it with the life to which we are returning at home. The journey doesn’t stop with our departure or even on return to our homes. For the Christian, the one who is in Christ, the pilgrimage cannot stop anywhere short of heaven. The medieval pilgrims who came to kneel at Cuthbert’s shrine knew this full well. The destination of their earthly pilgrimage was there most of all to offer them a glimpse of heaven, but the journey in Christ, to be with Christ in the heavenly banquet went on; as ours does too.

We are called to be pilgrims to travel and linger with Christ, in a way that enables us to go on learning, and to go on growing to reflect more fully the life of Christ in us as we continue to journey through all the trials and tribulations of this world. We hold on to our destination and hope, which is that final place of true encounter with God, where we shall see him face to face, in his kingdom and his glory, his majesty and his might, for ever and ever. Amen.

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