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Artillery Row

Canterbury Tales redux

Pilgrimage still serves to bring people together

Never has the entrance to a former convent seen such pilgrim-induced pandemonium. Only a few moments before everything had all seemed so assured and to be going so well. But I should have known better. Pilgrimage is a contact sport, after all.

It was the end of the first day of the inaugural week-long mini-Camino organised by the Catholic Herald. Months of planning and preparation that I had been involved with appeared to have paid off. Although the pilgrim I was assisting at the rear was struggling with the final few hundred metres, the other nine pilgrims had completed that day’s 11-mile route and could be seen gathered outside the front door to the convent now converted to apartments, as its manager arrived to let us in. I basked in a mixture of pride and relief. It’s a good enough start, I said to myself, as I shepherded the final pilgrim to the door. In less than ten seconds all hell broke loose. 

Following a blur of movement and gasps, one of the other pilgrims suddenly collapsed. My arms were wrapped around him as I bellowed “Abierto! Abierto!” at the manager to open both doors through which to manoeuvre the stricken pilgrim. At the same time, the pilgrim I had arrived with suddenly took a bad turn and had to be helped in with his arms across the backs of two others. 

General mayhem continued as the rest of the group gathered around the two flailing pilgrims after we set them down in the nearest chairs. People offered advice, unbuttoned shirts and dug out sachets of Dioralyte from rucksacks, while one pilgrim darted off to buy cans of coke and bottles of water, as well as a salt shaker on the advice of our priest (who also happened to be ex-military and a seasoned hiker).  

The two pilgrims had succumbed to a mixture of heat stroke and exhaustion. Both made a full and speedy recovery — the one who’d slumped in my arms going from lying in bed looking like a corpse to clambering out and going down on his knees to receive Holy Communion from our priest during a makeshift mass. It was set up on a large platform halfway up the convent’s main stairwell, which, enclosed by stone walls, served as a very fine impromptu mini chapel. Despite the final smiles and relief, the episode had been an unwelcome demonstration that pilgrimage, even without brigands waiting in the forests and with all our modern equipment and smartphone apps to hand, isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. 

The group was walking the last 60 miles of the Camino Portugués. It’s one of many pilgrimage routes laid across Europe that collectively are known as the Caminos de Santiago — and usually are just called just “the Camino”. Like a river’s tributaries, they finally converge in the city of Santiago de Compostela, in whose magnificent baroque cathedral it is believed the remains of Saint James the apostle lie.

You meet all sorts on the Camino

You meet all sorts on the Camino, and indeed our group offered an eclectic assortment of characters and social types. This included a mother of seven who is also one of the UK’s few iconographers, former high-powered civil servants from the Home Office, a female entrepreneur who runs a business in Texas selling classic British-style puddings, a state school teacher who knew enough Catholic theology to cause Pope Benedict XVI to pay attention, and a devout young couple who I’d often lose sight of after they stopped to kneel beside the pathway to say the Rosary. 

After the drama of the first day, and following other notable moments, our merry band began to joke about the parallels with The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous 14th century bawdy tale of pilgrimage. We even began to assign pilgrim characters from the book to individuals in the group. Indeed, little has changed since Chaucer’s time in terms of why people go on pilgrimage. Obviously, God and questions of spirituality usually come into it, but so can a desire to meet new people in a stimulating environment, and the need to gain thinking room amid the tumult of everyday modern life and economic pressure.

“There are many dimensions to making a pilgrimage in both the real and the imaginary world,” notes the excellent Museu das Pergrinacións (Pilgrimage Museum) beside the cathedral in Santiago. “The pilgrim embarks on a ritual journey in search of purification, perfection or salvation. Pilgrim, way and shrine are essential elements of this journey, which is different from all others in that it establishes a special relationship between the earthly and the holy, between the individual and the group and because the pilgrim is transformed along the way.” 

In this regard, the reasons for going on a modern-day pilgrimage chime with Sebastian Milbank’s recent Critic article “It’s no kind of night life”, about the negative consequences for our culture and economy caused by the rigid offerings that comprise a night out in the UK (and which certainly lags behind the Spanish flair for embracing life). Increasingly, modern-day society and its accompanying lifestyles are not providing what people need — hence they are having to turn to antiquated modes, such as pilgrimages, to find what they are missing.

“Banking crashes, the rise of populism, seemingly insoluble conflicts and terrifying pandemics individually and collectively are causing us to question the very foundations on which our post-religion twenty-first-century lives are built,” Peter Stanford writes in his book Pilgrimage: In Search of Meaning. “Our belief in what until recently was taken to be inevitable progress of science and humanity — and hence the marginalisation of faith — has been stopped in its tracks.”

As a result, Stanford explains, “to catch a glimpse of the transcendent, otherwise impossible in the hustle-bustle and hassle of modern life, requires making one almighty and counter-intuitive effort — like going on a pilgrimage in a secular age.”

Though, to go back to Chaucer, it has ever been thus. As virtuous and progressive as we like to think ourselves, human nature has remained remarkably similar across the eons. As Aldous Huxley explains in his 1952 book The Devils of Loudun — recounting the real-life events surrounding a case of demonic possession and sexual hysteria amid a group of nuns in 17th century France — there is a “fundamental identity” of humans in any time period, stemming from our “incarnated minds, subject to physical decay and death, capable of pain and pleasure, driven by craving and abhorrence and oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence”.

Hence the appeal of pilgrimage

Hence the appeal of pilgrimage, in which, as the Museu das Pergrinacións notes, we find an allegory that expresses the similarity between a journey to a holy place and human life itself. The physical effort required to reach the pilgrim’s goal — and that our two exhausted pilgrims on that first day would no doubt attest to — is representative of the human spiritual journey: full of sacrifices, abnegation and heartache. 

And the goal? Well, that depends a bit on where you are coming from and on your belief system. Taoism speaks of the “tao”, often defined as the “way to perfection”. Buddhism talks of the inner journey to reach “nirvana” and recommends a path to achieve liberation known as the “Eightfold Path”. In the Jewish tradition, the name of Jehovah means “God on the Way”, while in Christianity the dispersion of the Apostles following the death of Christ to preach a revolutionary new religion is viewed in itself as a form of pilgrimage to distant lands. Everyone is, and always has been, searching and on some form of pilgrimage — be it to reach the highest level of knowledge, or in search of spiritual renewal, glory, paradise or eternal salvation, as the museum describes.  

After reaching Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim who had succumbed to exhaustion that first day described completing the pilgrimage to the city as fulfilling a lifelong ambition. While it wasn’t my first time reaching Santiago, it was my first time heading there with a cast of pilgrims in tow. Along the way I’d been reminded of the value of not going it alone — as I’m prone to do — and how the journey usually improves and works out thanks to engagement with and the company of others.  

The experience also proved an unexpected but welcomed reengagement with my military past. In addition to the daily punchy sermons of our priest and his hybrid military-religious talk of “spiritual fighting power”, guiding such a diverse bunch of characters who would not have been out of place in an Agatha Christie novel had required many of the skills and lessons from my days as a British Army officer. Having seen all that expire on the plains of Iraq and Afghanistan in utter futility, it was uplifting to be able to put them to good use again. 

Just as we were taught during officer training — perhaps the most accurate lesson of them all — that no plan survives contact with the enemy, so too was I reminded that no pilgrimage ideal survives contact with the actual route beneath you. Which is a fundamental part of the mind-altering experience, of course, reminding us that we are rarely in control as much as we think we are.  

“Then the Miller fell off his horse,” says one of Chaucer’s more prosaic lines.

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