Pilgrimage yesterday and today

Pilgrimage yesterday and today

Pilgrimage and Spiritual Tourism in Ireland: this was the title of a seminar hosted some weeks back by Waterford Institute of Technology.  The title is an intriguing one.

Some will balk at the very idea of ‘spiritual tourism’!  Some will apply the ‘New Age’ label and consign the concept to an appropriate receptacle.  Some will see it as yet another incursion by commercial interests into the domain of religion.

But not all responses need be negative.  To choose a refreshing break in a religious context can become a significant spiritual choice.  Entrepreneurs may hear ‘spiritual tourism’ as a development opportunity in a niche market.  Anyone who – like myself at Lough Derg – has to make ends meet in the business side of matching pilgrim needs and the costs of staff and maintenance cannot neglect the financial and marketing aspect of the work.

From Canterbury to Santiago and beyond

When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, his middle-English vocabulary did not include tourism, spiritual or otherwise. But the delight of that famous collection of stories springs in no small measure from the range of personalities and motivation among Chaucer’s pilgrims. We can find the company that set out for Canterbury on an April day in the fourteenth century recreated through the ages in almost any pilgrim setting.

The recent astonishing revival of interest in the Camino of Santiago bears witness to the significance of pilgrimage as a human phenomenon.  The interaction with those one meets along the route and the reflections which arise from the experience have generated a vast array of books and blogs that record and ponder the unexpected blessings that await those who feel and answer the call of the Camino. These in turn promote further interest in the Camino and in other, lesser known routes.

The pilgrimage experience

It should hardly then come as a surprise that pilgrimage studies is beginning to emerge as an academic discipline.  Pilgrimage has been defined as ‘a meaningful journey to a place of spiritual significance’ and the practice is almost as old as recorded history.  This definition highlights both journey and destination.  Pilgrimage is not all about ‘getting there’.  What happens along the way also has significance.  And what happens in the heart of the pilgrim may be of deeper meaning than the external and observable events along the journey and at the goal, and may not be easily accountable even to the pilgrim him / herself.

Pilgrimage in Ireland

Here in Ireland, it is now 21 years since the Heritage Council set up the Pilgrim Paths project, initially involving seven historical routes scattered around the country.  The initiative engaged with local communities in beginning to develop a network of walking routes along medieval pilgrim paths.  National Pilgrim Paths emerged as a volunteer organisation in 2013 (see www.pilgrimpath.ie) and a National Pilgrim Paths Day followed in 2014. This year it was a week-long event with 12 pilgrim paths in the network. The paths are of course open outside the focus week. Five of the paths now offer a stamp on a pilgrim passport, following the tradition of Santiago di Compostella, and on three of these there is the possibility of having 25 km recognised as part of the official Camino itself.

Pilgrimage was strong in the Irish Christian tradition, especially in the Celtic monastic ambit. There was little of the tourist in this context! For most it was a penitential undertaking, especially with the hardships of travel at that time.  Monasteries welcomed pilgrims and offered them hospitality, in the spirit of the Gospel. Columbanus, Fursey and others understood their radical choice to leave their homeland permanently to spread the name of Christ as a pilgrimage – a ‘peregrinatio pro Christo’.

Pilgrimage and the heart

We began with the WIT conference on pilgrimage and spiritual tourism. I suggest we do well not to take too doctrinaire an attitude on what we think might ‘qualify’ as pilgrimage. Addressing pilgrimage organisers themselves on pilgrimage to Rome in the context of the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis had this to say: “It would be a mistake to think that the person who goes on pilgrimage is living not a personal spirituality, but a ‘crowd’ spirituality.  In reality, the pilgrim brings, with him or her, his or her own story, their own faith, the light and the shadow of their own life.  Each one carries in their heart a special desire and a particular prayer.”

I cannot speak for Knock, Croagh Patrick or the many more local pilgrimage destinations in Ireland including the Pilgrim Paths initiative, but I can say that our experience at Lough Derg very much bears out the Pope’s insight.  As its traditional title, St Patrick’s Purgatory, indicates, Lough Derg in the past was very deeply identified with penance.  Nowadays, only a minority come with penance as their key purpose.  A recent survey online indicated that many of our pilgrims name the heart of their pilgrimage experience as giving thanks, finding peace and tranquility, and experiencing continuity in faith with family members who made the pilgrimage over the generations.

A call to answer

Columbanus wrote movingly of the entire Christian life as a pilgrimage.  Ignatius of Loyola, in his lifestory dictated a short time before he died, refers to himself throughout in the third person simply as ‘the pilgrim.’ The pilgrimage of life takes many forms. The real destination is an interior one. As an early Irish text puts it: “O pilgrim bound for Rome, you will not find there the God you seek unless you bring him with you.”  To quote again from Pope Francis’ address to pilgrimage organisers: “Whoever they may be, young or old, rich or poor, sick or perhaps a curious tourist, may they find a worthy welcome, because in each one there beats a heart that seeks God, sometimes without them being fully aware of it.”

The Irish Catholic Pilgrimage supplement, now an annual feature, offers a wide range of possibilities to those hearts that seek God, as pilgrims or as spiritual tourists. I hope that you may find something here that will speak to your heart – and the opportunity to follow the call you hear.

Fr La Flynn
Prior, Lough Derg

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