The Gift of Pilgrimage

Excitement, fears, and reassurance

30th September 2023

I’ve been fascinated with pilgrimage for many years now. I think that what excites me most about it is the promise that it holds. A little like the promise of a beautifully wrapped gift: it may contain nothing out of the ordinary but whilst the contents remain hidden it could contain anything. And until very recently, although I’d read lots about pilgrimage and watched all the documentaries and programmes I could find about it, I’d never actually experienced one myself. They always seemed out of my reach – either economically, geographically or just physically.

So, when a few months ago I saw an advert promoting a new programme of relatively short, led pilgrimages, with the first one starting just a few miles from my home, it seemed like a gift. The ideal opportunity to give pilgrimage a go.

However, the day before the event I sat in meeting for worship, somewhat regretting my decision. I worried that I’d not be up to the full 12 miles, although James – the Anglican Priest in charge of organising the pilgrimage – had said that we could choose to finish our pilgrimage at lunchtime if we didn’t feel able to walk the whole route. Also, there would be a ‘rescue’ vehicle on hand to gather up any pilgrims who found themselves unable to carry on at any point throughout the day. So there really were no excuses. A poster on the noticeboard of the meeting house caught my eye, ‘Quakers Live Adventurously’; it seemed I would be doing the pilgrimage after all.

Quakers have individual beliefs and here Marina is exploring Christianity with James, by joining with people of many faiths. - Editor 

James, full of enthusiasm and fresh ideas, had managed to drum up the support of almost 100 people for that first event. Some of the walkers were his friends and family, others were members of churches across the Diocese and some, like myself, had just spotted the event on Facebook and had no ties to the church at all.

The day itself

The day was to be bookended with church services; a short service at the church where we met to set out on the walk and a communion service at the church which marked the end of the pilgrimage. Following the first service we were put into groups of about a dozen, each with a leader who was an experienced pilgrim. The walk itself was to be split into six stages, each with a particular theme, with a led reflection and sharing time for the group. After introductions and a short pilgrim prayer, the prayer of Saint Birgitta – ‘Lord, show us the way and make us ready to follow it’ – we set off.

As we walked we began to speak to each other, to get to know a little about our fellow travellers. This helped to pass the time and to bond us as a little group of pilgrims. They were a friendly, mixed bunch. I think I spoke to them all at various points throughout the walk.

Predictably, the full 12 miles proved too much for me so I decided to finish my pilgrimage at lunchtime. Still, when I looked at my phone later I realised that I’d managed to walk nine miles, which for me was a small miracle in itself! My feet were blistered and sore, and my legs, hips and back all ached for many days after the walk. But the feeling of achievement and the closeness that I’d sensed to a spiritual experience were enough to persuade me to sign up to the next pilgrimage, being held a month later.

A second pilgrimage and openings

The second pilgrimage was a much smaller affair with only one group. There were 15 of us including James as leader. There were no church services and it was a shorter walk – seven miles – which I was able to complete with a degree of discomfort, but certainly not to the extent that I’d felt during the first.

This pilgrimage held some really special moments for me – ‘openings’, I suppose they might be called in Quaker-speak. I was particularly aware of symbolism during the silent section of the walk. After repeating the prayer of Saint Birgitta, ‘Show us the way … ‘, we set off in single file along a narrow pathway, with trees and bushes either side, often joining together overhead to make a kind of a tunnel.

All along the path were scattered the ‘keys’ of sycamore seeds and I was struck by the idea of doors, gates and ways being opened to me. I realised that each of us was being led by the pilgrim in front of us, whilst each simultaneously leading the pilgrim behind. We moved as one: I felt the rhythm of the group as we made our way through the countryside. And I felt our connection to the land – everything felt like a big connected ‘oneness’. Throughout the day I had very clear feelings that things were meant for me; either things said in the reflections, in conversations with others or even just things that I saw. It felt as though I was collecting pieces of a jigsaw that I don’t have the whole of yet, but that I’m collecting bits of as I go along on my journey through life.

Reflecting on the day, it was a much deeper spiritual experience for me than the first pilgrimage. I didn’t realise it when I set out to walk that day but that pilgrimage was to be a gift, rich in imagery and full of moments of connection to ‘God’. I’m so grateful that I chose to unwrap it and discover what was hidden within. I wonder what the next will contain …?

Marina Raywood, Beccles Quaker Meeting - websiteFacebook