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Setting out on the journey to understanding

26 June 2015

Inspired by R. S. Thomas, Susan Fogarty explores the differences between "faith tourism" and pilgrimage

mike keel/wikimedia

Poet's church: St Hywyn's, Aberdaron, where R. S. Thomas was vicar (1967-78). The present building, which dates from 1137, replaced a fifth-century wooden one

Poet's church: St Hywyn's, Aberdaron, where R. S. Thomas was vicar (1967-78). The present building, which dates from 1137, replaced a fifth-century ...

THERE is reportedly a direct correlation between the decrease in the number of people travelling to church and the increase in those journeying on pilgrimage.

"In cities that have outgrown their promise people are becoming pilgrims again, if not to this place, then to the recreation of it in their own spirits."* So wrote R. S. Thomas prophetically in the 1970s.

Thomas, as poet and priest, had a view through his window of the tourists and pilgrims on the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales. He writes, "By day passers-by, who are not pilgrims stare through the rain's bars, seeing me as prisoner of the one-view. . ." He is implying that tourists ("passers-by") have a superficial view, whereas pilgrims, who have journeyed through the landscape, have a better understanding of the people and life of the place.

As Andrew Jones puts it (Pilgrimage: The journey to remembering our story, BRF 2011), the tourist passes through a place, untouched by the experience, whereas the place passes through the pilgrim, step by step, transforming them.

But is "faith tourism" actually pilgrimage without the process - none the less leading to an "uninhabited cross" that has been "contaminated by our coinage"? It is simplistic to suggest that pilgrimage is spiritually superior to faith tourism. We all need a varied diet to nourish us, and yet for me there is a tension between the words "faith" and "tourism".

Faith is a slow process of maturing, from inner growth, through the internal journey of observing and understanding ourselves: "a slow dawning because wisdom must come on foot". Tourism, on the other hand, is a quick fix - getting to some external destination, prompted by the need to "escape" from our daily lives; to tick off a list of places seen - and growth is economic, rather than spiritual: "the new travellers in time would arrive too speedily to have grown wise on the way".

Traditionally faith was underpinned by pilgrimage. But Chaucer's pilgrims were arguably also faith tourists, seeking adventures to escape the darker realities of their lives.

Through the temperate months, we see faith tourism and pilgrimage alongside each other at St Hywyn's Church, Aberdaron - Thomas's last parish - and the R. S. Thomas Literary Festival (3-5 July) will provide an opportunity for both. Pilgrimage to the inner self could be made through the experience of the Stations to the Untenanted Cross, in church. The six-mile pilgrimage "Walking in his Footsteps" will provide an opportunity to hear his poetry read aloud in the landscape that inspired his work. And what might be considered the "faith tourism" element is addressed through the presentations of the Revd John McEllhenney, from Pennsylvania, looking at how Thomas's poetry was influenced by the theology of Tillich; and Professor Tony Brown's insights into Mrs Thomas's (as yet unpublished) journals and letters in the R. S. Thomas study centre at Bangor University.

The Saturday evening concert, "Counterpoint", doesn't just share a title with one of Thomas's collections of poetry, but is also an interplay of his words with the music of Kreisler, Mozart, and Kane. While this bears all the hallmarks of a "tourism" event, it has the potential to be transformative too, by transposing hymns and prayers with harmonies and poetry, which can equally be expressions of the divine and sacred that we call God.


I WONDER how Thomas himself would have regarded this event. He was too modest a man to imagine that he personally might have been the destination of anyone's pilgrimage. Would he have preferred to appear under the banner of "literary tourism"? He was a poet and priest who believed that God had called him to write. He claimed to separate the poet from the priest in his daily routine. But can you separate the priest from the poetry? His faith was ever present in his poetry, and, Thomas, as a pilgrim of faith himself, wrote poetry for us all, as faith pilgrims.


Susan Fogarty is Ministry Area Warden, Bro Enlli.


For information about the R. S. Thomas Literary Festival, visit www.st-hywyn.org.uk/rst or email susanafogarty@gmail.com 


* "The Moon in Lleyn" (Laboratories of the Spirit); also quoted: "At the End" (No Truce with the Furies); "Not the Empty Tomb"; "The first king was on horseback"; and "Come close" (Counterpoint)

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