"The almighty and everlasting God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, dispose your journey according to his good pleasure, send his angel Raphael to keep you in this your pilgrimage, and both conduct you in peace on your way to the place where you would be, and bring you back again on your return to us in safety."
Adapted from a prayer in the Sarum Missal
SINCE the disciples’ first journey out of the city of Jerusalem to the place where the tomb of Christ lay empty, Christians have been eager to see the places where Jesus walked, spoke, healed, and was crucified.
Over the centuries, other sites have been added to those first destinations — sites at which dramatic healings or conversions have occurred, the birthplaces of saints, landscapes which have hosted visions, or simply places where it is felt that the gap between heaven and earth is slightly less — “thin” places, as they are sometimes called.
Compelled by often complicated and barely defined motives, travellers have braved difficulties and dangers to visit these spots, and to offer their prayers. Throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrimage achieved a popularity that has been matched only during the past 20 years. During the medieval period, at the time when earlier versions of this prayer were written, to undertake a pilgrimage was to face the possibility of never returning home, so great were the perils.
As a result of this, an elaborate ritual developed to speed pilgrims on their way. Permission to travel had to be obtained from the parish priest, and from the feudal landowner, if appropriate. The pilgrim had to write a will, an unusual undertaking in those days.
A document that testified to the genuine nature of the pilgrimage was drawn up; this was meant to ensure the pilgrim’s safety on the road, although in particularly dangerous areas it did not always succeed. It did, however, entitle the pilgrim to hospitality from monasteries and abbeys along the way. Finally, a service was held in church, during which the pilgrim’s hat, staff, and bag were blessed, and the pilgrim was urged on his or her way with a blessing from the parish priest.
This blessing is modernised and adapted from material in the Sarum Missal, the liturgical form used in most of the English Church before the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. It can, however, be traced back still further, to the Roman rite, from which it was drawn by the Bishop of Salisbury to be set down in the Sarum Missal in the 11th century. It became widely used throughout England, encompassing as it did both the passionate longing of pilgrims to reach their destination, and the equally fervent desire to return home safely.
Today, as then, many Christians find in the act of pilgrimage an opportunity to reflect on their lives, to find space to listen to God, and to realign themselves to God’s ways. This journey does not have to be on a grand scale, although the effect of travelling to destinations such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela can be profound. Short, simple journeys to a local church or favourite place of reflection, made in the course of a day or only a morning, can offer deep spiritual refreshment.
Whatever the length of the expedition, they all take place within our lifetime’s journey on this earth as “strangers and pilgrims” (Hebrews 11.13), and serve as a metaphor for our time in this world.
Here we must feel as if we are away from our true home, but we can be comforted by the fact that we do not travel alone. Christ walks beside us on our journey, our support and our encourager; by our side as we face challenges, comforting us during times of difficulty, cheering us on in times of triumph.
With such a companion, we can walk steadily towards our goal, who is that same Christ, in God, our destination and our home. As we approach our destination, we notice that he is travelling towards us, to meet us.
On this lifelong journey, nothing is more important than our attitude of mind. Pilgrims on a physical journey soon learn that, with a heavy rucksack, progress is slow and painful, encouraging the very eventuality against which they have armed themselves with the latest gadgets and equipment. Better by far to shed all but the basic necessities, and accept the gifts that are offered by fellow travellers, locals, and hostellers, with a grateful heart.
The Christian pilgrim must reflect on the prejudices that are carried on the journey. Some of these are difficult to travel with — a materialist anxiety about the future, a tendency towards suspicion of the motives of others, a resentment of the hindrances that have been placed in the path. We must abandon the burdens of narrowness of heart and mind, a pre-judging disposition, and travel lightly, open to all that will happen along the way.
The Revd Sally Welch is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shortampton, and Area Dean of Chipping Norton. She edits New Daylight Bible-reading notes for BRF, and is the author of books, including Making a Pilgrimage (Lion Hudson, 2009) and Every Place is Holy Ground (Canterbury Press, 2011).