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Walking to Jerusalem, by Justin Butcher, and Striking Out, by Stephen Cottrell

25 January 2019

Emma J. Wells learns about two journeys of personal significance

“ALL pilgrimages should be done away with,” wrote Martin Luther. “For there is no good in them . . . but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments.” The Reformer’s warning could not be proven more wrong by the peregrinations presented in Jason Butcher’s Walking to Jerusalem: Blisters, hope and other facts on the ground and Stephen Cottrell’s Striking Out: Poems and stories from the Camino.

If you are seeking guides to Santiago de Compostela or Jerusalem — with instructions for following the routes and detail on the places through which you will pass — these books are not for you. They are not travelogues, but nuanced explorations of “what travelling did” to each man, “and the joys”, Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, notes, “that it uncovered”. Attentiveness to place or destination is somewhat secondary. By composing individual sonnets for each day of travel, Cottrell pursued the “small vulnerabilities that come with not quite knowing where the next meal is coming from or where . . . [he’ll] sleep that night”.

The playwright, actor, and musician Justin Butcher challenged the adversities of pilgrimage itself, using his (and 100 others’) feet and blisters “to change the record of 100 years of injustice for the Palestinian people”. Yet this was no case of “Jerusalem Syndrome”. Rather, the very essence of Butcher’s momentous 2000-mile atonement for Britain’s Balfour Declaration, in the lead-up to its centenary, is Christian faith. His “umbilical” connection to the Holy Land and Christianity’s Jewish roots interlaces this poignant novelistic memoir as he describes the life-changing walk to relieve the war-torn city of peace.

In a similar vein, Cottrell opens with a persuasive call to recover character. While the journey to Compostela as redemptive recovery is a well-worn trope — “I’m not entirely sure the world needs another one,” he confesses — there is no glib ending here. Its verse or “language of religious faith” is beautifully arranged by Cottrell’s engaging personality, as he honestly describes the physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of making the pilgrimage along the Camino del Norte. There is always a danger that this approach will be overly anecdotal, but Cottrell avoids this, and uses the daily poems to illustrate how places and the journeys to them can be reflective and renewing: “If this is faith, then there must be doubt; Some things are learned only by striking out.”

These revealing chronicles are welcome contributions to the literature. Both reason that the spiritual journey can be utterly trans­forming: what matters is the condition of the self through being allowed to explore the very mind and heart of God along the way. Readers can take away the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s proposition: “Every day is a journey and the journey itself home.”

Dr Emma J. Wells is an Associate Lecturer, Programme Director and Research Associate within the Department of Archaeology and Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She is the author of Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016).

Walking to Jerusalem: Blisters, hope and other facts on the ground
Justin Butcher
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Striking Out: Poems and stories from the Camino
Stephen Cottrell
Canterbury Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


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