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Pilgrimage: not all rucksack and hiking boots  

23 October 2020

Its history is full of surprising encounter and revelation, says Dee Dyas


The Summoner See gallery for more images

The Summoner See gallery for more images

IF WE look at the Bible through a pilgrim lens, we find widely different models proclaiming experience of God in contrasting ways. In the Old Testament, we see two main approaches to pilgrim engagement with God: journeying with him, and journeying to him.

Journeying with God is seen in the life of Abraham, who was instructed to leave his home in search of the place to which God was calling him, and learned to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term rewards. Abraham’s progress was a little unsteady, but he stuck with it, and that’s why the Celtic monks who helped to bring Christianity to England via Iona and Cumbria saw him as a prototype pilgrim and a key role-model for their own faith journeys with God.

Similarly, God is shown leading Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness to the land of Canaan, his presence especially symbolised by the Ark of the Covenant, housed in the Tabernacle: a splendid but portable place of worship.

There was also the model of journeying to God, once they settled in the land and Jerusalem had been captured. The temple which Solomon built there came to be seen as the place for special encounters with God, and the focus of the great annual pilgrimages of Judaism.

The temple was like the Tabernacle before it: carefully constructed, furnished with superlative craftmanship and immensely costly materials, which, together, created a multi-sensory immersive experience of glory and splendour which still influences our experience of pilgrimage today.


SENSORY experience and generation of emotion are key to both Tabernacle and temple, as they will continue to be throughout the story of pilgrimage. Human beings can learn and understand and respond only through their senses, which neuroscientists now think can number as many as 30, including the sense of movement. Emotion is now recognised as a vital element in the creation of long-term memory, and in decision-making and change.

The Psalms, which became the heart of Christian worship in the West, have at their core this combination of emotion, memory, and encounter with God, enhanced through a carefully constructed communication of holiness.

The temple, and Jerusalem as a whole, came to be seen as a place where God had chosen to dwell, and where he could be approached for forgiveness and other blessings in a special way.

istockThe Parson

The way in which the temple is described and used echoes those three elements of pilgrimage: revelation, encounter, and transformation. Both the Tabernacle and the temple have left their mark on every Christian intention of creating special places for encounter with God.

In the New Testament, however, we see a different emphasis, which is also very important today. Jerusalem and the temple do feature in the Gospels, but there is a significant shift: God is now present and a human being, who can be seen, touched, and heard, and who brings transformation. He is the revelation of God.

The New Testament writers see the temple as obsolete, because God is now available to everybody in person: first, in the person of Jesus, and then through the Holy Spirit. Who therefore needs special places? This view was reinforced by the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and the expulsion of most Christian and Jews from the city.

For the first three centuries of the Church, the main meaning of the term “pilgrim” became that of a Christian believer travelling through life towards the heavenly city of Jerusalem described in the Revelation of St John.

It is a place of amazing beauty, lit by the very presence of God: pearls, gold, glory, and light, with Jesus at the centre. And, as a result, New Testament writers addressed all Christians, all believers, as strangers and pilgrims, asking them not to sin and also encouraging them that, as those figures of the Old Testament “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims”, they, too, were on their way to “a heavenly country”.

It is vital to note, though, that labelling Christians as strangers and pilgrims, yet also citizens of heaven, is in no way an excuse to avoid commitment to this world.

In fact, it’s anything but. God’s people are to serve and care, but with an underlying level of security and a set of external values, which means they can be radical and fearless in so doing.

They can stand up for what they believe is right, and take risks, even if it costs them being in the present. This is woven through the early Fathers of the Church, such as St Augustine, who defined Christian life as a pilgrimage towards heaven.


FOR the first three centuries after Christ, there is no evidence that Christians venerated sites as holy, or as places of special devotional experience. But the pendulum was about to swing in the opposite direction. In the fourth century came the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. His pagan background meant that he expected to have holy places and to mark them with splendid buildings.

Constantine and his mother, Helena, reinvented Palestine as a Christian holy land, creating great churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which — conscious of Solomon’s example — they filled with gold, silver, jewels, light, and colour.

istockThe Prioress

Once again, beauty and the extravagant use of precious materials created a sense of holiness and God’s presence. Once again, we have the revelation of God’s power, and the encouragement that he can be known in ways that will change lives.

Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem introduced immensely powerful liturgies, and promoted the uniqueness of the city with superb salesmanship: “Others only hear,” he proclaimed, “but we see and touch.” He devised liturgies that employed multiple senses and acts of devotion, including kissing the relic of the cross. People were encouraged to re-enact biblical scenes in situ, and pray and worship in ways that triggered emotion and created powerful memories.

Jerusalem was not only a place that was made holy by past events: it became the setting where God could be encountered in the present. Egeria, a nun from Spain who visited the land of the Bible in the late fourth century, described a multi-layered, multi-sensory intensification of Christian experience, in which profound emotion was triggered by recollecting, together, an event in the life of Christ at the very spot where it was believed to have taken place.

“When everyone arrives at Gethsemane,” she wrote, “they have an appropriate prayer, a hymn, then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord’s arrest. By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loud that people across the city can probably hear.”

But how did this heady mix fit with earlier teaching? Significant voices raised concern. Gregory of Nyssa, most of the time, and Jerome, some of the time, insisted that pilgrimage to special places was unnecessary, and even spiritually dangerous.

istockThe Squire

These developments posed an inescapable theological conundrum. If some places were considered special and holy, then, logically, other places must be less so. And could it really be claimed that an omnipresent God was somehow more accessible in Jerusalem than in Britain?

Jerome and Gregory, wearing their theological hats, both said no. On the other hand, Gregory shed tears when visiting Jerusalem; and Jerome was no stranger to intense, sensory, emotion-packed devotional experiences in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. These otherwise stern Fathers of the Church are clear illustrations of the fact that, when theology is ambushed by experience, experience tends to win out.

Why? Quite simply, it’s a fact of the way in which human beings work. I spent many years examining the aspects of human physiology and psychology which make us hardwired to find meaning in, and attach meaning to, places, and the importance of the senses in spiritual learning and response.

This model of encounter with God, so carefully constructed in Jerusalem, not only became very popular within the Holy Land but spread across Christendom, through the construction of buildings that created the same kind of sensory experience.

Even in the early days of the Church in Anglo-Saxon England, we see deliberate imitation of the splendours of the Tabernacle and the temple, as kings and bishops used precious metals and jewels, and employed superb craftsmen to evoke a powerful sense of God’s presence and holiness.


DURING these early centuries, however, yet another form of pilgrimage emerged, as monasticism developed throughout the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. The Desert Fathers and Mothers renounced homes and families for a life of prayer, accepting exile on earth to win citizenship in heaven.

From the start, this way of life was seen as a specialist kind of pilgrimage, in which inner journey could be achieved only by staying still. As a result of these developments, there existed, from the fourth century onwards, four main elements within Christian pilgrimage: one overarching concept — life as pilgrimage towards heaven and Jerusalem — and three main strands of practical outworking.

These strands were: material pilgrimage, which includes monasticism, prayer, contemplation, the mystical life, and seeking God in an inner Jerusalem; moral pilgrimage, which is the need for every Christian to follow their calling, to be obedient, to care for the community, and serve those around them; and place pilgrimage, involving journeying to saints’ shrines or other places to gain forgiveness, healing, or other material benefits, and to express devotion.

This is very much about being mobile: leaving one’s daily responsibilities and place of work — at least, for a time. Walking was not really a treat for the average medieval person; so, unless you were doing specific penance, you would have ridden if you could, but the journey to a shrine would have offered most people a rare break from work, and the chance to explore the world.

istockThe Knight

At Canterbury, in 1322, a visiting friar described the body of Thomas Becket as resting in a case made of pure gold and adorned with innumerable precious stones, with shining pearls like at the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem, and sparkling gems. For pilgrims coming to the shrine to give thanks and pray, seeing the splendour made them realise that this was truly a place where heaven and earth intersected. Seeing was definitely believing.

Nor were the other senses excluded: bells rang, choirs sang music fit for heaven, tombs might appear to exude healing oil or sweet smells, and, above everything, the pilgrims were moving, touching, crawling within sacred spaces, touching and being touched by them, literally and metaphorically. They might even drink or eat fragments of stone, dust, or healing oil.

All the senses were thus at work together. For some, it was a substitute for daily closeness to God rather than an aid to it, and it failed to feed back into everyday life.

As such, it was vulnerable to criticism, which came to the fore at the Reformation, when pilgrimage and associated practices became a battleground, and much pilgrimage infrastructure was dismantled, along with monasteries. Despite much popular resistance, many buildings lost much of their beauty and splendour, and pilgrim journeys were actively suppressed.

The Reformers were determined to shine a fresh light on salvation by faith rather than by attempted good works, such as pilgrim journeys. Protestant teaching refocused on the New Testament pilgrimage as a journey through life, which is most famously illustrated in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.


AND yet it isn’t that easy to suppress pilgrimage to places. We get glimpses of good Protestant Englishmen travelling abroad, and finding themselves, despite their theological convictions, being caught up in intensely emotional responses to pilgrimage sites.

In 1611, the son of the Archbishop of York, an outspoken critic of pilgrimage (unlike the present one), wrote of his visit to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: “Thousands of Christians perform their vows, offer their tears yearly with all the expressions of sorrow, humility, affection, and penitence. It’s a frozen zeal which would not be warmed by the sight thereof. Oh, that I could retain the effects it wrought.”

istockThe Pardoner

There were many other firm Protestants who found themselves ambushed by the power of special places in the 16th century. One of my favourites is Robert Curzon, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1834. He wrote: “It was curious to observe the different effect which our approach to Jerusalem had upon the various persons that composed our party. A Christian pilgrim fell down on his knees and kissed the holy ground; two others embraced each other.

“As for us, we sat bolt upright on our horses, and stared and said nothing. Whilst around us the more natural children of the East wept for joy, we, who consider ourselves civilised and superior beings, repressed our emotions. I would have got off my horse and walked barefoot to the gate, as some did, if I had dared. At last, I blew my nose, and rode slowly on.”

Clearly, he was overcome by emotion, but couldn’t let it out. Before much longer, however, Thomas Cook would both found modern tourism and revive pilgrimage to the Holy Land almost single-handedly, opening the way to secular and spiritual travel. And pilgrimage, as we know, has continued to grow throughout the 20th century to the present day.


WHAT does this whistle-stop tour of pilgrimage have to say to us today? Are there ways of drawing together the various strands of pilgrim experience which were torn apart at the Reformation and align them to resource one another?

As cathedrals and other pilgrimage destinations in this country revive or reinvent themselves — to the pleasure of some, and the horror of others — how can we evolve a theology of pilgrimage and place which works for us today?

I have deliberately avoided the label “holy places” in describing Christian pilgrimage today. The term lies at the heart of the theological problem facing a faith that emphasises the omnipresence and therefore the omni-availability of God.

To label particular places as “holy” can imply that they are qualitatively different from the rest of this world, and that God is somehow more present or more accessible there. This clearly cannot be the case if we worship an omnipresent God, and it has led to all kinds of theological battles in the past.


And yet many people, including a large number who don’t have any form of religious belief, still find such places a helpful way into exploring spirituality and enriching their lives. That is not an accident, because that is, in fact, what these places are for: to make us pause, reflect, and respond.

Social scientists, neuro-scientists, and architects are spending a great deal of time thinking about the power of awe: its effect on people; and the way in which architecture — the way that buildings, as they did in the Middle Ages, and as they still do today — can actually work on us and change us through the physical experience of exploring them.

Buildings can evoke in us — whether we come as pilgrims, tourists, or worshippers — emotion, or awareness of beauty, peace, and holiness as something beyond ourselves. The difference between these places and others, therefore, lies not in their essence, but in their purpose.

They harness human creativity to point to the glory and creativity of God, and hint at what it’s like to experience his presence. And in this they are no different from the wonders of creation which we experience when walking through a peaceful landscape, enjoying a world that is also designed, according to the Psalms, to show us God’s glory and power, and the beauty of his handiwork.

So, two deceptively simple questions remain unresolved. What exactly do we mean by pilgrimage? And who qualifies to be called a pilgrim?

After working in the theology, history, and practice of pilgrimage for almost 25 years, I have concluded that it is unhelpful to have too narrow or too wide a definition.

Sometimes, there is an assumption that only those who walk to a distant destination with rucksack and hiking boots can be called pilgrims, whereas in previous centuries much of the emphasis was on the encounter with God which waited at the goal, and many pilgrims were locals.

On the other hand, “pilgrim” can be used as something of a catch-all to describe people who respond to sites in a manner satisfactory to those who manage them. In a meeting of cathedral deans in the 1990s, the limitations of this approach were admitted with a joke: “I am a pilgrim. You are a visitor. He is a tourist.”

istockThe Wife of Bath

Trying to separate pilgrims and tourists fails to take into account the vital truth that any one person may experience a wide range of responses, sometimes unexpected, during a journey, or while visiting a special place.

From my own research, and from years of trying to help cathedrals engage with visitors, I want to suggest a definition of pilgrim experience which I think can work for both past and present: it is a state of openness to spiritual engagement through place and journey, whether planned or spontaneous, limited neither by mode of transport nor the distance travelled.

If a pilgrim is a spiritually responsive person, then everyone is a potential pilgrim in whatever way they choose to pursue.

Does the story of Christian pilgrimage demonstrate theology ambushed by experience? Yes, but in a good way. Increased understanding of the power of that experience can actually enrich our theology, because it tells us more about how human beings have been designed to function and respond.

There is room, within a wider theology of an omnipresent and available God, for special places, created to tell us more about him and to encourage us to pause and ask, “Where have I come from?”, “Where am I now?”, and “Where am I going?”

We are fortunate to have many ways of being a pilgrim today. What unites them are the core concepts of revelation, encounter, and transformation; and what frames them is the theme of life as a journey towards heaven, because it offers an ongoing story into which all our ways of being pilgrims can be woven, as we seek renewal and refreshment of ourselves, and encourage others to do the same.


Dr Dee Dyas is Reader in the History of Christianity, and director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture and the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies at the University of York. This is an edited transcript from her online talk for the 2020 Church Times Festival of Christian Pilgrimage, organised and managed by Christ Church, Oxford. Transcript by Serena Long.

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