IN HIS exploration of “journeys of meaning”, Peter Stanford gives us a detailed, well-researched, thoughtfully presented view of 12 major pilgrim trails from different faiths, as well as a few minor ones and a Peace Pilgrim.
His descriptions are careful and thorough, offering an insight into the history of each trail, some of its more popular rituals, and an occasional reflection on those who walk it. An interesting feature are the two collections of colour photos in the book, offering another dimension in understanding the power and meaning of pilgrimage routes and places.
Stanford is a well-read man: he quotes from a wide range of authors, from Hilaire Belloc to Martin Luther and from Paul Theroux to the Kebra Nagast from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. He begins the book from a deeply personal viewpoint, with a description of a visit that he made to Lourdes while still a schoolboy, and the lasting impression that it made on him.
This first pilgrimage was obviously the springboard for a lifetime of travelling, as we are treated to a geographically and sociologically eclectic and meticulous account of his chosen routes. Although he covers the traditional Christian routes of Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and Lourdes, other, less well-known routes are given space, as well as those, such as Mecca and Shikoku, of other faiths.
Stanford’s approach is scholarly and detailed, opening up to the reader some new destinations for pilgrimage and a consequently broader understanding of the phenomenon. Some of the huge variety of reasons that pilgrimages are undertaken are given colour and depth by being embedded in accounts of routes from different faiths and none, although the spiritual aspect of all these journeys is never treated lightly.
He is careful to make no judgement on the reasons that people engage in pilgrimage, commenting instead that such a journey “cannot easily be regulated around a single set of officially approved stories”. His openness is appealing, as is his attitude that the historical veracity of a site is not always its most important aspect, remarking simply that “[pilgrim sites] speak to an older variety of truth”.
It is not until we arrive, somewhat breathless, at the epilogue that his own opinions are given voice once again, in a short but moving reflection on a pilgrimage that he undertook with a group to El Salvador, in memory of Óscar Romero, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador assassinated in 1980 and canonised in 2018.
In this, he experiences the depth of companionship which is such a feature of pilgrimage, and one of its most important aspects, and the book gains in impact from his recollection of this event, adding as it does a level of the personal to the work. Stanford ends with a reminder that a pilgrimage is not a holiday, but a way of taking “a longer, slower and hence more profound look at life”; his book helps us to do that.
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, and Area Dean of Chipping Norton. She is the author of Making a Pilgrimage (Lion, 2009) and Pilgrim Journeys (BRF, 2017).
Pilgrimage: Journeys of meaning
Thames & Hudson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50