I would not describe myself as a "religious" man, so for me to undertake "pilgrimages" to religious places seems a little hypocritical, but for me, a pilgrimage is a walk of serious intent, a journey of personal growth, an attempt to understand one's place in the world, a chance to explore inside, and outside, without the interference of modern daily life, of work, family, friends, or general trouble.
I believe there is a lot to be learned on a pilgrimage, a chance to meet new people, to reflect, but also have fun; to laugh at oneself, to suffer with aching limbs, and also relax at an inn for an ale or two at the end of a hard days walking.
So, a pilgrimage doesn't need to be crawling on one's knees to prostrate oneself in front of a "saint", and for people who have no belief in the idea of "god", that idea might seem ridiculous!
Let's just say that if we think of a pilgrimage as a long walk with purpose, everyone can agree that in these busy and stressful times, that taking some time for yourself is a good thing, and if that good thing involves doing something difficult and unknown to you, which only requires you to carry all your possessions on your back and put one foot in front of each other, every day, that is a noble task, is it not?
Don't get me wrong, these walks are tough - emotionally, psychologically, and physically, and the desire to quit or take the bus will, at times, be very appealing! You might get soaked every day, have shin splints, or blisters, your backpack may be unbearably heavy, you may run out of water, or food, and miss your loved ones; there's an endless list of excuses your mind will give you to just stop! "Because, you see.."
Undertaking a modern day pilgrimage
My first "pilgrimage" was accidental. I had just returned from 6 months in India, and was visiting my friend in Brittany, France, and we went for a walk by the coast. I happened to notice a sign that was familiar..."that's the route marker for the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain" she said.
Twenty four hours later, I was at the starting point in St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, with a small backpack, my running gear, a lightweight waterproof, an Indian blanket, a pair of trainers, and some toiletries. Yes, it was February, but I felt confident I could walk the 1000 km to the sea, completely oblivious to the fact it was snowing heavily in the mountains ahead of me...
I had no interest in religion, or St James the Apostle, whose bones are supposedly buried at Santiago, but something had compelled me to be there, and I was damn sure I was going to make it.
Other "pilgrims" were fully kitted out in top notch walking gear, and I didn't even have a sleeping bag. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, didn't have a guide book, apart from the a4 sheet giving approximate distances per day, but I felt happy other people were staying in the pilgrim hostel.
Most people were going to bed early to prepare for the first day, but I decided to have a beer (or 5) and reflect on my stupidity at thinking I could do this.
Next morning, we were awoken at 6am by the hostel manager, and we were duly turfed out into a bleak, dark and ice cold winter's morning...
I don't want to spoil your pilgrimage by sharing a day by day account of the journey, after all, when you embark on your journey, it is for you to experience, not to follow or replicate anyone else's journey! Sorry.
I shall just say this, after completing the Camino, my love of purposeful walks was ignited, and followed an attempt at being the first person to walk barefoot from John O'Groats to Lands End (the length of great britain) but had to stop after 442 miles due to injury, followed by an epic pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Canterbury (it was the craziest idea and I don't recommend it!).
Several long pilgrimages later, I have just completed the pilgrimage from Southwark Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral, following the route of Thomas Becket and the pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a close friend of mine.
It was the first time I have ever walked with anyone else, and it was a completely different experience. In a good way! She had never made a pilgrimage before and enjoyed the fact that I planned everything, booked inns to stay, and had someone to share a few ales with in the evening, and I enjoyed having good company, and having someone to share the journey with, and laughing more than I have done in a while! Whatever anyone tells you, walking on your own is a lonely existence, albeit a rewarding one.
So, is a modern pilgrimage for you? Well, that depends on you. But if you like a personal challenge, and enjoy walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, then it's definitely for you. It doesn't matter the reason for the pilgrimage, and you don't have to share that with anyone else.
Which Pilgrimage should I undertake?
It depends on many factors, including where you live, if you have any religious beliefs, how much money you have, how much time you have, and what interests you most, like history, language or culture. What matters is your Intention, not the destination.
The intent to embark on something difficult. Something that you intend to do for yourself.
It is not something I suggest undertaking with a loved one, family members, or with your children. You could do that, but I think it dilutes the personal experience of closing the door, leaving everything you know behind, and embarking on something unknown.
Ultimately, it's your choice, but I guarantee once your inner pilgrim has been unleashed, you'll be hooked. You have been warned.
Alan Macmillan Orr