Pilgrimage is a subject that is making a comeback. It was an important discipline in the lives of our ancestors. King Robert the Bruce made several pilgrimages to Whithorn in Galloway the “Candida Casa”, cradle of Christianity in Scotland, the bright mission place established by Ninian. St Andrew’s, Luss and later Iona were also destinations for pilgrims through the centuries. Our Protestant forefathers put and end to pilgrimage, partly because it was caught up in the cult of saints. But revering the bones of saints was only one aspect of pilgrimage. When I went to the Cathedral of St James at Santiago in Spain, I saw what we were told were the bones of St James, our Lord’s brother. I did not have a religious experience looking at them, I just felt privileged to see something that might connect me all the way back to the time of Jesus. What I felt as I placed my hand on the great pillar of the Cathedral and it sunk into the marble several inches because of all the other hands that had done the same thing at the end of the pilgrimage for nearly a thousand years, was a sense of continuity, a sense of being in touch with a great company of the faithful who had come this way before me in search of a deeper companionship with Christ who is the centre of our faith. One day Kate and I would like to walk all the way to Santiago de Compostella from the centre of France, but we’ll need a few weeks.
The first pilgrimage walk I undertook was in the footsteps of St Machar, who is supposed to have been a companion of Columba on Iona and have journeyed across Scotland to what is now Old Aberdeen and founded the church where I was minister. That was a 270 mile physical challenge in which we clocked up an average of a marathon a day. But there is more to pilgrimage than trying to “do yourself in” physically! There is the companionship and conversation, there is the appreciation of the countryside, the people you encounter on the way, the journey with a purpose. There is the simplifying of consciousness that accompanies being focussed on one task, such a contrast to the multi –tasking we all try to do in our daily lives. Most of all, I think that pilgrimage describes well the journey of faith.
At the end of April, Jo Elliot and I will set off on a pilgrimage walk together from Dunadd, the ancient capital of the Scots in Argyll to St Andrews. Pilgrimage is a way of reminding ourselves of the journey of faith, towards that goal that we cannot attain, but to which we must ever strive. Pilgrimage is also a time of rest, reflection and restoration, and in the hectic life we lead. The great John Baillie once wrote, quoting Shelley, “I have no respect whatever for your timid mediating illusionists, the trembling throng whose sails were never to the tempest given”. But, he goes on to say that those who brave the journey, knowing they might stumble and fail, have his most profound admiration. They may not have all the answers but they have a clear sighted goal that they have not moved a little closer to them in order to have an easier life.