Pilgrim and pilgrimage are words that have carried many meanings over the centuries. The English term 'pilgrim' originally comes from the Latin peregrinus -meaning a foreigner, a stranger, someone on a journey, or a temporary resident.
Pilgrimage is a wide-ranging topic, touching on many aspects of human existence, signifying not only a physical journey to a special place but also an inner spiritual journey leading to a process of transformation. For some people, pilgrimage acts as a rite of passage; for others, it involves seeking spiritual and/or material rewards.
Pilgrimage is almost a universal process amongst all religions. Examples of the more well-known sites are Lourdes (Christian), Mecca (Islam), Nepal (Buddhism) and Benares (Hindu). In recent years, this practice of pilgrimage has spread beyond the confines of established religion with contemporary travellers of every belief travelling to sites they hold as sacred. The destination of the 21st century pilgrim is usually a place given prominence by significant events, the shrine of a saint or other notable figure or a remarkable geographical feature. The experience usually contains the following aspects:
- Journeying alone or in a group
- Reaching a destination
- Encountering special rituals, objects, geographical features and architecture
- Enjoying particular experiences and benefits
- Returning home
The Processes of Pilgrimage within a Glastonbury context
As a Medieval Christian centre of pilgrimage, Glastonbury is still recognised today by annual pilgrimages of the Anglican and Catholic churches, but these are one-day events and perhaps not typical of the classic pilgrimage of the Middle Ages. Alongside the Christian pilgrimages, individuals and groups from a wide variety of faiths and beliefs are drawn to Glastonbury. In fact, the one common factor that they share may be ‘a Call to Glastonbury’.
The start of any pilgrimage is awareness of potential pilgrims that they need to undertake such a journey. The reasons might be varied but generally include a desire to visit a particular holy or sacred site in order to worship, give honour, seek answers to questions and receive healing and spiritual guidance. Combined with these objectives, is the satisfaction of the journey itself.
There is no longer a firmly established custom for making such a journey to Glastonbury and instead, the potential pilgrim will have heard about the place from friends, books or the internet, which may have sparked the interest. This can be followed by a strong call to visit, and for some, to even come to live in the town.
Finding out about Potential Places
In earlier times, this would have been no problem. Individuals would be steeped in their own religion or practice, and the destinations for people in these practices would have been clearly established and defined.
The call to visit Glastonbury may be so strong that the potential pilgrim of today feels that such a journey is essential and there is no other place to go. Alternatively, a visitor may think that it might just be an interesting way to spend a holiday. It is not always easy to tell the difference between pilgrims and tourists. Both may be found visiting sacred sites, and both may aim to prolong the experience or retain its benefits by recording their journey and bringing back souvenirs. In many cases, there may be no clear purpose - this is something that may only emerge as a journey progresses. It is not unusual that what was intended as a holiday turns into a pilgrimage and vice versa.
Planning the Journey
After deciding upon the pilgrimage and the destination, it is often necessary to make some plans for the journey itself. In earlier times, the roads were difficult and dangerous. In most cases, the pilgrims would have sought a group of others to accompany them on the journey. They would also need to plan safe and reliable overnight stops on the way, usually in places set up to specifically accommodate pilgrims. One example is the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain; this pilgrimage has clearly defined maps of the roads to be taken and the recognised rest points at one day’s walking distance apart. Contemporary pilgrims visiting Glastonbury have no such clear plan to follow. On the other hand, they do have a wealth of information on the internet that was not previously available, such as flights, buses, trains, hotels etc.
Blessing the Journey
Before setting off on the journey, it would have been the normal practice to obtain the blessing of the local priest upon the Christian pilgrimage to Glastonbury. This gave a proper aura of acceptability and validity to the journey. It was also a way of assuring that there would be spiritual support and protection against the undoubted perils on the way. Nowadays, this is not likely to happen but the potential pilgrim will often talk to friends who have been to Glastonbury and support their plans and wish them well on the journey.
In the past, the journey itself was a vital part of the whole pilgrimage. It could take many days, if not weeks, and provided an opportunity for meditation and reflection. The journey would be on foot, horseback or horse drawn carriage, and ten miles a day might be the most that could comfortably be covered. It could therefore take many days to get to Glastonbury. The last part of the inbound journey would have brought into welcome sight, the goal of the Glastonbury Tor.
Today, we have a totally different situation whereby travellers from any part of the world can fly to the UK in a matter of hours. The journey from the airport to Glastonbury takes no more than a few hours, whether it is by train, bus or car. In the haste of the journey, there is virtually no time for quiet contemplation. So today, the journey itself plays very little part in the pilgrimage. However, even in the relatively short time occupied by the journey today, there is still time for synchronous meetings with other travellers and for extraordinary events to occur.
Arrival & Welcome
In established religious centres of pilgrimage there is almost always a place where pilgrims are received and informed about the practices and activities of the place. The welcome might include explaining information on accommodation and other essential details including the process for completing the act of pilgrimage.
Unlike sacred places devoted to a specific religion, Glastonbury is a place where a multitude of spiritual paths are represented. The result is a huge variety of shops, courses, workshops, healers and specific sacred sites, covering almost every possible spiritual path. This openness to all paths is one of the attractions of Glastonbury, but it can be very confusing to the first time visitor. In 2008 the Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre, now known as the Glastonbury Reception Centre and Sanctuary, was set up to help and support pilgrims and seekers in finding information and resources relevant to their journey.
Ceremony in the Sacred Place
Some kind of ceremony marks the completion of the journey. This might take the form of prayer in the temple or sanctuary, a procession or some other act of worship.
In the past, there would have been a very clear practice for pilgrims to follow in order to complete their pilgrimage. In Santiago de Compostela, it is to attend a service in the cathedral, walk behind the great statue of St James, to say a prayer and then to move on. In Glastonbury today, there is no particular recognised practice. There are however, many ways in which the individual pilgrim can complete the visit. It may be a climb of the Tor, a visit to Chalice Well, the White Spring, the Abbey, or any other site. It might be a walk in the landscape or a visit to the the specialised shops and cafes of the town.
In the days when Glastonbury had a community of Benedictine monks, it would have been possible for the pilgrim to play a part in the life of the Abbey. This was a huge enterprise with its own farms, workshops, a library and a whole range of other activities. The pilgrims, who chose to stay for some time, would have been able to join in the life of this community.
Today, there is an active community of resident pilgrims, containing a number of artists, writers, musicians, therapists and creative people of many different paths and beliefs. The contemporary pilgrim visitor who wants to stay for some time in the town will very soon find a way of making friends with people of similar interests. Some organisations and businesses welcome pilgrims to spend time with them, in exchange for work
Looking after the Sacred Place
In most places of pilgrimage, there are resident attendants or guardians who look after the special places, tend sacred fires and receive offerings and gifts from incoming pilgrims. The cost of looking after these locations is usually met by gifts from grateful visitors.
Before the Reformation, all the buildings in Glastonbury were looked after by the Abbey with the town, and its supporting services, complementary to it. Today, Glastonbury is both a market town and a venue of pilgrimage. There is no one coordinating body, rather a multitude of individuals, who run their own businesses and projects, many of them in a role of stewardship in which they care for our special places with some welcome support from our visitors. The individual enterprises are, in the main, looked after and supported by their own activities, whether they are selling goods and services or by donations and support from the community.
In the past, the return journey would have been as leisurely as the outward journey, giving ample time to reflect upon the whole experience, but this is not often the case with modern transport. It is suggested that spending one or two quiet days, once home, in order to contemplate and absorb what has been learnt, is the best practice. The journey of pilgrimage is a symbol in action and for many; it can have profound and lasting effects.
Common effects of pilgrimage can be the solidification of something that is growing in us and brings answers to our questions. The sense of well-being might increase, allowing the opportunities to explore deeper into the meaning of own lives.