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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, August 10, 2005
    Fancies fly away
    A very thought-provoking email from Phil got me on the topic of pilgrimage today. What do we mean by pilgrimage? Is it journey to a place of inspiration? Or an inner journey - a travel in the head or heart? I've Googled myself (it was quite painless) and it turns out I've used the word pilgrimage quite a lot, on this blog. Variously with reference to:

    - Sacred places, widely acknowledged as such, like Little Gidding, Iona, Pennant Melangell;

    - Significant personal journeys like my rookie motorbike ride to my first Greenbelt and Jim's epic motorbike ride in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Irish Hunger Strike;

    - Symbolic journeys like the pilgrimage walk Eric Pike, Bishop of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, made through his diocese visiting places where violent crimes took place, praying for healing;

    - Journeys which celebrate people like Richard Rolle and John Lennon;

    - Good quotes like Columbanus who said "Christians must travel in perpetual pilgrimage as guests of the world," and William Blake who said "There is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time toward eternity";

    - Great 'travel' writing especially from Iain Sinclair.

    I guess, then, that 'pilgrimage' is a fairly slippery term. It was interesting to reflect on how I've used it in relation to Iona, because the 'pilgrimage' experience has changed through time.

    At first it definitely was about travelling to a place that embodied, manifested, some kind of profundity for me; also slightly about walking in other devotional footprints but more, actually, about the company in which I travelled and a sense of being on a shared journey (in all senses) with them (the first Greenbelt-Iona pilgrims). The route of pilgrimage itself contributed to that sense of travelling to a profound place, partly because of the sheer difficulty of getting there, partly because of the change of scene en-route, industrial northern England / Glasgow via Loch Lomond / Highlands to awe-inspiring Hebridean seascapes.

    As the place became more familiar and I came increasingly to know people on the island and indeed to spend periods of time working there, the initial heightened sense of pilgrimage began to give way to something more like belonging. But the journey remained as challenging and as transformational as ever, as did the company, so it has definitely retained the sense of pilgrimage as a journey to the place of inspiration, an encounter with an 'other'.

    Interesting that this once extraordinary place has now become familiar to me. And now I'm getting more and more interested in how familiar places are actually quite extraordinary, when you look at them deeply enough. Wonder what John Bunyan would have said about all this?