Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place. REBECCA SOLNIT
Symbols, metaphors and allegories aside, pilgrim ways are actual physical routes which take you through and to spiritually resonant and numinous places — or 'thin places' as the ancient Celts called them, places where the distance between heaven and earth dissolve and you may, if you're lucky, catch a glimpse of the divine. Some are carefully waymarked — such as the Caminos to Santiago de Compostela (due to the vested interest of the Catholic Church), some are only sparsely signed, and some are not indicated on the ground at all. The latter require a little map reading and a lot of imagination and speculation. The famous and much-frequented pilgrim paths are well provided with guidebooks and places to eat and stay. On the less-publicised paths you are on your own, and you have to rely a great deal on supposition, and your interpretation of history and the natural and man-made features of the landscape. (Graham Robb has written eruditely and fascinatingly, if conjecturally, about the lost pathways of a pre-Roman Celtic Europe, travelled by Druidic scholar-priests, in his 2013 book The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe.)
The Stones of Callenish and the Abbey of Iona in Scotland, Glastonbury Tor and Canterbury Cathedral in England, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico City, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailas in Tibet, Uluru in Australia, Mount Parnassus in Greece — wherever you go in the world, you can find ancient and not-so-ancient foci of sacred significance. Some are popular destinations ruined by tourism and commercial exploitation; some are little-known sites, hard to trace; others are personally talismanic, meaningful only to the individual — such as the poet Kathleen Raine's rowan tree above the waterfall at Sandaig on the west coast of Scotland, once home to Gavin Maxwell and his otters. Interestingly, such personal places may later be sought out by literary pilgrims — which attaches a whole new layer of 'holiness' to them.
Yet despite the importance of these spiritual destinations, and the personal satisfaction in having reached them, often arduously, there is the idea that the journey itself is what matters and is the process where the real answers are to be found. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, observed that all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware; and the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, wrote that the wanderer follows no road — the road is made by walking. In other words, we alone create the path, and that path is the only really important path, because it's our path, even though its purpose and direction often remain unclear. JRR Tolkien wrote that not all those who wander are lost, for, even if we meander and stray, it rarely means we are completely without hope; indeed, we may find the true meaning of the path, and ourselves, in those very deviations, blind alleys and 'wrong' turnings.
A great thing about pilgrim routes is that they are not tourist routes, and pilgrims are not tourists. The routes can take you through quite ordinary countryside and less-than-pretty towns just as easily as through stunning and beautiful landscapes. Although pilgrims are not averse to a spot of sightseeing when time allows, their main concerns are the simple day-to-day desires for movement, food, drink, shelter and rest. And perhaps a little companionship along the way. Scenery is there, and sometimes it's stunning, but there's something else, something more, something elusive, something to do with the thread of the whole journey, and how it connects up, and what it reveals. As I wrote in my poem, A Prayer: . . . I am desperate to find meaning / In something more than landscape.
One thing I'm sure of is that we are all pilgrims and our lives are pilgrimages. Pilgrimage is not the limited property of those few who are fortunate or crazy enough to tread the actual, physical pathways; after all, many of us are unable to do this, for a variety of reasons. Pilgrimage can be in the mind and an attitude of mind; pilgrimage is the path we take daily from dawn till dusk, and then in our dreams at night; pilgrimage is questioning, abandoning, discovering, accepting. Pilgrimage is life. Pilgrimage is love.
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. MATSUO BASHŌ
|On the Via de la Plata in Spain.|
To be continued . . .