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Sacred Journeys - Santiago de Compostela or Bust!

By Rowan

(Published at Lughnasa 1999)

The approach taken to visiting "sacred sites" by many pagans, myself included unfortunately!, is akin to a spiritual equivalent of the sport of Munro Bagging. For those unfamiliar with the world of hillwalking, I should explain that many years ago a chap by the name of Munro catalogued all of the mountains in Scotland which were higher than 3000' (there are over 100 of the buggers) and in time these became collectively known as "The Munros". Now there is a breed of hillwalker who collects or "bags" Munros; to the Munro-bagger the only thing of any importance is actually standing on top of the chosen peak. The journey to the foot of the peak means nothing; the walk up the side of it means little more. If we substitute "pagan" for "hillwalker" and "Munro" for "standing stone" you will probably see what I am getting at. As the Munro-bagger sees only a peak and not the surrounding landscape, not even (often the view from the top), so many pagans see only a "sacred site", be that a standing stone, a stone circle, a holy well or whatever, and all too often neither see nor recognise the surrounding landscape in which it stands.

And so we have the (admittedly exaggerated) scenario in which a car screeches to a halt in a layby somewhere which could be Cornwall or Kerry, Anglesey or the West Coast of Scotland and disgorges one or more pagans who promptly spend 5 minutes hugging the stone, waving a crystal or dowsing rod at it and taking a snap of it before hurtling back to the car and on to the next site. The equivalent, as I suggest, of the Munro-bagger who slogs up the hill to the top, takes out his logbook and ticks off another name, and then descends again as quickly as possible, thinking only of the next peak. "Beam me down, Scotty!" For a group of people who claim to regard the planet as a whole as sacred this is pretty pathetic stuff.

I was set to thinking about this during the summer as I planned my holidays and did some research. I had long been fascinated by the Auvergne, partly because of the utterly stunning volcanic landscapes and partly because it's one of the bits of France which isn't virtually a British colony. During my research into the region and its surrounding areas, I came across references to several places which were themselves important centres of Christian pilgrimage during the Middle Ages and which were, moreover, gateways to one of the greatest of all Medieval pilgrimages - the Road to Compostela, the goal of which was the shrine of St James in the Cathedral there. This was the third most important pilgrimage a Christian could undertake during the Middle Ages; only the journeys to the Holy Land and to Rome were deemed more important.

From all over western Europe people walked and hitched their way across southern and central France, across the Pyrenees and across the mountains of northern Spain to reach their destination in the far north western corner of the country. And then they walked and hitched their way back again, no doubt proudly wearing the cockleshell badge to which they were now entitled as proof that they had made the trip.

The two gateways mentioned earlier were at Conques and Rocamadour. In the abbey at the former stood the famous pilgrimage shrine of Sainte Foy, a child martyr, while at the latter, in a church in the tiny village, still stands probably the most famous statue of a Black Virgin in the whole of Western Christendom. No doubt the majority of those visiting these shrines had reasons for doing so connected with these particular shrines and did not intend to go further and undertaken the arduous journey to Santiago de Compostela, but a proportion would have come specifically to seek the blessing and protection of the saint or Madonna before undertaking the longer and more demanding pilgrimage, seemingly to the ends of the earth. Intrigued, I pulled out an atlas and looked at the distances involved. More than 1,000 miles out and the same back. From central France, assuming 20 miles per day, we can calculate that a person would have walked for 50 days in each direction - an absence from home of well over three months, not counting the time actually spent at Santiago de Compostela.

Whatever possessed tens of thousands of people, probably hundreds of thousands over several centuries, to leave their families, homes and livelihoods for months on end to make such arduous journeys to the far ends of Europe? In considering this question we cannot, of course, take account of what such pilgrimages might have been like had these pilgrims had access to modern forms and systems of transport. One could comfortably drive from, say, Rocamadour to Santiago de Compostela in a couple of days if so inclined and it is possible that our ancestors would indeed have availed themselves of such facilities had they been available.

However would that still have been truly a pilgrimage, or would it have been more a matter of tourism? Today's Christian turns up at Knock or Lourdes by aircraft or tour bus. No-one slogs across Ireland or over the Pyrenees any more.

One of the key aspects of pilgrimage, as opposed to tourism, is precisely the sense of involvement in the journey itself. Getting there is only part of the entire package. However Pilgrimage has a mythic aspect which is missing from the "If this is Stonehenge it must be Tuesday" quality of tourism.

I suggest that, in many respects, true pilgrimage, as opposed to mere tourism, has something of what Joseph Cambell termed The Hero's Journey, a pattern of experience and learning which is paralleled in much of the traditional literature, mythology and folktales we find in a variety of cultures. This journey is characterised by the separation of the individual from his or her familiar environment, of their being faced with a task or quest which is, seemingly, beyond their capabilities, and of their undertaking a series of encounters and experiences by which they are changed from what they were, which was less than they could be, into what they could be, which was more than they could have been without the journey and its experiences. Without the separation from the familiar and safe, there is a danger that the individual or hero would react to challenging or threatening situations by simply retreating into easy reactions and responses which ultimately could not take him forward. It is, of course, easy to go running back to Mum when we get into difficulties, but sooner or later we have to learn to manage without Mum and to deal with them for ourselves. There is however a point beyond which retreat is no longer an option and from then on we are forced to fall back onto existing knowledge and understanding, not to dictate familiar responses, but to provide the framework upon which we can build and hang new ones. This, I suggest, was the important theme which underlies true pilgrimage. The long journey undertaken away from familiar support systems, from family and friends, and the voyage into the unknown provides the time necessary for inner, spiritual growth of the individual to emerge and take form so that the individual reaching the shrine is no longer the person who set off from home a week or a month earlier. The days and weeks of putting one foot in front of the other, especially if the pilgrim travels alone, provides time for thought, for contemplation, both upon the reason for the individual journey and upon the larger questions of life and death which might not always be possible within the daily round of familiar activity. It offers, in effect, the opportunity to sort out in one's own mind the "big questions" which ultimately we should all be asking ourselves at some time or other. This is not to say that these questions cannot be asked within the context of our everyday lives, but simply that they are more easily dealt with and confronted when there is the time and space to do so without the intrusion of the mundane. The outer world journey is paralleled by, or even walks hand in hand with, the inner world one.

According to Campbell, we are each the hero of our own life story, our personal quest or search for meaning, by which he meant that we have each to meet with challenges on our life's journey, to overcome the obstacles which life places in our way and thereby to grow and to become all that we can be. Only by knowing ourselves for who and what we are do we begin to answer the "big questions." This is not to say that these questions cannot be answered at home, but simply to say that this sort of spiritual challenge tends not to happen at home, or at least when it does it tends to start at home and wrench us out of the familiar into the unfamiliar, and only then does the journey, the learning experience, begin.

It is worth bearing in mind that today few of us travel abroad into entirely unfamiliar territory. The truly intrepid have gone before us and blazed the trail, written the guide books and sussed out all the best hotels and restautants. We might venture on a package holiday to unfamiliar climes but it will be in a controlled environment, with an English-speaking guide and representative of the holiday company; our hotels, transport, meals and sightseeing will all have been meticulously worked out for us by the tour operator. Although there were organised pilgrimages (Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims were taking part in one such) many travelled alone or fell in with others on the road and shifted for themselves. For them, the outer journey was as solitary as the inner one. Like the hero of myth, such pilgrims had only their own resources to fall back on; they either got out of trouble by their own efforts or they ended up even further in it. Some friends of mine from my Yorkshire days set out last year in a Landrover to drive from the UK overland to South Africa by way of the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt, East Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana and down to the Cape, keeping friends and family appraised of their progress by means of regular email bulletins. An email received as I was finalising this edition of the magazine conveyed the news that they had just glimpsed Table Mountain and thus were within sight of the end of the journey. Travelling independently, they had successfully negotiated some of the world's political hotspots and I have no doubt that by the time they return to the UK (apparently by sea, but without the Landrover) they will have been completely changed by the experiences they have had. One thing is certain, however, they would not have had the same experiences, or learned the same things about themselves, if they had simply booked a two or three week package holiday to South Africa. Time, again, is the catalyst of change.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a pilgrimage as hero's journey in our own time was that of the 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in 1933, at precisely the moment that Hitler came to power in Germany, set off from Dover to cross the Channel and thence walk to Byzantium for sheer fascination at the romance and mystery of the name. Fermor wrote about his experiences and the encounters on his journey in two books which are readily available in print as A Time of Gifts and A Time of Silences. The first describes the journey as far as Hungary, the second thence to Byzantium via a year spent in a Romanian monastery. Mostly walking but occasionally hitching a lift on a cart or in a car, Fermor found himself the guest of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats and peasants, ordinary people and Romanies alike as he wended his way across Europe. What is particularly moving and poignant about Fermor's journey is the glimpse of a Europe which was soon to be swept away forever. He was, in effect, a witness of history in the making and of change so momentous that he had only the barest sense of what was happening around him. He was being caught up, like Campbell's hero, in events which were greater than he was until he himself grew to meet them. During the war, Fermor joined the Greek partisans in Crete and was involved in a number of successful operations against the occupying German forces. Whether the 18 year old who left Britain one day in 1933 could have taken on that role is moot question.

A lesser known journey of this type, though entirely fictional, is that described in Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily) by the Sicilian writer Elio Vittorini in which the narrator, in fact the writer, tells of a series of conversations held on an imaginary train journey back to Sicily with a fellow passenger who turned out to be the poet Virgil. Set during the Italian fascist period, the conversation between the narrator and his guide focused on the nature of man and on freedom and oppression. But the narrator who arrives at his destination, his mother's house in Sicily, is not the man who boarded the train at the beginning of the journey.

And so, I hope, we come full circle to my opening thoughts. If it is indeed time and separation which are the catalysts of an inner change which mirrors the outward journey, then we have an situation in which so many pagans, for all their claims to be "in tune with the land", are no more than tourists doing a predictable tourist circuit. The pilgrim who walks from the Auvergne to Santiago de Compostela can hardly fail to be aware of the landscape and the land in the form of "Auvergne" and "Pyrenees", if only because he will be climbing every pass through the high places and will remember every stone which gets in his shoe. The same goes, of course, for the Bohemian pilgrim who journeys to Rome and finds "Alps" in his way. The problem with just getting into your car and driving to a placed called Glastonbury" is that you do not need to be aware of the land at all, especially if distracted by the Top 20 Show on Radio 1 as you drive, the miles are eaten painlessly, the gradients taken in one's stride (as it were) and little if anything is gained in the end. When I hear someone say they are taking a couple of weeks off work to walk to Glastonbury or Avebury for the summer solstice I will be impressed. I cannot say the same of the hit and run crystal wavers on their "Ten Megalithic Sites in a Day" tours.