Confessions of a religious pilgrim – Catholic Herald

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By the time I reached Lisbon in February this year, with the staccato rap of my walking sticks on the quayside causing the trendy young things watching the sunset to turn heads my way, I felt pretty confident that I had achieved “dirty pilgrim” status.

Behind me and the Portuguese capital lay more than 1,000 miles of an extended Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage trail stretching from the French Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain’s Galicia region. It was a long way off from my religious upbringing at Ampleforth.

After I walked the 500 miles to Finisterre, on the Galician coast – where many Camino pilgrims head after reaching Santiago – I pivoted south and followed the Camino Portuguese.

It runs from Lisbon in southern Portugal to Santiago and I followed it in reverse. By the end my beard was huge. Endless days crossing fields, forests, mountains and coastlines had given my eyes an intense gaze, so much so that one friend told me I bore a close resemblance to King Lear in the final act. My rucksack was filthy. But after I read the recently released Waypoints: A Journey on Foot by Robert Martineau, I felt I was a poor excuse for a dirty pilgrim in comparison. Martineau walks 1,000 miles through Ghana, Togo and Benin toward Ouidah, an ancient spiritual retreat on the West African coast. Throughout, he battles swarms of insects and flies, constantly falls ill and negotiates with armed men.

Plaza del Obradoiro y Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. A Coruña. Galicia. España. Europa. (iStock)

Martineau provides a crisp and compelling account of his experience as one of the new breed of dirty pilgrims emerging. These are people who follow pilgrimage routes without any religious conviction. In Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning, Peter Stanford – former editor of the Catholic Herald – explores this rise of secular pilgrimages. It is a global phenomenon, Stanford says, with many pilgrim routes being adopted. But the crucial point is how these routes are no longer followed for spiritual enlightenment. Instead, many of today’s “pilgrims” are looking for a different type of holiday experience. This involves escaping from the mundanities of everyday life, while also reaping the health benefits of so much exercise and to revel in companionship.

Martineau’s ostensibly secular pilgrimage contains a spiritual element steeped in the sites he visits of local animist religions, whose followers believe countless spiritual beings are involved with human affairs. He encounters shamans, traditional healers, monks and priestesses. He attends a voodoo ceremony that begins when “nine Yoruba dancers enter the courtyard, holding bull tails in white-gloved hands” and finishes with chanting men throwing pieces of yam doused in liquor to shrines. Martineau deserves praise for seeking out such moments.

But, as much as the book’s publisher wants to paint the journey as a pilgrimage, throughout Martineau’s account, I wrestled with whether the “use of the p-word”, as Stanford puts it, is justified. The route Martineau follows is one based on the “waypoints” of the title that he chooses from studying maps. It is entirely tailor-made. There is nothing wrong with this. As Stanford points out, the pilgrimage that Hilaire Belloc followed to Rome – which he described in his famous 1902 book The Path to Rome – was self-fashioned due to the established Via Francigena route having fallen into disuse by the early 20th century. But, as Stanford describes, the pilgrimages of the world’s religions typically share a common feature. They follow “the footsteps of millions of pilgrims down the ages who have headed off in search of meaning along well-trodden paths to holy spots around the globe associated with their gods”.

This explains why there is none of the metaphysical tension which underlies the struggle to cling to your faith as you slog on for hundreds of miles in Martineau’s account. While his observations about how local religions share the basic tenets of the main monotheistic religions are valuable and thought-provoking, you never get a sense of what, if any, personal spiritual experience Martineau is encountering. One reason why The Path to Rome has continued to be read, Stanford says, is thanks to its mixture of travel writing, history, humour and art appreciation. 

There’s also another essential component to a pilgrimage missing from Martineau’s solo effort, which is, in Stanford’s words, “the buzz of conviviality and shared experience that surrounds the Camino”. Many people start the Camino on their own, as I did. But you encounter fellow pilgrims on your journey. That doesn’t happen with Martineau. The strength of his willpower is matched by how lonely his pilgrimage sounds. Despite the welcoming friendly locals, he always remains the outsider. 

Geoffrey Chaucer appears as a character in his own book, ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and tells the story of Sir Topas. A woodcut from Richard Pynson’s 1492 edition. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“It is all about rubbing shoulders with strangers on the route, as the medieval pilgrims would have, sharing prayers, dormitories and blister cures, seeing themselves as part of something bigger than their individual homelands,” Stanford writes. Indeed, much of the present-day Camino’s success is how it proves great fun for participants – the blisters and aching muscles notwithstanding. In this it is channelling a tradition which goes back to that ribald 14th-century account in the Canterbury Tales. “As Chaucer repeatedly points out,” Stanford notes, “the ostensible religious motivations of his mediaeval pilgrims were inextricably wrapped up with eagerness to see new places and an appetite to immerse themselves for a short time in the carefree, sometimes even bawdy band.” Martineau certainly immerses himself, but you don’t get much sense of joy.

Martineau cannot be accused of not thinking deeply during his 1,000-mile quest. Throughout the narrative, he skilfully weaves in fascinating and esoteric analyses, ranging from historical connections of his journey’s waypoints with the African slave trade and colonialism, to the soothing role played by fractal patterns in nature, to the therapeutic powers of cold-water bathing. His deep dives into the power of walking resonated with me most as a fellow dirty pilgrim. 

Martineau and Stanford both mention the American academic Rebecca Solnit and her 2001 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Martineau highlights Solnit’s point about how walking achieves, in Martineau’s words, “a kind of alignment, a bringing together of mind, body and world”. Both authors also discuss the corresponding relation between walking and the despondency that many people seem to feel about modern life. The inertia of Martineau’s desk-bound life he describes as “a kind of paralysis, staring at the screen, waiting for time to pass”. He cites it as one of the key motivators for his pilgrimage. He also notes “more and more people seem to be losing belief in this way of life”, with its stultifying stasis resulting in “addiction, depression, loneliness”. Martineau concludes that “walking is a way out of inertia”. Stanford writes how “banking crashes, the rise of populism, seemingly insoluble conflicts and terrifying pandemics individually and collectively are causing us to question the very foundations on which our post-religion twenty-first-century lives are built”. The seismic result is “our belief in what until recently was taken to be inevitable progress of science and humanity – and hence the marginalisation or faith – has been stopped in its tracks”. 

That marginalisation of faith struck me as I walked the Camino. Even an irreligious pilgrim surely needs to confront God when walking. This absence in Martineau’s account – with God barely mentioned as the animist gods dominate the narrative – undermines his pilgrimage. Martineau’s “waypoint” is defined as a stopping place on a journey. In contrast, a waymarker is defined as a sign forming a series used to mark a path, which the scallop shell and yellow arrow waymarkers on the Camino achieve across hundreds of miles: they also take pilgrims to places inside themselves that they weren’t expecting. But whether by waypoint or waymarker, the main thing is to strike out and search.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: “The walker toiling along a road toward some distant place is one of the most compelling and universal images of what it means to be human.”  

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