One ancient and well-tried means of either investigating reality or trying to escape from it is through making a physical journey - often known as a Pilgrimage. A pilgrim is someone who is not just travelling, but seeking. They are on a voyage of discovery which is at once both internal and external.
Recently, Annie and I have been looking at pilgrimage together, seeking to learn more about what it is in a practical way: by doing some pilgrimages of our own. So far, we’ve done two.
Two pilgrimages, two different experiences.
The Dorset Stones was all countryside and glorious weather, magnificent views and secluded places. Quiet village churches and ancient ruins: all bearing testimony to the long history of worship that exists in this land. A worship that even pre-dates Christianity. High in the Dorset hills we saw the remains of an ancient stone circle, erected by our distant ancestors. For what purpose we do not know, but they may well have gathered here to offer there own sort of worship to whatever they knew of the Divine.
So for us, The Stones was a pilgrimage that inspired worship, both in contemplation of the past and in appreciation of the present.
Our second pilgrimage was a different experience, though it did start in a place of worship - Bristol Cathedral. We set out to follow in the steps of Augustine as he traveled to meet the Bishops of the Celtic Church at Aust (sometime around 600 AD) – a momentous occasion in the history of the British Church, which unfortunately did not go as well as it might have! What could have been a celebration of unity and Christian love between two branches of the church seems to have been undermined by Augustine’s lack of humility (though no doubt he would have seen it differently).
There’s no record of what the weather was like for Augustine on his journey, but for us it was grey and drizzly, a significant contrast to the sunshine and soft breeze we’d had in Dorset (I did wonder if Augustine’s bad attitude might have been because he was cold, wet and grumpy from his long walk!).
We were also walking through a different sort of landscape. Housing estates, busy roads, a University campus, thunderous motorways, mainline railways. There were some very welcome green stretches as well, especially near the end of the walk as we descended into the Severn Valley and walked through woods and farmland. (Including wet grass that soaked our boots and trousers, so not without a downside!). But much of our journey was on tarmac and concrete, through urban landscapes that included some of the most deprived parts of Bristol.
“This place feels a bit intimidating,” Annie said as we slogged our way up from the Cathedral, passing run-down housing and catching the odd whiff of cannabis. Just then, as if to underline her point, we were confronted by a drunk man in a wheelchair, who shouted something unintelligible but definitely aggressive at us as we passed.
But we also noticed something else in that area. There were churches here, of all denominations. And various missions, and projects. And the Cathedral itself had been open, with activities going on and other things advertised, a centre not only for worship but for mission and service as well. (Their website includes a Social Justice section that covers things like Homelessness, Food Poverty, Modern Slavery and environmental issues).
Not all churches were busy. As we left the city center for the more comfortable suburbs, and beyond them for the quiet and picturesque villages, we found some with doors locked – no doubt for good reason - but we had to do our praying outside. Another had been ‘re-purposed’ into a climbing school – presumably the tower lent itself to that!
But perhaps there was something to be learned from this. The church was at its busiest where there were most people – and where there was most need. Going out into nature, enjoying the good weather – that’s good for worship, for meeting with God. But to do the work of Christ means going where he went: to the people who needed him most. That’s where the Church needs to be, more than anywhere else.
We finished our Pilgrimage by looking out at Aust Rock, where (according to some accounts) Augustine had one of his meetings with the Celtic Bishops. Now it forms part of the foundation for the Severn Bridge that connects this part of England to Wales. Slightly ironic, since bridge-building seems to have been a skill Augustine lacked! But, despite the setbacks, failures, and frequent self-inflicted injuries, the Church continues. And continues to be Christ in the world. Because that’s what it’s for.