Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, a Review

Lincoln Green  

Image © Weglinde

Simon Reeve’s series of 4 programmes broadcast on BBC2 attempts to explain why pilgrimages take place, particularly in an age of scientific rationalism and relative medical competence.  The presenter is deeply affected by the physical beauty of the holy sites, the architecture of our great buildings and the hospitality of pilgrims and their supporters.  Nevertheless the programme frequently appears little more than a travelogue broken up with interviews and meetings with kind and courteous eccentrics.  Despite the superficial treatment of its content the programme does however introduce a number of issues and helps the viewer to understand why huge numbers of people of many faiths have felt the need to participate in what could be potentially a very onerous and life-changing journey.

Why do pilgrimages take place?  Reeve defines the pilgrimage as “a journey away from home in search of spiritual well-being”.  Reasons for the undertaking include devotion, penance, healing and adventure.  To some extent the programme glosses over these motivations.  For example he meets 61 year old Lindsay Hamon and discovers that he has carried a 25kg cross over 5000 miles because he “wants to give away what he has received”.  A more persistent interviewer may have elicited something more than this, yet Reeve seems more intrigued by spectacle rather than content.

Penance has indeed been a motivation for pilgrimage.  Thomas Merton of the Abbey of Gethsemani  summarised the prehistoric roots of pilgrimage as a deep seated yearning to reach a place of “origin”, or “home” as perhaps Odysseus would have preferred.  This yearning evolved into various manifestations.  For some 9th century Celtic monks the pilgrimage was a form of asceticism which enhanced a connection between the natural and the supernatural.  For others it was an opportunity to obtain instruction or to copy books.  Imposition of pilgrimage as penance, as recompense for the worst crimes such as murder and incest, identified the pilgrim as an outcast, vulnerable because unable to bear arms yet protected through the sacred duty of those met along the way.

Perhaps the release of large numbers of such scandalous sinners on the road enhanced business for the “Winchester geese”, the prostitutes of the eighteen brothels south of the River Thames which Reeve describes on his visit to the Cross Bones Graveyard , a non-consecrated spot and now a site of modern pilgrimage, where these women and their children were buried on the pilgrims’ route to Canterbury Cathedral.

Reeve’s initial programme discusses Christian pilgrimages through England.  He begins at Lindisfarne, now relatively remote but in the 7th century something of a transport hub, the site of a monastery from where Saints Aidan and Cuthbert spread Christianity through England.

He then visits Lincoln Cathedral, “one of the finest buildings in the world” and the tallest building on earth until the early Tudor period, as an example of one of the major sites for pilgrimage.  Health and healing both spiritual and temporal were sought at the shrine of St Hugh.  This extraordinary man was ordered from his Carthusian retreat, effectively a hermitage, to be ordained bishop and manage what was the largest diocese in England, a role which involved challenging congregation, clergy and king.  He developed a devoted following and oversaw much of the building of the cathedral where he was eventually interred.  At the cathedral, Reeve discovers from Dean’s Verger John Campbell how the architecture of the building itself represents a pilgrimage, a journey through life from east to west across the space, with the nave representing a naval vessel, transporting the pilgrim from an earthly physicality, via an intellectual power house of ordered preaching and teaching, to the clear glass and pure light of transcendent awareness.  Stone and wood, glass and light interact to manifest the numinous.  Merton would perhaps describe the logical development of this approach as the “interiorization” of the pilgrimage, which for the monk eventually becomes a spiritual journey and is embedded in the principle of stability to place and to vocation.

At Walsingham in Norfolk, Reeve encounters modern manifestations of protests against idolatry as pilgrims walk to a shrine to Our Lady destroyed by similar sentiments in the Reformation and reinstituted 100 years ago.  The original shrine was developed by a Saxon woman, Richeldis in AD1061 following visions which urged her to build a replica of the house of the Annunciation.  Now both Anglican and Catholic shrines are found, the latter in the old “Slipper Chapel”, where pilgrims would remove their footwear and walk the last mile to the original shrine barefooted.

Much of the programme is focused on pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral, site of the assassination of Thomas Becket.  In a discussion of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Reeve emphasises the wide social mix of pilgrims, knights and ploughmen, brought together by a common aim.  He also highlights the supporting services which developed along routes of pilgrimage often following ancient tracks and interspersed with holy wells and minor shrines, lost in the motorways, malls and retail parks which interrupt his walks.  Relics of the old hospitals and inns, brothels and markets now lost or much changed suggest a vitality of enterprise which Reeve’s programme does much to capture, perhaps more ably than it probes the inner drives which initiate such journeys.

Reeve is an enthusiastic walker and one feels that the programme supports Bruce Chatwin’s reflections on human restlessness – the need to embrace our species’ prehistoric adaptations for migratory wanderings on foot.  In terms of exploring the more recent but deeper motivations to participate in pilgrimage the programme is perhaps less successful.  One wonders how Reeve will interrogate such motivations in future programmes when belief systems which inform pilgrimage but which lie outside his own religious background are surveyed.

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