Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pilgrimage - a challenge to everyday life.

Pilgrim History
The ancient notion of pilgrimage, present in almost all the world's religions, reflects a human desire for fulfilment. Throughout history, the pilgrimage has been a religious phenomenon that set people on a physical journey in order to yield spiritual results. All of the world religions have some sense of pilgrimage. Jews and Christians visit Jerusalem, Muslims travel to Mecca or visit the tombs of Sunni saints, Buddhists journey to Tibet and Hindus go to Benares.
Catholicism has a rich history of pilgrimage, dating back to the medieval period when pilgrims travelled to major churches or visited sites where saints had lived or died - Assisi and Santiago de Compostela being good examples. During the 12th and 13th centuries the religion of the time encouraged people to think that by just visiting a shrine or relic some of the holiness would rub off on them. As a result Europe saw of frenzy of Cathedrals and churches being built around these relics - in fact if all the splinters of the True Cross were gathered together, there would be enough timber to build Noah’s Ark.
Christian pilgrims have travelled across Europe since medieval times and for a variety of reasons. The majority would have been heading for three main sites of devotion, mostly on foot, covering anything up to 20 or 30 kilometres a day and usually carrying one of the three pilgrimage emblems: a cockle shell for Santiago de Compostela in Spain, keys for Saint Peter in Rome and a cross or palm leaf for Jerusalem. For some the motivation would have been entirely religious, but for many others it was far more basic and earthly. The sick hoped St James would cure their bodily ills. Criminals chose the long haul in preference to a prison sentence imposed by a court of law, while a large percentage of the other pilgrims would have been aiming to enhance their credibility and social status back home by displaying the St James cockle shell as proof of their grit and devotion.
The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, dates back to the Prophet Abraham and is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation bringing together Muslims of all races and tongues between the eighth and the 13th days of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
Until the 19th century, travelling to Mecca usually meant being part of a caravan following one of three main routes out of either Egypt, Iraq or Syria. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over 70 nations arrive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year.
The earliest centres of Buddhist pilgrimages were the places associated with the life and Teachings of the great Master. These four places are Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kusinara. Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. The others are in India: Bodh Gaya was the place, under the pipal or Bo tree, where the Buddha was enlightened after practising meditation for several years. Sarnath was the scene of His first teaching and Kusinara was the place of His death or final Nirvana.
After the death of the Buddha, the relics of His body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed to the claimants and stupas and burial mounds, were erected on the relics. The practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism probably started with visits to these places, the purpose of which was to achieve personal advantage such as rebirth in a good location, as well as to honour the great master. Thus the custom of pilgrimage has been widespread among Buddhist for many centuries and is common to both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.
Darsan means seeing in Hindu religion and when people go to a temple, they say they do not go to worship but to see the image of the deity. The deity is believed to actually be within the image and beholding the deity image is a form of worship where through the eyes one gains blessings. The pinnacle act of Hindu worship is to stand in the presence of the deity and to look upon the image with their eyes, because darsan is believed by Hindus to be far greater and significant than that which can be granted and given by holy men - sadhus.
Pilgrimage Today
Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is a journey, which meets a deep spiritual and emotional need and is made out of the recognition that there is more to life than just the humdrum daily grind of existing.
Deacon Trevor Jones, Pilgrimage Director

As recent statistics show, the pilgrimage experience is experiencing a renaissance. In 1986, just 2,491 pilgrims collected their Compostela certificate in Santiago, but by 2006 these figures had passed the 100,000 mark - an increase of 6453 from 2005. Of these 250 were over 75 and 40% of the total were women.

I did not set out on a Spiritual or religious journey - but it ended being that way - accident? I don't know... maybe that is just the Camino de Santiago at work.
From a Pilgrim blog.

Today's pilgrims also travel for a variety of reasons other than the strictly devout. Some view it as a trial of manhood, others want to get rid of extra kilos and meet some interesting people in the process, while for many it will be a far more fundamental opportunity to achieve personal goals or pause before making a major life decision. But ultimately, whatever the original motivation, everyone will find themselves changed by the experience, including the people living along the route who will profit from a cross-cultural exchange and of course the pilgrim trade.

We don't know which memories we are to cherish, which ones we are to etch with deeper lines so they will stay fresh when we call them time and time again. Now we pause during a run or a walk and ask, Do you remember...?
From a Pilgrim blog.

Travelling as a Pilgrim can only ever be at the speed your own body and mental attitude will allow, which may initially seem like a restriction, though even the most cynical and reluctant newcomer will quickly realize that this is in fact a first step on the road to freedom. Clearly there will be days when you wonder why the hell you are there, but rest assured, this is only a temporary condition and you will find the answer in the people you meet and the memories you take away.

Today, just as at the height of its popularity in the 1300's, travelling on the St. James Way can be a commercial affair. Pilgrims bring much needed revenue and the route is sometimes diverted to maximise these opportunities, but the flip-side is that in return they enjoy facilities that make the difference between unacceptable hardship and an enjoyable challenge. The only, all too obvious, disadvantage of this popularity is that some sections of the St James Way are being ruined by pilgrim detritus: plastic bottles, bags, tissues, sanitary towels, toilet paper … an unsightly mess that is also extremely damaging for the environment. How to safeguard the physical integrity of the St. James way, and other pilgrim routes that will become increasingly popular, is an ongoing problem and an issue beneficiaries must be prepared to tackle - but that's another story.

To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.
Phil Cousineau - the Art of Pilgrimage

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can we come and join you Flower Smellers?

This blog is about to change its identity, a fairly earth shattering event for me, though but probably not for the rest of the world, yet.

Joining the Flower Smellers community means that I have a wider audience and have to widen my personal whinge space to include my (and partner Paul's) main reason for being - travelling and mapping ancient pilgrimage routes - and the daily activities that go along with that. We understand that maybe the subject does not grab everyone straight away, but if you can last a few more paras, perhaps you'll get a sense of what brought us to this bizarre, and on occasion incredibly satisfying, place we find ourselves in now.

Paul and I are drop-outs - must be - because once upon a time we were in and now we're out doing our own thing, as opposed to someone else's. A healthy change, but a change only made possible by years of earning our crusts and, to be honest, enjoying the process - 90% of the time.

Five years ago we opted for early retirement. Freedom! Except that we didn't know what to do with it, so we took time out and rode two horses on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, hoping that something would occur to us on the way.

Result? Well, not exactly. Paul learnt to ride, I learnt to live without a watch and we made some great friends along the way, but by the end of the journey we still did not know what to do next.

So we went on another pilgrimage, this time 2000 horseback kilometres to Rome and for some reason - probably the suffering - suddenly everything became clear. You see, for us it's all in the journey - taking time out from the familiar to test relationships and boundaries, meet people like-minded and not, discuss, think, re-think, evaluate, re-evaluate … and in our case, perhaps enable more people to do the same in the hope that they can gain as much as we have from the experience and maybe even promote, in a very small way, the kind of relationships that can lead to global understanding - peace across borders and religions, protection of the environment above commerce.

And here we are, three years later, heads down and writing our first pilgrim's guide to Rome - hopefully the first of many that will inspire and enable everyone to benefit from the pilgrimage experience, irrespective of age, fitness or belief. Alongside this, we are also devoting a great deal of our time to Pilgrimage Publications, a not-for-profit organisation with 4 clear aims:
1. To enable walkers, cyclists and riders to follow pilgrim routes all over the world.
2. To ensure Pilgrimage Publication guides are as current as possible and to use pilgrim feedback as a major source of information.
3. To use recycled materials for the production of guides, travel books or any other materials.
4. To promote eco-friendly travel.

We are looking forward to exchanging news and views with anyone who is interested and maybe even inspiring some of you to follow in our footsteps. For more about who we are and what we do take a look at our other websites and blogs.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Life is Full of Surprises

Life is full of surprises, some good, some bad, but invariably their occurrence provokes a ripple far larger than the original impact. This week I was surprised by William Blake, a name I had previously consigned to the poets read at school category - which ranks only marginally higher than poems written by boyfriends during puberty - and subsequently forgotten about. Yes, the Tiger, Tiger stimulated a few cerebral whiskers, but never enough to change an innate impatience with poetry, so my conversion to born-again Blake Worshipper is indeed, a great surprise.

And the ripples?

The discovery that Blake's poetry was only half, perhaps not even that much, of the entire man.
Jerusalem, the nationalistic schmaltz anthem that, previously, I could not hear without rising bile, was in fact a fierce criticism of Victorian society, its stifling of ideas and its materialism. So far from being a eulogy, it is a lament, something I can understand a great deal better. Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority; indeed, he was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803. The charges were brought by a soldier called John Schofield after Blake had bodily removed him from his garden, allegedly exclaiming, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." According to a report in the Sussex county paper.

To add to all this, he was a musician, artist (see example in photos) and best of all he preferred to live inside his head, rather than with everyone else in the rest of the world. I do not behold the outward creation... it is a hindrance and not action."

His relationship with his wife, Catherine, was unique for the time. For a start, they were truly in love. He taught her to read and one day a friend walked into their garden and found them both sitting naked while reading Paradise Lost to each other. Can you imagine anything more romantic, aesthetic and impossible in Victorian Society?

I could fill pages on this one theme, but it would only be more on the same and tedious for the unconverted, so I will close and leave you to guess what is on my Christmas list for this year.
Christmas .. now really close. We have sent out cards out promptly, thanks to Lucy who wrote them all because my handwriting is so illegible, particularly when it is involves boring repetition - Love from … have a good one … hope everything works out in 2008 … I am trying to be upbeat about it, but Christmas with a family of three and one of them a teenager is not a great prospect. A theme that could lead me onto wishing we had a wider of circles of friends, wishing I had done this and not that so that I wouldn’t be doing this and not that now, but I won't.
More upbeat, this is the second week of wearing multi focal contact lenses and I can see! The first few days were tough, with long sight being fine while anything close resembled jelly in a fog, but both ends of the frame improve by the day and we have decided that Paul should have a go too, which has to be a good move. Ten new pairs of glasses every 6 months is a big addition to our tight housekeeping budget.
And so to rainbows, without even an attempt at linking subjects. Gorron, our local town, was engulfed in rainbow colours just a few days ago, with the church picked out in indigo, a truly stunning spectacle that should have been recorded for posterity, but of course I did not have a camera. In fact it was so stunning that I drove all the way home to get one. Needless to say, it had gone by the time I got back. Still, not wanting to let the magic moment go, I have come up with the, probably ludicrous, idea of collecting rainbow photos and putting them on a website. In fact I have gone so far as to float the idea on the GoSmelltheFlowers website, so depending on the response, I may have given myself yet more to do.
Meanwhile, the rain hammers on, the horses continue to look miserable and I have got a cold to beat all colds. Paul is coping with my misery, but I sense a trip to anywhere but here is on his mind, which reminds me … we have said that we have accepted Vlad and family's invitation to stay with them in Russia next year - something to really look forward to.
The guide book is growing and we have reached Langre, a milestone in Paul's mind, though not mine because I haven't a clue where it is in relation to all the other places we are writing about. How about this for a closing quote?

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. Albert Camus