Thursday, 23 September 2010

The things you learn when you go for a walk

It seems to have been a week of religion. First of all the Pope visited the United Kingdom and there was wall to wall coverage on television and radio. The visit was historic in that for the first time the Pope had been invited by the Queen to make a state visit. As I watched the images I wondered how strange it would all look to people who had never seen a Pope. It was no surprise when I eavesdropped on a conversation on the bus. “What is it they call him?” A woman asked her friend. “Your Holiness”, her friend replied knowingly. “Your Holiness”, the woman repeated to herself as if to rehearse the strange words of the title. “Yes, I know it is an odd name,” her friend went on, “When he arrived, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh met him at the airport and then took him to meet the Queen. I noticed straight away that Her Majesty called him, “Your Holiness.” ”
I was fascinated by this exchange and the use of familiar and unfamiliar titles. The feeling was reinforced when I went to a meeting last week in a Hindu Temple here in London. It was the first such temple in Europe and they showed me round with pride. There were images of all of the various Hindu deities. Candles were lit, bells tinkled and prayers were said aloud. People took off their shoes at the door as a mark of respect and reverently knelt before the Deities with offerings of food and bottles of milk. The milk is used to bath the images of the Deities before worship. It felt slightly like being in a parallel universe from the images of the Pope and the ritual of Catholic services. It was also the first time I have ever been at a meeting where all of those attending sat without their shoes on. Business suits and bare feet were an unusual sight to my eyes.

Although the environment was new to me the one topic of conversation which we all had in common was Pilgrimage. They were fascinated to learn about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and I was amazed to learn of the thousands of pilgrimage destinations for Hindus, mainly in India. Many people at the meeting had made pilgrimages and much of the language they used was the same. I could have been on the Camino Frances. They spoke of pilgrimage being “time out”, a “physical and spiritual journey”, they spoke of the effort it takes, the difficulties which have to be overcome and the sense of fulfilment in reaching the destination. In passing I mentioned that this was a Holy Year in Santiago when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday. I told them that the numbers of pilgrims was more than double that of regular years. They were intrigued by this and ask what was so special about it. Feeling a bit awkward with some of the language and with many caveats I explained the tradition (in which many people, but not all, believe) of gaining a Plenary Indulgence (first caveat again with the additional: a practice which was introduced in the Middle Ages) which basically is a reduction in the time a person spends atoning for their sins in Purgatory (long list of caveats about to come into play if they ask about Purgatory). No worries. The mention of the two words “pilgrimage” and “sin” in close proximity was like firing a starting pistol. They were off. Sharing stories of the millions who travel to wash away their sins in the Ganges to the personal and private pilgrimages Hindus make at times of great change in their lives. People nodded enthusiastically. The volume of the meeting went up considerably. Talking about pilgrimage drew people together. I wondered if the United Nations had ever debated the subject?
I learned a lot at that meeting. Despite the strangeness the Elephant God, the flower petals and milk and meetings without shoes I learned yet again that the drive to make pilgrimage lies deep in human beings. Part of our hardwire. It also seems to me that much of the practices and rituals of religions are ways that human beings develop to try and make sense of spiritual concepts, make them real, bring heaven closer to earth. Make God more accessible.
I remember the first time I travelled in rural Spain when I called in at the local Church and saw fully clothed statues. This was alien to minimalist Scots with our Calvanistic streak and they looked as odd to me as did the Deities in the Hindu temple. Then whilst walking the Via de la Plata from Seville I saw for the first time the great Procession of the Kings on the 6th of January. The feast of the Epiphany is as important as Christmas in Spain and is the day when presents are given. These processions are held in the smallest villages as well as large cities. Then on the Camino Frances I remember seeing the procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi when the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated host, was process around the village.

As the Camino routes enter Galicia the land becomes greener and more mountainous. It rains a lot and winters can be cold. The Scots and Irish feel at home and pilgrims on the Way are sustained with Caldo, the famous vegetable soup and the many types of stews. Like other Celtic countries Galicia abounds with folklore and superstition such as the rock at Muxía which they say can aid fertility and the statue of Master Mateo, architect of the Cathedral. Mothers believed that bumping their children’s heads on it three times would impart his wisdom. Pilgrims still do this today. In Galicia I discovered a most unusual pilgrimage which puts my experiences in the Hindu Temple right into perspective.

This is the annual pilgrimage to Santa Marta de Ribarteme held on the 29th of July each year. It is one of the oldest in Galicia. According to tradition, Santa Marta is the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. During her life, Marta was a symbol of diligence and hospitality. The story goes that she travelled to Galicia to bring Christian faith to the people and performed several miracles involving resurrections or rescues of the nearly drowned or the extremely ill. It was then that Marta turned into Santa Marta: the Saint of those in danger of death. And so each year thousands flock to give thanks for her intervention in restoring them to health of to ask for her assistance if they have health problems. There is a festival atmosphere for days before and like some other modern pilgrimage destinations the village is dotted with stalls selling everything from fluorescent rosary beads to statues of the Virgin Mary which play Ave Maria. However despite the commercial froth, the prayers of the pilgrims are manifested in real, if unusual ways. If you have a problem with your ear, arm, leg or any part of your body you can lay a wax model of it at the altar and pray for healing. You may crawl to the church on your knees as a special act of devotion. If you have been gravely ill and through the intervention of Santa Marta you have survived you may wish to give thanks (and secure your future well being) by getting inside a coffin and being carried by your equally thankful relatives in the procession to the Mass.
This is strange stuff which isn’t for me. I intend to be inside a coffin only once in my life. I said as much to friends in Santiago expecting them to chortle in agreement at the silliness of it all. Instead they fixed me with an amused look. “ The Pilgrimage to Santa Marta lasts for one day, John. How many days did your pilgrimages take from Seville or St Jean de Pied Port to Santiago? ”
It has taken me some time to realize that we are all different and so are our pilgrimages. The things you learn when you go for a walk!


  1. Loved the idea that the Hindu do pilgrimages at various time in their lives, especially at times of great change. I can feel that in my right now! A practice I think we could learn from. Gracias, Karin

  2. What a wonderful, and wonderfully informative post, Johnnie! I did so enjoy reading it, and loved all the universal connections you made.

  3. I just read the most amazing book by Thom Hartmann called "Walking Your Blues Away" that documents how science is finding that the bi-lateral movement of walking balances the brain, which helps clear away depression and helps the brain to have better focus and processing abilities. Humans all over the world must have known this instinctively from time immemorial,as evidenced by the universality of pilgrimage. Who knows. Maybe the malaise of modern civilization is simply caused by a lack of walking! (And lack of the sunshine vitamin, too.) Very interesting post, Johnnie. Thank you.

  4. Walking your Vlues Away sounds like out kind of book! I'll read it - thanks