Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

The Extra Mile, By Peter Stanford

It is of course impossible to prove the existence of God.

All that we can hope is to experience it. Fewer British Christians find themselves able to do so within the context of organised religion. The Anglican church is increasingly compromised by its appeasement of Biblical literalists, while the Roman Catholic has been fatally tarnished by its institutionalised abuse and hypocrisy.

The religious impulse, however, remains strong.Many of us would argue that it is one of the deepest and most resilient in the human psyche. When deprived of conventional expression, it simply finds other outlets. Some people explore Eastern faiths and New Age spirituality; others take more personal journeys into traditional forms: literally, in the case of pilgrimage.

In this highly illuminating study of 21st century pilgrimage, Peter Stanford examines why people travel to sacred spots, often despite discomfort and hardship. Noting the inadequacy of everyday language to convey the wish to belong to a timeless faith community, he turns to poetry and TS Eliot's "Little Gidding": "You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid."

Pilgrimage plays a significant part in all major religions. Stanford here focuses on Britain. His selection may be domestic but it is by no means parochial. From the evidence of an Alpine skeleton at Stonehenge, it is clear that pilgrims have been coming to these shores for at least 4500 years. Walsingham, which suffered a post-Reformation slump, was Europe's premier pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages; Holywell attracts 30,000 visitors from around the world.

Stanford's journey takes him to eight British sacred sites over the course of a year. He starts by celebrating Alban Hefin at Stonehenge on 24 June, in the company of 200 Druids (a far more select and sedate event than the Summer Solstice). He travels to Bardsey Island, off the coast of North Wales, reputedly the burial ground of 20,000 saints, and only accessible across a stretch of water so treacherous that a medieval pope declared three visits to Bardsey the equivalent of one to Rome.

Well-dressing ceremonies in Cheshire and Derbyshire are modern versions of the water cults that flourished 3500 years ago. His next destination is Walsingham, now cleansed of the venal practices that so horrified Erasmus, such as passing off a bottle of white liquid as the Virgin's breast milk, but riven with rivalries between Anglicans and Catholics. He then takes in Holywell, the oldest uninterrupted pilgrimage site in Britain, and the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne, before ending, back with the Pagans, at a May Day fire-ritual in Glastonbury.

Stanford is an expert guide to a practice that he defines as "not just walking tourism. There is an interplay going on between the inner and the outer." He is ready to go the extra mile in his bid to enter the pilgrimage mindset: literally, walking barefoot along the muddy causeway to Lindisfarne; and metaphorically, faced with the idiosyncrasies of Charismatic Christians at Walsingham. Particularly welcome is his ability to laugh at himself.

Nothing that he sees or hears during the year makes him alter his own liberal Catholic position. He is content to continue on his spiritual journey, while giving his readers many helpful signposts as they proceed along theirs.

Michael Arditti's latest novel is 'The Enemy of the Good' (Arcadia)

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