Several hills and valleys into my first day of walking the 100 km St. Cuthbert Way from Melrose Scotland to Holy Island, England, I stopped to check my bearings and time. I'd arrived at a point of decision. On a pilgrimage trail you might argue that every step is a point of decision, but on a map they only come up every so often. I'd just descended a steep embankment through a forest of birch and poplar trees, stepping over roots and rocks, and appreciating the occasional set of wooden stairs with wire mesh hammered over the wood to keep wet boots from slipping. Arriving at the river Tweed now put me at a spot where a long footbridge diverged from my planned route at right angles.
If I took the detour, my guidebook claimed that only a half-hour's walk away, I would find the magnificent ruins of the abbey of Dryburgh (pronounced Dry-bore-oh). It was a July afternoon and swelteringly hot, unusually so for the normally wet and cool Borders region. The Tweed was low and lazy, gurgling over river stones and buzzing with insects. One of the stories told about St. Cuthbert, after whom the path is named, is that while he was Prior in Melrose, he would often stay up all night to pray at this river while the other monks slept. One night some of the monks followed the saint to watch. He went into the water up to his chest and stood in the current all night, singing psalms and praying. When at dawn he left the river, two otters followed Cuthbert back to the Abbey, where they curled around his feet to warm him. After the saint blessed the animals, they returned home.
When I passed, there were only spots here and there deep enough to wade in up to my chest, and it truly would have taken a saint to stay all day singing psalms and praying prayers in hopes of calling the otters. However I decided that this was my one chance to visit the ruins. A half-hour later, I had paid my entry and was wandering among the ancient stones. Even though the guidebook was right and the abbey was interesting, the best part of Dryburgh turned out to be the shade. I took my boots off in what was once a side-altar, wiggled my toes in the grass, and in a completely un-holy way, checked my blisters.
I was horribly behind schedule, but what's schedule to a pilgrim? For better or worse I'd entered that zone of consciousness so rare to us in the middle of city and appointment. I was relaxed. As it turned out, unwisely, I was also not thinking about the kilometers still to go. The sun sets late in Scotland in July. I had a bed booked somewhere up ahead, and although I wasn't exactly sure from my untrained reading of the map where that bed was, the fact that I had a paid place gave me more peace of mind than I had warrant to trust. Thankfully, there was water and a bit of cheese left in the bottom of my pack. Where once Cistercian monks had entered the sanctuary for their Gregorian chant, I sat on a bench, ate quietly and looked at grave-stones.
There was more than a bit of irony in my position. I was a Canadian in Scotland, a Protestant in the ruins of a Catholic abbey destroyed by Henry VIII, and a pilgrim visiting centuries-old Cistercians who were against pilgrimage and exhorted pilgrims to stay home and find the God within. Also, I was alone, tired and thirsty, and wondering if I'd been crazy to set out on this adventure.
In the last thirty years, a new form of pilgrimage has gained popularity in the Western world. If you are over 30 and living in Europe or North America, chances are pretty good that someone you know has walked the Camino de Santiago, the "way of St James" in Spain. That path, once the third most important Christian pilgrimage route, has undergone a massive renaissance since the 1980s. Just before arriving in Scotland, I had walked 250 km with five friends over the high mountains of the St. Olaf Way, an historic Nordic pilgrimage route that has been revived in the 2000s, five centuries after its demise, by a partnership of church and state in Scandinavia. From north to south and around the world, walking pilgrimages are attracting hundreds of thousands every year, and the numbers keep rising.
So why is this movement growing so quickly?
On one level, the answer is economic. There is a fine line - some would say no line - between pilgrim and tourist. From the point of view of local economies, the fact is that both pilgrim and tourist spend money. The longer the walk, the more money is spent on meals, accommodations, museum tickets, souvenirs and occasionally other items such as high tech hiking gear and even bandages. Moreover, pilgrim routes often travel - or can be made to travel - through economically depressed areas. By being the draw for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims the Camino has arguably become the economic engine of parts of north-central and western Spain. Walking, in the UK, is a much-loved pastime that helps keep British currency at home and attracts many tourists from overseas. That the governments of Norway and Sweden have been so ready to work with the Lutheran churches of those countries to revive historic pilgrimage trails is not so much a testament to the piety of civic officials as to their common sense.
Local governments also see the possible benefits of encouraging pilgrimage. As our group walked through a small town in the Dovrefjell area of Norway, a young man came bounding across several roads to corral us: "are you pilgrims?" he asked excitedly. When we acknowledged that we were, he brought us to a local museum that had clearly only recently been re-purposed as a pilgrimage centre, where under a hand-drawn cardboard sign stating "Pilegrim" he and another pilgrim host served us tea and strawberries and answered our questions about local history and landmarks. Their enthusiasm was as touching as it was infectious. After this delightful encounter, I asked him when he began his job. "Today!" he answered proudly. "And the pilgrim welcome centre has been open a week!"
Are departments of tourism and local entrepreneurs creating the need for pilgrimage, or servicing it? Probably what is happening is a bit of both. But I would suggest that the fire of modern walking pilgrimage started before its flames were stoked by governments and businesses that saw its advantages. Walking is the conscious movement that is the closest of anything we do to unconscious movement. It requires thought to walk - but not much. That leaves us open to other things, like watching people, or talking, or dreaming, or remembering, or eventually perhaps discovering something new within ourselves. Walking is good for the imagination. It's good for working out feelings, for losing stress, and for sharing news about our lives. It also happens to be good exercise, requires minimal equipment and is available to those for whom more extreme work-outs are either daunting or impossible. Walking is natural. To walk a long distance you need moderate health of body and (although this was not always available to medieval pilgrims) relative security of passage, that is, a safe trail. Modern western walking routes provide such a security of passage to a pilgrim population that is fairly often in their 40s or older.
Modern walking pilgrimage is also spiritual. That is, walking a pilgrim trail is experienced by many who undertake it as a journey of intentional transformation. One walks at a pace that is intentionally slowed-down from that of our frenetic normal pace. Walking, which in medieval times was for many the only form of travel, has become a counter-cultural choice. In fact, one of the many ironies of the modern revival of walking is that what was once a necessity is now a privilege. Apart from the few true drifters who take to these trails, most of those who walk them are the relatively privileged middle class of modern western society. It requires means to take the time necessary to forsake a car and use up a month to walk what can be traveled in a day in a vehicle.
The majority of modern walking pilgrims are not church-goers. Most even shy away from the title "religious". Yet these pilgrims, many of them catalyzed to action by a milestone birthday, the death of a family member, or the loss of job or spouse, still follow ancient pilgrimage routes and find themselves open to questions of ultimate meaning. The shrines still exist. But most modern pilgrims emphasize the walk more than the arrival, and interior spirituality more than the bones of any saint. In this way, modern walking pilgrims, at least along western routes, are evidence of the religious revolution that swept western societies especially in the 1960s. The result of the "Is God Dead?" movement wasn't so much that God was dead, but that the traditional churches were. They no longer met the needs of people who were moving from institutional religion to personal spirituality, and from a focus on tradition and culture to practices focused on personal growth.
Today's spirituality is inner-directed, personal, ecumenical or inter-faith, and less worried about the destination than the voyage. In other words, perfect for a revival of walking pilgrimage. The modern western walking pilgrim doesn't believe that a saint's bones will provide a spiritual boon. His or her questions are more basic and existential: what is a good life, and am I living it? What will be my legacy? What is true friendship? Is what I am doing worthwhile?
St. Cuthbert also craved answers to such basic questions of life. That might be part of the reason that in his day he rejected more powerful posts and chose to remain on humble and lonely Lindisfarne, a place now called "Holy Island".
According to the Venerable Bede, who is buried at the opposite end of Durham Cathedral from Cuthbert, the saintly Cuthbert knew that he wanted to become a monk when as a shepherd, he saw a ball of fire ascend from earth to heaven, and then heard that St. Aidan, the founder of the Lindisfarne religious community, had died. Cuthbert left his sheep to become a monk, and then became Prior of Lindisfarne when he was sent to the monastery himself. Poorly treated by the monks at first, Cuthbert's gracious and open manner, and his own disciplined holiness - he would refuse to sleep so that he could pray even more - eventually won over his charges. Eventually Cuthbert became the most famous inhabitant of the island. His memory became so important that when Viking raids two centuries later made the place uninhabitable, the wandering monks of Lindisfarne dug up Cuthbert's body and carried him here and there across England's north-east, until eventually finding a home for him, and themselves, at Durham. Their walk is commemorated in a striking statue that the modern pilgrim can see both in Durham and on Holy Island itself.
A hundred kilometers after starting out on my own wanderings, I walked barefoot across the ocean floor to Holy Island. I could not have imagined a more perfect ending to a pilgrimage. Much of pilgrimage is about being between states of being, and I was walking toward land that is sometimes an island, sometimes not. The late afternoon sun was buttery yellow, turning everything to gold. The sea was out, but there was enough water in the sand to squelch between my toes and remind me that I was walking a path only opened twice a day. My way, like the island, and like spiritual experience itself, was only a brief moment of openness in what is otherwise a closed-off space. In other words, I was experiencing a revelation, and doing so in my body. As I walked the kilometers between mainland and island, along a line of poles designed to show the pilgrim path even at high tide, a group of seals on the ocean rocks to my right began to sing a keening, haunting sound that I had never heard before but will always remember.
In 2012, the oldest known European book in existence, a small volume that had been placed into Cuthbert's hands when he was buried in 687, was purchased by the British Library. It cost the Library nine million British pounds. What treasure could possibly be worth so much? It turns out that what they had paid for was an unadorned copy, in Latin, of the Gospel of John. Taken from Cuthbert's dead hands, it almost certainly must have been the saint's favourite. The Gospel begins with the words In principia erat verbum...."In the beginning was the Word".
During my hours on Holy Island I stopped by the museum to have a look at their facsimile copy of the much-more ornate and famous Lindisfarne Gospels. This incredible manuscript postdates Saint Cuthbert, but was inspired by the spirituality he brought to the island. The original Lindisfarne Gospels were at the time on display in Durham. Holy Island's museum is more modest than Durham's, and after a brief look around I struck up a conversation with the staff person. After the fashion of small towns, she turned out to be the rector of the Anglican church's wife, and also a friend to the local historian. "Would you like me to ring her up for you?" she asked, after hearing enough of my questions. "She'll set you straight soon enough."
She did indeed. The historian turned out to be a spry elderly woman by the name of Kate Tristram. She began by informing me that the walk I'd just spent four days and much effort over may not have been how Cuthbert actually came to Lindisfarne. "Probably he just got in a boat and let the current bring him down here from Melrose in an afternoon," she told me, with a twinkle in her eye. "But if you lot want to walk for days and days, that's fine too."
I don't feel bad. If Cuthbert actually did relax while a boat carried him down the Tweed to his new home on Lindisfarne, it would have been a well-deserved rest in a life otherwise marked by privation and hardship. Like all saints, Bede's account of Cuthbert shows that the life of such men and women was hard, and their pursuit of holiness usually made it harder still. If there is any attraction to the saint rather than the trail in modern walking pilgrimage, it may be that our walks echoe, in a very small way, the discipline of these ancient persons for whom privation and hardship was simply accepted as part of the path to spiritual growth, and a necessary part of the spiritual battle for one's soul.
The revival of pilgrimage is part of our society's quest for a new beginning and a reorientation of priorities. We are belatedly realizing that money and busyness are not enough. These days, more and more of us, knowing that even seeking the answer to that question is the voyage of a lifetime, are beginning our first steps by actually putting one foot in front of the other.