To Be a Pilgrim

02 July 2021

Picture shows Canon Chris Palmer (left) a few days before his pilgrimage to Truro.

By Canon Chris Palmer

I rather like my name. My Christian name means ‘Christ bearer’, and my surname, Palmer, means ‘pilgrim’. Chaucer uses the word palmeres in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales:

… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge londes…

So I am a pilgrim, by name and by Christian commitment. And last week, I was a pilgrim also in real journeying reality, as six of us went on pilgrimage from Exeter to Truro as part of the Cathedrals Cycle Route relay.

We tend to think of pilgrimage in terms of the journey and the destination, and these are important. But traditionally pilgrimages have been about people. They are about people journeying together, talking on the road, creating fellowship, and bearing the ups and downs of the journey. And there were lots of ups and downs on the Exeter to Truro route!

Most mediaeval pilgrimages were also about the person you were visiting, that is the saint or martyr you would venerate when you arrived at their shrine. So, the Canterbury pilgrims were going to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, wickedly cut down by people thinking they were acting on the will of the king.

Modern day pilgrimages often lack this element of shrine and saint. Although Cornwall is littered with saints, Truro Cathedral doesn’t have a shrine. Exeter doesn’t have a shrine either, though in the late Middle Ages the tomb of Bishop Lacey was fast becoming a shrine before the Reformation put paid to that kind of thing!

We six pilgrims were fortunate to receive a warm welcome from clergy and others at Truro Cathedral, so there was a sense of arriving to see people, and two of us were invited to read readings at Evensong so we joined in the ongoing prayer of the cathedral with their present day community.

All of this is saying that pilgrimage unites people: unites people on the road; unites those who have journeyed with the worshipping community amongst whom they arrive; and unites us in the communion of saints, with those who have journeyed the road of faith before us, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

Alongside these traditional aspects of pilgrimage, our modern-day cycling pilgrimage also had two more contemporary themes: sustainability and well-being. Cycling is a form or transport with ultra-low carbon emissions, and the exercise adds to our physical and mental well-being.

We tend to think of these as non-spiritual benefits, but I think this is a mistake. God is interested in every part his creation. God made the world and loves it, and God made each of us to flourish. Just think of Jesus’ words to some of those he healed: ‘your faith has saved you’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’ I certainly would not want to elide spiritual and physical well-being, but it is false to imagine they are utterly separate either. God is interested in the whole me.

So on pilgrimage we bring the ‘whole me’, indeed the ‘whole us’, to God. Body, mind and spirit unite in exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the stories of God’s people. I look forward to sharing with others of you in future pilgrim adventures too.

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