The popularity of pilgrimageā€¦


We sent Ruth to meet with pioneering minister Matthew Gough and Jon Barrett from Mission and Ministry to find out more about the growth in the popularity of pilgrimage, the significance of walking, and the relationship between nature and prayer.


Comfortably sat in a corner of one of the bars at The Navigation Pub, on the banks of the Grand Union Canal, the conversation took a number of directions, starting with the pair speculating on some of the reasons for the recent growth of interest in pilgrimage and connections between walking in the countryside and spirituality. Believing this growth to be partially due to the popularity of recent TV shows which have shown Celebrities undertaking traditional walks, Matthew believes that the idea of pilgrimage is attractive to a civic audience, as it allows ordinary people to walk together, exploring ideas of faith and prayer together. The recent shows highlight the intimacy of a Pilgrimage, and the relationships which develop between the people who walk them. Matthew is keen to give more insight on this, and highlights the shared experience of a pilgrimage, which encourages a culture of vulnerability and sharing. He is one of the organisers of the St Wistan Pilgrimage, which follows the life of the medieval priest who chose a priestly life over royalty. They move through Leicester landscapes with time for prayer, meditation and reflection, spending time admiring God’s artistry and creation. This exploration of Leicester’s Christian heritage connects us with centuries of medieval history, perhaps playing into modern society’s yearning for a lost simplicity. Jon reiterates this, speaking of the materialism of our society, and how being outside, walking in nature contrasts with the business of everyday life.


This simplicity is attractive to many, and Jon acknowledges the evangelistic potential of these walks. The neutral space means people are open to meeting people, enjoying relationship and conversation, without the pressure of a church building. People come expectant of God-talk, allowing faith-infused conversations to take place in a way which cant be perceived as hostile or judgemental, because of the freedom to engage. Pilgrimage has broken into the secular, as people are wanting to enwisgage with their inner-workings, and these communities encourage real and vulnerable conversations. This causes Jon to question, when does a walk become a pilgrimage? Matthew answers with the idea of ‘religious intent’. A pilgrimage isn’t just an aimless meander, as there is a beginning and a destination. In some ways, it mirrors life, as we all have a beginning, a journey shared with others, and an ultimate destination; it is an enacted microcosm of life.


The pilgrimage has a large emphasis on moving through nature, and celebrating God’s creation. As Jon points out, God reveals himself in scripture, and in the person of Jesus, but also in his creation, signposting people to himself. He speaks of times before he was a Christian, when night-fishing as a teenager he would become aware of the canvas of stars above him, which would nearly always result in him questioning the possibility of there being a God who was Creator of the Universe. God’s artistry is evident, and after we have met for a drink the three of us begin a walk of our own, walking alongside Wigston Canal. Matthew draws our attention to the passage of Scripture which speaks of rivers of living water, again highlighting the way in which nature points towards Jesus, challenging us to stop creating a dualism or separation of God and nature. Matthew argues that we could even go as far to say that nature is intrinsically spiritual, pointing us towards God, connecting the human and God story. Creation points to something bigger than the self, showing God’s glory and his role as architect.


Prayer Walks are another idea in spending time in nature, and observing God’s creation. Matthew, who is undertaking a role in a new parish, explains how he has walked around the area, praying for those in it. He explains as you walk past landmarks, like schools and parks, you can see ways in which you can be praying for your immediate neighbours, connecting with God, and showing our responsibility to the world around us. The Bible does show ideas of journeying, with important moments like Paul’s conversion, and Jesus travelling through Samaria highlighting this scriptural president. Jesus’ ministry mainly took place outside, and his availability and vulnerability meant people were able to call out to him, and he was meeting people where they were. Jon finishes, by observing that with any walk, whether a Pilgrimage, prayer walk, or the everyday human walk through life, our prayer should be “Lord, use this journey, and interrupt me.”

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