Beyond Belief: The Rise Of The Radical 21st-Century Pilgrimage

Beyond Belief: The Rise Of The Radical 21st-Century Pilgrimage

Think pilgrimage, think Chaucer? Think again. The term is laden with religious connotations but the humble act of pilgrimage is having a renaissance, particularly among those looking for a spiritual awakening, but on their own terms



Lydia
was clinking glasses around a fire circle in Bali with a
ragtag bunch of fellow 20-somethings when she was first introduced
to the idea. Pilgrimage
was the buzzword on everyone’s lips, and no, she hadn’t been
extradited to a religious conversion camp.

Back then, she was holidaying like many other urbanites; on a
sun-and-surf tour of South East Asia, enjoying some hard-earned
respite from her frenetic London life. A year later, Lydia swapped
her bikini for Gore-Tex and spent 36 days schlepping a rucksack’s
worth of provisions through Spain on the epic Camino de
Santiago.

Her trips before had been about kicking back and having fun, but
this one was loaded with spiritual intention. “I decided to do it
during a period of personal change,” she says. After quitting her
job and packing her London flat into boxes, she set forth. “It
reaffirmed my life choices and philosophies. It was about tapping
into something more primal.”



While reports suggest that young people are increasingly
ditching organised religion – too proscriptive, misaligned with
21st century gender politics, a weak crutch during times of
economic and political instability – Lydia’s story forms part of a
broader cultural shift towards spiritual travel, and
pilgrimages
specifically.

If you’re a cynic who doesn’t buy into the squeaky-clean yoga
influencers or astrology meme accounts found jostling for space on
Instagram, it might sound a little hokey, but some hard travel
truths belie the hashtags. In 2018, 18 per cent of pilgrims
traversing the Camino de Santiago were students, and almost a third
(27%) were under 30 years old – that’s more than 90,000 millennial
pilgrims, three times the reported number in 2005.

So why, at this current apex of technological history, when
cheap plane tickets are only a tap of a button away, are a growing
strand of young people fobbing off fly-and-flop budget getaways and
choosing instead to plod time-honoured primordial
paths
? A heightened eco-conscience, yes. Beastly debts,
undoubtedly. But there’s more to it than that.

Pilgrimage reaffirmed my life choices and philosophies. It was about tapping into something more primal

For Guy Hayward, who first picked up his pilgrim’s staff aged
28, it was the promise of a simpler way of life after years spent
toiling behind a laptop screen – an opportunity to temporarily
close all the tabs. “I got introduced to the camps, the fires, the
trees, to bathing in the springs and rivers and I just thought,
‘this is a completely different way of living, one that feels very
primal.’ People have got into such a tangle about what they
believe; whether you believe in this or that, you like the word
‘god’ or you don’t,” he continues, “but actually, going out into
nature and engaging with the landscape feels very modern.”

Six years later and he’s now one of the world’s leading voices
when it comes to the modern pilgrimage. “I’d never come across
pilgrimage before and thought, ‘why is this not happening more in
Britain? This is too great a thing to not be a thing'”. In 2014,
Guy co-founded the British Pilgrimage Trust and has been
evangelising the ancient practice ever since – evangelising and
refashioning, that is.



What fragile remains were left of the pilgrim’s rulebook are
being respectfully ripped up, along with the traditional passages:
today’s millennial wayfarers are personalising their journeys as
they might a phone case. When Lydia’s route didn’t quite deliver
the paradisiacal pilgrim path she’d imagined, she consulted her OS
map and forged her own, hanging about just long enough to ‘gram a
photo when she finally arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago de
Compostela, 500 miles later. In her defence, it was raining.

While the architectural colossus didn’t deliver any heaven-sent
epiphanies – “Is this it?” she remembers thinking – the journey was
still life-affirming. “People asked me if I had any magical,
transformative moments. I didn’t, really. But it was a confirmation
of the kind of life that I want to pursue. Simplicity. It was so
simple, and there was something really beautiful in that.”

Others, like 23-year-old Cristina, who walked the Camino del
Norte across Spain’s north coast, were simply in it for a good
time. “I just loved that you’d wake up in a new place, walk in the
morning, pitch a tent or check in to a hostel somewhere completely
different that evening,” she says. “And the constant exercise meant
my mind was really fresh and clear.”



While he acknowledges that such a cavalier approach might have
disciples of yore turning in their graves, Guy’s a pilgrim liberal:
“If it feels meaningful enough for you to walk all that way then
that’s fine”. He’s currently working hard to lay the foundations
for a great pilgrimage revival in Britain, convincing parish
churches along some of Britain’s most appealing routes to set up
“pilgrim pods” – outfitting crumbling edifices with contemporary
sleep capsules and Wi-Fi routers in a bid to revolutionise the
practice.

“The holy heritage of this land [Britain] is Christian and
Pagan. It’s not offensive to say that,” he says. “But I’m also
talking to Druid, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and Atheist
communities to ask how can we bring it all together. We’re working
on this idea that it’s beyond belief.” As pilgrimages broach new
ground, Guy is hopeful people will follow suit by picking their own
meaningful landmarks.

I’m talking to Druid, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and Atheist communities. We’re working on this idea that it’s beyond belief.

Guy Hayward, The British Pilgrimage Trust

While he’s not proposing a total overhaul of the tradition, his
vision of the future isn’t bound by religious doctrine but centred
on inner and outer discovery, community and grounding – “it’s kind
of the ultimate form of grounding”. He’s paving a path for
progressive pilgrimages, ones that can not only provide
opportunities to bridge ideological divides, but also bolster
marginalised or minority groups.

Churches, wells and stone circles? Too obvious. Instead, women’s
rights advocates might organise a group trek culminating at
Brompton Cemetery, where Emmeline Pankhurst is buried, while LGBTQ+
folk could meander through the somnolent folds of North Yorkshire
en route to Rievaulx Abbey, former home to historically overlooked
gay icon, Saint Aelred. The potential is nothing short of
radical.

Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is a chance to meet new
people. For some it’s a bar crawl, for others it’s a romantic
escape. It’s low carbon and high smug factor; a perhaps surprising
product of our 21st-century digital landscape yet also completely
understandable. You heard it here first. Forget your religious
hang-ups, pilgrimages are back – and this time, they’re
personalised.

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