It’ll be some time yet I think before it will be possible or recommended to undertake a pilgrimage. Visiting a whole load of places and sleeping together in dormitories strikes me as risky right now, and I am pretty risk averse. But I’ve been thinking about this and came to the conclusion that there might be interesting different ways to be a pilgrim to explore. Necessity is certainly the mother of invention and I have to be grateful for the ways in which the pandemic has made all kinds of different solutions to problems, different activities, different ways to get together, different ways to connect, different ways to deliver projects, all seem much more viable. I know I’ve certainly benefitted from people being more open to internet communication as my friends are all in such far flung geographical places – I’ve had lovely online chats with people in Vienna, Copenhagen, Umbria and London. It’s also meant I have kept more in touch with my family – there’s no downside to that that I can think of.

So, this is an opportunity to reflect anew on what pilgrimage means to me, and to ask some interesting questions about the definition of pilgrimage. For example, if you have no destination, no saintly presence at the end of your journey, is it still a pilgrimage? Also, I’ve been wondering how important it might be to me that part of the joy and fun of the pilgrimages I’ve done has been the ‘otherness’, the new vistas opening up, the beauty of new places. What if there are no new places to see, no new viewpoints, no mountains, no shrines, no new people to meet? How will that affect the experience? Will it make it more difficult, might it seem pointless?

Several years ago, my pilgrim mentor, friend and musician Giovannangelo de Gennaro invited me to play my Sacred Fragments programme in the context of a festival he curates in southern Italy, Viator. The festival is about travel and pilgrimage. He’s a mover and shaker, bringing to greater awareness the branches of the Via Francigena in his home region of Puglia – that pilgrim route doesn’t just end in Rome, but carries on towards Jerusalem with the sea part of the journey starting on the coast near Monte Sant’Angelo or down in Santa Maria di Leuca. At this festival, I modified my programme to include reference to my experience walking from London to Canterbury back in 2013, reading from Chaucer and singing ‘Angelus ad virginem’ which the naughty student in the Miller’s tale played on his psaltery. The festival took place over a few days. My concert on the Saturday night was in a gorgeous little church in Bitonto, Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, (see the slightly fuzzy photo – it was just getting dark as I arrived).

The night before it though, I went to a concert with readings and contemporary music (somewhere between folk and world and pop) that Giovannangelo was playing in.Now, I speak Italian fluently and I communicate well in Italian, but sometimes the finer points of a discourse are lost on me, so I managed to understand that the readings were something to do with Russia and something to do with a pilgrim but not much else. It was a beautiful concert with songs written by one of Giovannangelo’s collaborators (who is the other person responsible for the festival), Michele Lobaccaro, and it took place in one of those little gems of a theatre that you find all over Italy.

looking up from my seat that evening

Although I hadn’t totally got exactly what was going on, I remember the emotion of that evening, something between joy and love and compassion and gentleness in the sharing. So, when I was browsing the gorgeous Waterstones on Piccadilly to get a fix of something to comfort me one Sunday after my husband had gone back to France when I had to stay on in London for several more weeks, I found this book and bought it. The Way of a A Pilgrim: Candid Tales of a Wanderer to His Spiritual Father. It woke up a memory in me and I am pretty sure it must be the book from which those readings were taken.

In the seventeenth century there was a schism in the Russian Church. Some believers refused to accept the new liturgical reforms of Nikon, the Patriarch of Moscow. They broke away and came to be known as Old Believers, often ending up in remote places (like Agafia and her family whom I learnt about only recently from a musician friend) or wandering as beggars after being persecuted. This beautiful nineteenth century painting shows an Old Believer after arrest being dragged away in chains on a sled. This type of ‘pilgrimage’ is not precisely my model, but it allows me to participate in a different, less goal-oriented way of walking.

So back to my own pilgrimage to nowhere. At first, I imagined walking round and round my rural town. A full circuit is about 5 km so do that four times and it makes for a ‘normal’ sort of pilgrimage day. But I hadn’t really realised that, during full lockdown, staying outside for so long was not actually permitted, even if you always stayed within 1 km of your house. And now that the lockdown is about to be lifted, making journeys of up to 100 km from your home now possible, just doing circuits isn’t as necessary. My plan is therefore to cover at least 250 km over a period up to three weeks, setting off from home every morning and walking until 5pm, or I’ve had enough, whichever comes sooner. Then my lovely husband will come and collect me. As I will always set off from home, there will never be a day when he has to spend more than about 20 minutes in a round trip coming to get me = happy husband (after all, he does have to work his normal 39 hour week).

Every day I’m going to write a reflection on this blog about one small thing that I saw, something unimportant, usually invisible. It’s an exercise in opening my eyes and in gratitude. I’ll also be reading The Way of a Pilgrim to enrich my experience.

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