Geoffrey Chaucer depicted in an early version of his Canterbury Tales.
Between 1386 and 1387 Geoffrey. Chaucer lost favour with King Richard II. Chaucer’s mentor, John of Gaunt and advisor to the king, was out of the country and the Duke of Gloucester, who disliked Chaucer, was in the ascendancy. Chaucer had time then to reflect and time to write his,” Canterbury Tales.” Perhaps it was the loss of his prestigious jobs alongside this humbling period of his life that put Chaucer in a more contemplative mind. A mind leaning towards pilgrimage and its attendant spiritual benefits. Chaucer felt enabled to say it how it really was. The Monk, The Friar, The Prioress, The Priest and The Wife of Bath, to name a few, are as nuanced human beings as they come, good and bad and perhaps, inadvertently, reveal the corruption in the church and life at the time.
The reason for ,"The English Reformation," is echoed in many of the things Chaucer highlights. about some of his characters. Profiligate prelates, the selling of indulgences, an ever richer church, it is all there in Chaucers tales. It makes you wonder , reading the obvious cynicism Chaucer has towards the churchmen in his tales, an internal reformation of the church didn't happen sooner. The actual reformation rupturing the Roman Catholic Church came later with Martin Luther's 95 theses, causing the setting up of new Christian denominations? But I suppose, equally cynically, if the status quo worked for the church, the government and the crown, it could continue and ordinary people, those worst affected by the churches greed and ,"worldliness," could do nothing. "The English Reformation," one hundred and twenty two years later, in 1509, was itself a mixture, of self importance, greed, power, theology, religion. A heady mix.
It took a King, Henry VIII, who was having marital struggles connected with producing a male heir, to cause a rift with Rome about what he could and could not do. "The English Reformation," was backed by a majority of his top clergy schooled in the new theologies, or who were just merely cowards. Those who opposed Henry's changes among the hierarchy lost their heads.
“When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the droughts of March to the root….
…..Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And Palmers long to seek the stranger strands of far-off saints….”
So Chaucer writes about a longing to go on pilgrimage.
Definitions of what pilgrimage means are many and various. Recently John Lodge and I, have encountered The British Pilgrimage Trust and the 250 walks they promote. On their website they describe pilgrimage,
“Pilgrimage is a” Bring Your Own Beliefs,” practice – we exist to ‘advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit.’
The nature of pilgrimage
Pilgrimage (n.): A journey with purpose on foot to holy/wholesome/special places. Pilgrimage is for everyone, promoting holistic wellbeing via pilgrim practices and connecting you with yourself, others, nature and everything beyond. To turn a walk into a pilgrimage, at the beginning set your private ‘intention’ – dedicate your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks.
The ,"Trust,"goes on to explain;
"In Britain, natural landmarks such as wells, springs, trees, caves, islands and hilltops, and pagan sites such as stone circles and barrows, as well as ancient churches and cathedrals reveal a diverse and still unfurling cultural landscape, open to all who wish to connect to these pilgrim places. Public Rights of Way in England and Wales and the Right to Roam Act in Scotland – freedoms particular to Britain – give us a unique opportunity to explore a vast network of green footpaths.”
A pilgrimage then can be about going to a place that is special to us. The destinations for pilgrimage can be limitless.
The Pilgrims Progress.
The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyon, published partly in 1678, is an allegory about the human journey through life from birth to death. Bunyon was a Puritan and a noncomformist. He spent years in prison because of his beliefs. Like ,"Christian," the main character in Pilgrims Progress, Bunyon was beset by guilt and a strong awareness of sin. That seems a very destructive stance and not at all good for mental health. Original sin, guilt, constant atonement is a debiltating state to be in. Its about trying to achieve the unachievable perfection that only an imagined god can be. That is such a hopeless desperate way of being. Life should be joyous. Humans are humans. That is what we have to negotiate.
John Bunyon has left his influence though. His writing has made generations think of their lives from birth to death as a pilgrimage. Some of the characters and the places ,"Christian," his lead character, meets and visits on his journey have influenced writers such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. William Makepiece Thackery’s Vanity Fair is named after a location in Bunyon’s Pilgrims Progress. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women reference the Pilgrims Progress in some detail. It was written in simple language and could be read by many.
To promote holistic wellbeing is a primary aim of The Pilgrimage Trust. Wellbeing is an important consideration in helping us live in the 21st century and that makes The British Pilgrimage Trust attractive to many people. People can go on adventures that affect them positively with regards to their , physical, sensory and spiritual well being. The physical and sensory experiences are reasonably easy to explain but what of spiritual experience?
I often wonder what that word,”spirituality,” means. Is it a mixture of physical, sensory and emotional interactions? The word, spiritual, can lead us down many, rabbit holes. It seems to me to be something outside of ourselves. The sensory experiences and physical experiences are part of it but add emotions, thoughts, and our human interactions and then, are we getting close? In many ways it is best to stop trying to analyse and let,"spiritual," experiences just happen. Many refer to Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus in The Acts of the Apostles as the most famous example of a spiritual experience. He imagines God speaks to him. But what sensory, physical, emotional and social experiences brought him to that?
I read some of the posts on The Pigrimage Trust site about short pilgrimage walks, a day in length. One lady described a silent walk beginning at the 15th century St Mary’s Church in Chilham, a seven mile walk to Canterbury. She was with a group but they walked in silence. I suppose walking in silence must focus yourself inwards even while being with others. Contemplative orders of Monks and Nuns come to mind. She wrote about her purpose of pilgrimage, experiencing the journey, nature, sounds, sights, the actual experience of physically walking in a given environment. She experienced the other people through their proximity to her. You can learn a lot about people just being in their presence without talking. She finally reached the site of Thomas a Becket’s shrine, now an empty space. Even an empty space can hold meaning and experience it seems.
It got me thinking . Could I go on pilgrimage in the area I live? Could all the elements of what people describe as the process of pilgrimage be experienced, walking from my front door to my local park, Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields and walking around the playing fields, about a kilometre in circumference and then returning home? I have walked and run this often. It is sensory. The physical act of walking from one place to another, no problem. But what about the spiritual part? There used to be a Chinese gentleman, he must have been in his eighties, who used to stand in the middle of Joseph Hood Park performing tai chi.His body moved rhythmically and purposefully. He looked as though his mind was engaged and he seemed completely focussed. I once watched a lady sitting cross legged in the centre of the park , straight backed, elbows on knees, hands with fore fingers and thumbs pressed together., meditating, with birds chirping in the trees, the wind blowing gently, the sun shining from a blue sky, the ground warm and firm beneath her. Were these two experiencing elements of pilgrimage entering emotionally and thoughfully into themselves in these ways? The Chinese gentleman and the lady were experiencing something.They both looked at peace and at one with the world.
Immersing in a process , becoming lost in a process mentally, emotionally and physically is that pilgrimage? Is that spirituality? Could becoming immersed in a novel, a painting, a poem, a photograph, a play, a film, a song, a piece of music, be aspects of pilgrimage? Pilgrimage, perhaps, is limitless and experienced in a myriad of circumstances.
My pilgrimage then.
Out of the front door. Dressed in a T shirt, sports trousers, walking shoes. I turn right down West Barnes Lane towards the park. Silver birch trees line the road on the grass verges. White, paper thin bark. Peeling in parts. Small, pale green blade like leaves fluttering. Garden shrubbery, hydrangeas, climbing roses, box hedges, sometimes interspersed between the roadside silver birches, cherry and copper beeches grow. Sky, sometimes cloudy, sometimes blue. a breeze that lightly touches, cools. Nowadays this area is covered by roads of mostly 1930s housing with front and back gardens. Getting into a striding pattern. My walking shoes cushion against the stones and the cracks in the pavement. Weeds grow here and there. Some with brightly coloured flowers. Whats the difference between a flower and a weed? Leroy is outside of his house cleaning his ,"souped up," HONDA CIVIC TYPE R (315 bhp). I tell him ,"Hey Leroy that car should be in an art gallery." He's used to me telling him that. He replies, "Not this one. It's not perfect." It looks it to me. The sound of its engine driving down our road is like low rumbling thunder. I cross West Barnes Lane between parked cars. Keith is backing his van out into the road. He sees me and waves, continues reversing out and heads off towards Grand Drive. I approach the shops. EKLEE fruit and vegetable store on my right.Shelving along the front of the shop filled with a myriad of coloured fruits and vegetables. EKLEE is an Iranian owned shop. A lovely family run it. They sell a wide choice of fruits and vegetables, some you wouldn’t normally get in a British green grocers. A variety of peppers, ginger roots, a whole range of chillies and a long long shelf of fresh herbs. Strange shaped and coloured tomatoes among the cabbages and the potatoes.
I turn left down Marina Avenue towards the white pillared and black wrought iron gates to the park. The pillars are 1930s art deco in style.A car park , tree shaded to my left. A large expanse of green grass extends into the distance.
"Mares tails," in the sky over the Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields. ( Cirrus clouds)
The grassy area of the park is surrounded by trees. To the right there is the millennium wood, planted in the year 2000, for the millennium. The foresters who look after the vast number of trees lining roads and the copses and small forests inhabiting Merton’s parkland concluded from their evidence that some of the woodland on that sideof the park near the giant unused gasometers, had got to a stage where it could no longer regenerate and that new planting on that side of the park was needed. It is satisfying to know the council cares for our environment. The arguments circle around how quickly change and development should be made to our environment. Too slow, too fast, just right. What to do? It will be uncomfotable.
My feet pace the grass. Even paced at a comfortable speed. Swish of boots on grass. Grasses interspersed with clover flowers, daisys now and then, a dandelion, buttercups in season, the brown earth seen through thinned out grass. I love soil and what it is. Sycamores shade the pathway, now drooping with the weight of thousandsof ,”helicopter,” seeds clumped in tight groups at the end of branches, at the end of twigs. The crunch of dried twigs underfoot. I see three Muslim women, dressed in hijabs. One of them leads the other two, who face her, in exercises. I hear her commands."Squat, trunk twist, hold arms out in front."She gives the commands and invents the exercise movements and they all copy. Sometimes I see them walking the perimeter of the park like I do. Purposeful striding. I have taken to saying ,"hello." They reply, ,"hello,"and sometimes wave. They are of different ages, grandmother, mother, daughter, perhaps? They are here every day, bar rain. I come here in the rain sometimes.
Mothers push their young in buggies, often doing laps of the park before attending the playgroup that takes place in the sports pavilion. Many people are in the park walking their dogs, throwing sticks or balls for their dogs to chase and retrieve. Some joggers. It is a place alive with birds, chirping, as well as people. Sometimes a jet airliner rumbles overhead coming out of Heathrow. A train passes once in a while through Motspur Park Station. And I continue, breathing rhythmically, almost imperceptibly, arms and legs moving forward comfortably. It feels like entering into my self. This is a journey of experience and self discovery.
Concider the meaning of ,"existentialism ,"which in turn connects to ,"natural law."The various religions are based on ,"natural law,"to a certain extent which is a sort of universal moral standard that comes from nature and what it is to be human. The various religions make their own laws, which they say come from natural law but are interpretations and unbalance the meaning of what is to be , "human." Many people get left out or are marginalised by religions. Chritianity certainly hasn't got a good record. As one example the Catholic Church and its attitudes to women. The hierarchy of the church is a patriarchy. The Protestant Church of England has gone some way to address patriarchy but still many within its clergy are against the ordination of women. Attitudes towards the LGBTQ community raise some strong issues too.Christian churches use the Bible to argue their point. The Bible causes more problems than it solves. In the 17thand 18th centuries the Bible was interpretted idealogically promoting the rights of slavery for Gods sake!!!.If we are going to explain creation and the world and being human through the Bible that is a very poor , week, starting point. It only gets us so far. We have to concider ourselves in the ,"now," to interpret the world. Our moral code should come from simply what it is to be human and have human interactions.
THE TREE OF LIFE :
There are many trees on my walk and I end up meditating on them. They keep me company.
Many religions incorporate the concept of a ,”tree of life.” The Celts, who’s religion pervaded our islands before Christianity revered the oak tree. In reality, whether you think the oak and other trees are religious symbols or not, trees are complex ecosystems that provide life for a whole range of living organisms, birds, insects, lichens, mosses, squirrels; they provide oxygen for our atmosphere and much much more. They even provide food for us and keep us cool in their shade when the planets temperature rises.Over centuries trees have provided building materials and helped add nutrients to the soil. I have hugged a tree. It feels very pleasant.
Standing inside a forest of ancient trees the feeling is the same you get standing in the aisles of a magnificent cathedral. It is no coincidence that the stone pillars holding up the roof of a cathedral remind us of the trunks of trees. Often a complex fan structure of stone ribs support the roof of a cathedral and look like the complex patterns that the branches of trees make.These are connections between nature and religion. So my walk around my local park with oaks, elms, ashes, sycamores and plain trees have religious connections, if you look for them.
Returning to Chaucer's ,Canterbury Tales.
Chaucers pilgrims walking to Canterbury , have the apparent aim to reach the shrine of Thomas a Becket and pray for his intercession providing a heavenly favour or gift. The walk Chaucer describes and the stories the pilgrims relate, tell something else. The stories of the pilgrims become intrinsic to their pilgrimage and the passage of time; days and weeks. The end is hardly concidered.
Two examples of the stories that Chaucers pilgrims tell.
The Pardoners Tale is a story about discovering ,Death.Three friends want to kill , Death,because they have been told that a character called ,Death, has killed one of their friends.They discover gold under a tree on their search for Death. Through avarice and greed for the gold they turn against each other.
“Exactly in the way they’d planned his death
They fell on him and slew him two to one.
Then said the first of them when this was done.
Now for a drink. Sit down lets be merry
And as it happened, reaching for a sup
He took a bottle full of poison up
And drank; and his companion, nothing loth
Drank from it also, and they perished both.”
They indeed find ,Death, when ,Death, of course finds them. The lesson for all the pilgrims from this story is obvious.
Another story, that of The Wife of Bath, is pertinent. A woman of the Middle Ages, speaks to men and women of today. Her prologue shows she has the authority and experience to tell us about sex and relationships. She herself has experienced many relationships.She married five times, her marriages being some good and some bad. We learn how she dealt with her various husbands. She is disapproved of by some of the other pilgrims who think marrying five times must be against the laws of god. She adeptly justifies herself by interpretting stories about marriage and married people in the Bible in her own way. The Wife of Bath is a persuasive talker.
Her story she sets in the time of King Arthur and a time of fairies. It is about a Knight who rapes a maiden. Visceral stuff. He is taken prisoner and condemned to death by the King. However the Queen asks for the power to reprieve the Knight if he can answer one question. She asks the knight,
“What is the thing that women most desire?”
The knight is given one year to find the answer.His journey is a journey of self discovery and a developing understating of women.
An old lady he meets along the way gives him the answer and at the end of the year he reports back to the Queen.
“ My liege and lady, in general,” said he
“ A woman wants the self same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover
And master him; he must not be above her
That is your greatest wish whether you kill
Or spare me; please yourself. I await your will.”
All the women of the court nod and agree with his statement. He has saved his life.
However he has a promise to keep. He promised the old lady anything she asks.The old lady comes forward and demands that he marries her as a reward for her help. He agrees, although very reluctant because of her old, wrinkled appearance. He actually finds her physically repellent. But she has saved his life. She then gives him a choice. Have her as a young beautiful girl or as the old, shrivelled lady he sees before him and take the consequences of either. As a young beautiful maiden others will be attracted to her and want to tempt her away but as an old lady nobody else will show her interest. After some thought he gives her the choice to make. He gives her mastery over him. She turns into the beautiful young lady ( a fairy).
He has learned his lesson. Is it realistic though to believe he has become a different person? I am not sure but The Wife of Bath makes an important philosophical point.She was an early feminist surely?
The stories told by the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales are allegories that explore and explain many of lifes fundamental issues. The relationships between men and women, death, love, class and religion. Many things we still discuss and think about today.
There is a strong element of realism in The Canterbury Tales. The characters know how to play," the system." For example,The Monk, is a sneaky character used to the good life. He uses his charm and hius positon as a monk withn the church to do very well in life offering forgiveness and indulgences for money.
It is interesting to note that the pilgrims who met at the Tabard Tavern in Southwark were strangers from various walks of life, both male and female. There is something ,"modern," about the Canterbury Tales; a,"melting pot," using an image from the 1960s.
It’s the process of the pilgrimage that really counts in the end, not the arrival at Becket’s shrine.
The Tabard Inn Southwark in 1810.
The British pilgrim Trust are promoting a newly discovered pilgrim route. They call it the Old Way. It is marked on the Gough Map that is held by The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is the first known map of the British Isles created in the 1370s. The ,"Old Way,"is a route from Southampton following the south coast to Canterbury. The towns and villages, that still exist today, featured on The Gough Map, are the stopping places on the route. You might wonder why it begins in Southampton? In the middle ages Southampton was a major port, as it remains to this day, linked to European ports. It was a place many merchants from Europe entered England. A port for merchants was also a port for pilgrims from Europe to begin their pilgrimage to Beckets tomb in Canterbury.
The route is described in detail on the trusts website with maps , transport links and places to stay for the night. John and I must do the ,"Old Way," one day.
The Gough Map 1370.
https://britishpilgrimage.org/the-bpt/. (THE BRITISH PIGRIMAGE TRUST)
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22120/22120-h/22120-h.htm (THE CANTERBURY TALES by Geoffrey Chaucer)
THE GOUGH MAP