Pilgrims and pilgrimage: on the way to eEaster

When in April the sweet showers fall

And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all

The veins are bathed in liquor of such power

As brings about the engendering of the flower …

Then people long to go on pilgrimages

And palmers long to seek the stranger strands

Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands”

So Geoffrey Chaucer begins Canterbury Tales, his delightful account of a group of pilgrims making their slow but steady way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury.

Pilgrimage is a universal practice arising spontaneously from belief and devotion. The word is originally derived from the Latin peregrinum, from which we have the word, peregrination, meaning to wander over a distance. What is common to pilgrimage is the focus on the places where gods and heroes, holy men and women, were born or died or worked some great deed or miracle, and it was believed if you visited and prayed at the shrine of these figures, your sins would be forgiven and you would increase your chances of going to heaven. Others hoped they might be cured from an illness or affliction from which they suffered.

It is a measure of the universality and its deep roots in human nature that we can speak, with only slight irony, of people making a pilgrimage to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis Presley, the ‘King’.

Egyptians made pilgrimages to the oracle of Ammon-Re at Thebes, Greeks flocked to Delphi and to the shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, and some have suggested the great enclosure at Stonehenge and the decorated chamber at Newgrange were the scenes of ritual gatherings in the distant past. Buddhists year round visit Kapilavastu where Gautama Buddha was born, and Benares, where he began his mission. And, of course, pilgrimage is actually one of the five pillars of faith in Islam, and every pious Muslim hopes to visit Medina and Mecca, places linked with the life of Mohammed.

As Chaucer notes in the lines above, from the very earliest days of Christianity, pilgrims, again of all sorts and conditions, wended their way across Europe to places like Rome, city of the apostles, Chartres, where there was a miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin, Ireland’s Lough Derg, and – perhaps the most famous of all - Santiago de Compostella.

But the sites exercising the most powerful attraction were those associated with the life of Jesus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where he was born, and where the events of his passion and resurrection were believed to have taken place.

Jerusalem was where Christianity began, and from very early in its history, the places connected with Jesus’ death and burial were known and revered by those who believed he had risen from the dead. The earliest Christian community in Jerusalem was headed by his brother (or step-brother ) James, and the site of the room where Jesus celebrated his last meal with his disciples, on Mount Zion, was the site of a very early church. Of course, the key location was where he was crucified and buried, where now stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In 69AD, long-simmering resentment at Roman rule by the Jewish population within the borders of the old kingdom of Judea exploded in a three year revolt which ended with the siege and destruction of much of Jerusalem. A second Jewish revolt, from 132 to 136AD, was crushed by the emperor Hadrian, who decided to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city, calling it Aelia Capitolina.

According to Eusebius, the historian of the early Christian Church, there was a continuing Christian presence in Jerusalem throughout this unsettled period, but the first solid evidence we have comes from the account written after 333AD by an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux. It is, in fact, the earliest description we have by a Christian traveller to the places linked to the life and death of Jesus.

The Latin original text is brief and consists mostly of a list of places and their distances from each other, almost like a notebook a traveller might keep to remind himself of basic information of where he could find lodging, or have a meal, or arrange transport.

The Bordeaux pilgrim travels from Milan to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, where Constantine, the first Christian emperor, still reigns. From there, he crosses into modern-day Turkey and heads for Jerusalem. His return journey takes him back to Milan and concludes in the city of Rome.

What are of special interest are the earliest references to the earliest churches in Jerusalem, The Church of the Sepulchre, another on the Mount of Olives, and in Bethlehem.

Next Week: Egeria’s Pilgrimage

Barnaby ffrench


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