‘When in April, sweet showers fall

..that pierce March’s drought to the root and all’….….then, to paraphrase Chaucer, no matter the weather, we all want to pull on our boots and set out on a pilgrimage. For anyone wanting a ready introduction to this timeless phenomenon, Peter Stanford’s book, Pilgrimage – Journeys of Meaning offers a useful place to start. He writes with a light touch that skims across the world, touching down at pilgrim sites in Europe, India, Japan, Africa and the Americas. Each of twelve chapters variously focuses on a particular route, shrine or festival. Taken together they add up to a book which illuminates something of the breadth and diversity of pilgrimage across some of the major faiths.

In any attempt to encompass this huge subject in a single volume, depth must be sacrificed to breadth. This challenge is sometimes apparent here, not least with reference to the mystic Margery Kempe whose pilgrim journeys are captured in her eponymous Book. Stanford describes Kempe in terms of being ‘the wife of a well-to-do merchant’. Given her status as an important chronicler of Medieval pilgrimage, Stanford might more properly have described her as such. Added to which, Kempe paid off her husband’s debts before setting off to the Holy Land, so he wasn’t so well-to-do either. I don’t mean to be pernickety here, but simply raise this point to illustrate what the author is grappling with. Namely, how to keep the narrative rolling through an epic landscape which stretches across time, geography and faith, without getting snagged by too much or too little detail. 

Stanford is a Catholic and the content of Pilgrimage is heavily weighted towards Christian routes and shrines such as Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and Rome. Nevertheless, he treads a balanced and respectful line across the wider religious terrain. The dispassionate tone of the writing keeps the reader at comfortable arm’s length from the author’s own faith, but this is not unusual where the desire to tell the story threatens the privacy of personal belief. We find it towards the end of Belloc’s Path to Rome. Here, having included his reader in every vicissitude of his journey across the mountains and valleys of France and Italy, Belloc leaves us at the gates of Rome saying “and so carissimi, multitudes, all of you, goodbye; the day has long dawned on the Via Cassia, this dense mist has risen, the city is before me, and I am on the threshold of a great experience; I would rather be alone. Good bye my readers; good-bye the world”.

Victoria Preston is the author of We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves, pub Hurst.

The Road to Rome – image V.Preston

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