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The pilgrimage phenomenon – an invitation beckons


“In order to encourage and foster growth in disciples and discipleship, how are we as the Church called to respond to the emerging yearning for pilgrimage?” asks St Matthew’s, Holland Park parishioner Randal Dennings

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More folks than ever are shouldering their backpacks, pulling on their hiking boots and setting off on a pilgrim journey.

Have you felt this yearning? Has your heart been stirred to “long on pilgrimage to go…seeking foreign strands…(and) distant shrines renowned in sundry lands” (to quote Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales)?

Amidst the noise and bustle of modern life, the tyranny of the overwhelming ‘to do’ list, the incessant demands of our technological devices and our own time poverty, we often struggle to create space in our lives. How often do we simply just stop, pause and listen to ourselves and also to the Divine?

Sometimes, it takes something drastic for this to happen – perhaps exhaustion, illness, a crisis or one of life’s severe reversals. Other times, we find ourselves choosing to pause in order to rest, re-create and find some solitude.

But, what sometimes happens when we do stop and ‘unplug’? We may find ourselves alone and by ourselves. How terrifying this can be…to encounter the person you truly are and perhaps also the One who truly is.

Often our listening can also become distinctly uncomfortable…perhaps too many inconvenient Divine invitations arise seeking to pull us away from the demands of our usual lives, agendas and obligations.

We sometimes feel the yearning to put all that stuff ‘on hold’ and venture forth to explore further – perhaps going deeper inwards, as well as further outwards to foreign lands.

As the faithful, we are often reminded to let go of seeking control over our lives, recognising that, “Is not the all-powerful God the pilot…of our boat? Leave it to him. He himself guides our journey as he wills” (to quote St Brendan).

Increasingly, there are those in the West who are not churched that also feel, and are yielding to, this call.

For both seekers within and outside of the Church, this can be a truly challenging time when past attitudes, values, habits and behaviours, which seemed to serve us well in the past, no longer fulfil our needs.

The pain to stay where you are within your comfort zone may at some point become greater than the pain involved in risking growing and stepping forth and becoming who you are meant, and are being called, to be and become.

In past times, this yearning was recognised as what it actually is – a “holy longing” (Goethe), a restlessness to embark upon your true pilgrim quest…until “rest” is finally found in the Divine who made us for himself (as suggested by St Augustine).

Once we decide to surrender to this yearning…what is the next step? Some seekers create space in their diaries, undertake their preparations and head off on a journey to a faraway sacred location, such as Canterbury, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela or Iona, so that external travel may accompany and inform their internal quest. Others more modestly focus on ‘mini pilgrimages’, such as retreats, meditation days and labyrinth walks.

Whilst everyone’s pilgrim quest and path are different, one thing remains the same – you return a different person to the one who departed, or in the words of TS Eliot: “You arrive where you started…and know the place for the first time.”

In order to encourage and foster growth in disciples and discipleship, how are we as the Church called to respond to the emerging yearning for pilgrimage? Opportunities abound, with more Anglican ministries, parishes and schools offering pilgrimages, both locally and abroad.

I have been privileged to join in some of the Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) pilgrimages to St George’s College in Jerusalem and Campfire In The Heart in Alice Springs. Both were life changing for me and my fellow pilgrims, while also supportive the mission of ABM.

My parish at St Matthew’s, Holland Park has organised opportunities for parishioners and the wider community to experience different types of pilgrimages for themselves. These opportunities include a ‘Pilgrimage around our church’, exploring different physical aspects and sacred spaces, including the baptismal font, stained glass windows, sanctuary, memorial garden and artworks, as different prayer and Saturday morning meditation stations. In doing so, we offer an opportunity for the broader community to be welcomed and experience the church space. We also annually walk in pilgrimage from Holland Park to the Cathedral for the Sunday Evensong service, as well as hold pilgrimage labyrinth walks on a monthly basis.

Perhaps this is one of our callings at this time as a church. In past times, the parish was the point of encouragement, departure and return for pilgrims. Can we reposition ourselves to again facilitate fresh opportunities for pilgrimage? Will we encourage and seek to assist seekers restless for spiritual growth and Divine encounter?

“Keep the pilgrim spirit always. Now, go and live your lives without fear,” says the Bishop of Santiago at the pilgrim mass to pilgrims at the end of El Camino de Compostela.

For more information on Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) pilgrimages, please visit the ABM website. For more information on the St Matthew’s, Holland Park ‘Pilgrimage around our church’ and walks to the Cathedral for Sunday Evensong, please contact the Parish Priest, Archdeacon Allan Paulsen at

Editor’s note: anglican focus is keen to hear from people in our Diocesan community about their own pilgrim journeys, whether through ABM pilgrimages, labyrinth walks, journeys to sacred places abroad or other ways of sacred journeying. Please email the Editor, Michelle McDonald at if you would like to share your story.

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