A Sermon from Sherborne
To be a pilgrim
A sermon for Sherborne School, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 17 September 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Last Thursday a group of pilgrims from one of the churches in my benefice – St James the Great at Longburton – attended Mass at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain. It is claimed that this great basilica is built over the place where St James the Great, the brother of St John, is buried. (He is called “the Great”, by the way, to distinguish him from another Apostle, known as “James the Less”, and from one of Jesus’ brothers, called “James the Just”).
The legend of how St James’ body got to Spain dates back many centuries. I will leave it to the curious amongst you to look it up. Incredible as the story may seem to some, people have nevertheless been walking the pilgrim way to Santiago – known in Spanish as El Camino – since at least the 9th century. It has long been the third most popular Christian pilgrim destination, after Jerusalem and Rome. Our Longburton pilgrims began their walk at Ferrol, 120km to the north on the coast; the traditional longer pilgrim routes begin in France and cross the Pyrenees.
Pilgrimage is common to most religions. For example, Jews journey to the site of the Temple at Jerusalem, Muslims to Mecca, Hindus to Varanasi (also known as Benares) on the River Ganges and Buddhists to those places in Nepal and India associated with Buddha’s life. Like Christianity, all these faiths have numerous other holy sites which are also places of pilgrimage. But the interesting thing about the Camino is that it attracts thousands of pilgrims every year – many of them young – who claim no religious affiliation at all. The numbers have swelled enormously in recent years. Why?
I think one reason is that many people recognise that life is a journey, and it is important to engage with that journey. If you don’t, life becomes routine, dull and mundane. Recognise that you are on a journey, and important questions immediately arise: how did I get to where I am today? Where am I going? Have I made the right choice of the road to follow? If not, can I turn back and begin again, or find a way across to the right path? What is the meaning of my personal journey through life?
These are all questions that confront you as you make an actual journey to a pilgrim destination – which is why it should be done on foot, on horseback or, in modern times, by bicycle. Travelling in a luxury coach simply isn’t the same! You see, as they walk or ride, pilgrims find themselves travelling deeper into themselves; they get in touch with their own being in a way which can often have life-changing results. Some who began their journey with no faith at all have discovered faith by the time they reach their goal. It’s something you might like to consider when you get to your gap year. Why not start from here, with a commissioning in the Sepulchre Chapel in the south quire aisle. There you will find a wooden statue of a medieval Santiago pilgrim. How do we know that he walked the Camino? Because, although he has lost his pilgrim’s staff, he still wears his pilgrim’s gown and scrip, or purse – and the clincher is a scallop shell on his hat. Santiago pilgrims would find plenty of scallop and cockle shells on the coast of northern Spain, and would wear them to identify themselves as being on pilgrimage.
After your commissioning, take a ferry, either to France if you want to tackle one of the longest routes, or to Santander if you fancy a shorter journey. That would be 471 km – just under 300 miles. Book ahead at the network of pilgrim hostels – often pretty basic – or the cheaper inns which can be found all along the Camino. Or take a tent! And, whether you are a person of faith or not, prepare for the experience to be life-changing.
Christians have always likened their own life of faith to a journey or a pilgrimage. St Paul wrote that “we walk by faith, not by sight”, and sometimes we only realise how carefully we have been guided by God when we look back and see how we have been led through the maze of life. It is then that Christians discover the truth of these words, written by Boethius, a Christian philosopher of the early sixth century:
To see Thee is the End and the Beginning;
Thou carriest me and thou goest before;
Thou art the Journey and the journey’s End.
It is certain that King Alfred the Great knew those words. For centuries it was believed that he was the one who first translated them into English. Scholars now wonder if the translation was the work of Bishop Asser, a monk of St David’s in Wales who Alfred invited to join his Court as Bishop of Sherborne. The Court was normally based at Winchester, but when the Danes threatened the south coast, the Court would retreat here to Sherborne, which is why two of Alfred’s elder brothers, Kings of Wessex before him, are buried here.
Another man of Sherborne by adoption, Sir Walter Raleigh (who owned Sherborne Castle until James I had him executed) also likened life to a pilgrimage when he wrote:
Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
I hope that, at some point in your life, you will go on pilgrimage. I pray that, during your pilgrimage through life, you will discover that Christ is your Journey, and your journey’s end.