New video chronicles longing for pilgrimage

Published April 1, 2001

Great Pilgrimages narrator Peter Downie, at Canterbury Cathedral.

And smale fowles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye,

(So pricketh hem nature in hir corages),

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Geoffrey Chaucer,

The Canterbury Tales

The ancient human desire to seek God in a holy place far from home is the subject of this visually attractive and thought-provoking new video from the Anglican Church of Canada. Narrated by broadcast journalist Peter Downie, the 108-minute video visits eight popular places of pilgrimage in Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain, the United States. and Israel. Downie describes each place and its history, then interviews pilgrims and adds comments by scholars and clerics associated with the places.

Nervous traditionalists may rest assured that this is no New Age tableau. Yet the widespread longing for pilgrimage challenges the comfortable with the realization that our contemporary, word-fixated liturgies in practical buildings do not capture fully the mystery of God’s transcendence.

[pullquote] Canada is the location for two places of pilgrimage depicted in the video. Lac St. Anne in Alberta has been a sacred place for native people for more than 1,000 years and purports to have healing waters. Rationalists must be reminded that miracles still occur in the lives of pilgrims. The other spot is a family farm in Marmora, Ont., where visions of Mary have been seen over the years. Thousands come annually to this farm, whose owners charge no admission but simply want Mary to introduce pilgrims to her Son.

The island of Iona in northern Britain is the site of a medieval abbey that is associated with the heroic efforts to introduce the Christian Gospel into Britain during the Dark Ages.

Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Beckett was murdered in 1170, is also featured, and more than one commentator pays tribute to the remarkable human achievement that is the building itself. The city of Jerusalem still remains the most popular place of pilgrimage, but commentators remind us that Jerusalem is also a place of tension and conflict.

Rome and the Vatican are also mentioned, and for many it is not just the bones of the many martyrs gathered at Rome that draw them but also the personal presence of the Pope.

Finally – and this is an imaginative touch – we video travellers visit Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. As its many annual pilgrims attest, why not? Elvis touched the hearts of millions through his music and style and was in his private life a remarkably generous man. Is Graceland to be excluded because it is tacky and “typically American?” Millions look to Graceland as a place of comfort and find in their fellow Elvis fans a community of acceptance.

In short, the video reminds us that there is no one feature that makes a place holy. It might be a place of natural beauty, but might also be associated with heroic human efforts and martyrdom, or linked with a remarkable and loving person. What makes a place to be a place of pilgrimage is ultimately, as the video suggests, the human spirit.

In pilgrimage we seek the meaning that only a transcendent God can give, we move beyond the comfortable and the familiar and risk our lives in a journey of seeking. Though intensely personal in our quest, we are aware of those other pilgrims with us and feel intimately a part of community. As Mr. Downie says, in pilgrimage the rewards are great once we take that first step.

Rev. Dr. Mark McDermott is rector of Grace Anglican Church, Milton, Ont.


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