What is a pilgrimage, anyway? @tim_hutchings

Here’s a question for you. What is a pilgrimage?

This year, I’ve been working to create the prototype for a new pilgrimage route across north-east England. The prototype trail goes through Gateshead and Newcastle, using a mobile app packed with maps, stories, images, audio and video, all created by local churches and communities.

I’ve asked contributors to focus on the themes of “Hope” and “Journey”, but each community has invented their own response. So a church in Gateshead has created video interviews remembering what their town was like in the past, and a school nearby has run classes painting pictures of what they would like their town to look like in the future. In Newcastle, some churches will be recording stories and writing prayers, and others will be taking part in prayer workshops based around photography and colour.

But is this a “pilgrimage”? Is a pilgrimage just a journey to a special place, or is there more to it than that?

If the destination is the key, then this route through Gateshead and Newcastle will only become a pilgrimage when we extend it to connect up to an ancient holy site – like Lindisfarne, to the north, or Durham to the south.

Did you know that Newcastle has its own traditional pilgrimage destination? In medieval times, pilgrims would visit a healing well and chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the valley of Jesmond Dene. Some recent pilgrimages and processions have travelled there, too. It is said that miracles happenedat the well, including, on one occasion, the well disappearing altogether after a greedy businessman tried to buy it.

So that’s one option – focus on where we’re going. But a pilgrimage can also be a journey through. The journey can be as important as the destination. If you’re travelling to a holy place, the route takes on some of that holiness. If you’re travelling through places and landscapes that are meaningful to you, that can be a pilgrimage too. A journey can be like a labyrinth, where the act of travelling is more important than reaching the centre.

So how can we use our mobile app and arts resources to encourage pilgrims to experience the towns they are walking through as holy places?

We will be including prayers in the app, created and recorded by local churches – but if you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments below. If you’ve been on a pilgrimage, what made that experience feel important to you? If you haven’t, what might persuade you to go?


About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.