Magazine article The Christian Century

Restored Pilgrim Paths

Magazine article The Christian Century

Restored Pilgrim Paths

Article excerpt

In 1944, the legendary director Michael Powell made the film A Canterbury Tale, now recognized as one of the greatest and British cinema. This strange fantasy depicts a group of conflicted modern people on a dreamlike trip to the city of Canterbury, following in the footsteps of the medieval precursors who pioneered the route still known as the Pilgrims' Way. However secular their intentions when they first set out, each in his or her way finds at Canterbury the answer to long-felt hopes and dreams.

In the 1940s, Powell's vision was hopelessly romantic. Yes, millions of Catholic and Orthodox believers still went on pilgrimages to such shrines as Lourdes, Fatima, and Santiago de Compostela, and revived English sites like Walsingham attracted hard-core Anglo-Catholics. In the modern Protestant world, though, pilgrimage was clearly seen as a relic of bygone eras.

But over the past generation, that institution has experienced a startling revival across what we often dismiss as secular Europe. As I described in an earlier column ("Pilgrims of our times," May 18, 2010), many older shrines have been revived and attract millions of younger seekers, and whole new pilgrim destinations have been added to the map.

One sign of the widespread interest in older sacred landscapes is the renewed popularity of ancient pilgrim pathways, which in their day were scarcely less important than the great shrines to which they ultimately led. Before the Reformation, everyone knew the routes that led to centers like Compostela, roads marked by hostels and inns, where believers could obtain souvenirs and pilgrim passports. Largely in the present century, the identification and revival of such long-forgotten pilgrim trails has been a major endeavor for religious believers no less than secular tourist authorities. Pilgrimage tourism has become very big business.

The revival grows partly out of the renewed interest in Compostela and the elaborate trail systems of the Way of St. James, traversing southern France and northern Spain. Today, that route has been extended into Switzerland and even the northern Netherlands. Newly inspired pilgrims then demanded the restoration of other ancient trails, such as the 1,300-mile Via Francigena leading from Canterbury to Rome.

That interest in turn provoked local initiatives in most European countries, where tourist maps now abound with serpentine trails spanning hundreds of miles. In Great Britain, St. Cuthbert's Way unites the shrines of medieval northern England. You can walk across North Wales, taking the healing waters at St. …

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