Pilgrimages and sacred sites – spiritual journeys in your van

According to the University of Oxford a pilgrimage is…

A devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot or on horseback, toward a specific destination of significance.*

The pilgrimages we’ve been on have taken us all over England, Scotland and Wales – not on foot or horseback, of course, but in our trusty old VW Cree.

On this page we’ll share with you some of our pilgrimages or what might be called ‘spiritual journeys’ to places like Avebury, Canterbury, and Glastonbury. These are journeys that seem somehow even more significant than everyday road trips.

We’ll be adding links over the next few weeks to provide you with more details. For now, we hope you enjoy this page as it is…

wooden statue of two pilgrims

Pilgrims in a secular world

The quote above mentions the blending of the physical and the spiritual. The van, ourselves, and the roads and paths we drive and walk on are all obviously physical. But being on a pilgrimage awakens something else inside of you.

Without being devoted to any particular religion – though certainly not atheists – our pilgrimages are more about connecting to nature, history, and some kind of ancient wisdom.

In religious terms this is often referred to as God. Native Americans might refer to it as Great Spirit or the Great Mystery. The Chinese might refer to it as the Tao.

We view all our van pilgrimages as spiritual journeys

The thing is that if you’re able to get into a more receptive or reverent state – away from the everyday mindset of the 9 to 5 – your consciousness expands. A sense of wonder begins to reveal itself inside and outside of yourself. It’s like seeing reality with new eyes.

The 7 stages of a pilgrimage

Having stumbled upon the work of the late poet, Jay Ramsey, in his wonderful book, Places of Truth – Journeys into Sacred Wilderness, we were intrigued by his notion of there being seven stages to a pilgrimage.

We’d like to summarize them here and add our own thoughts with respect to van life. After all, our pilgrimages have been made in our van, Cree.

So let’s look at these seven stages in more detail…

Stage 1: involves feeling what it means to be a pilgrim and how different this is from just travelling from A to B

If we are lost in our thoughts we are devoid of the immersive ‘felt-experience’ that a pilgrimage offers. This is the first challenge, if you like, of being a pilgrim.

It’s about learning to be present on the journey so that you can feel the process rather than just intellectualize it. Otherwise, the pilgrimage will be experienced only retrospectively, when you look back at the photos you’ve taken.

When you’re amidst the standing stones at Avebury, or high up on Glastonbury Tor, or standing on St Cuthbert’s tiny hermitage on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, you owe it to yourself to be fully present!

Stage 2: reading the signs; seeing that journeys are entities in themselves and that they take on a life of their own

It’s become a well worn cliche now but it’s absolutely true: it’s all about the journey. This reminds us of an old Zen story…

The Zen Master and the Disciple

Once upon a time in a far away land a young man started out on a long journey into the mountains. He’d heard that a Zen Master lived in a remote cave and he was desperate to meet him and ask a single question.

The journey took him several weeks, travelling mostly on foot and sometimes on a mule if he was lucky, and when he finally arrived he asked for an audience with the Master.

“Master,” asked the young man, “It is a great honour to meet you but there is one question I must ask before anything else…”

“Go on,” indicated the master, with a slight nod of his head.

“How long will it take me to achieve enlightenment and become a master like yourself?”

“Mmm,” thought the master, “About ten years of daily practice.”

“Ten years? That’s an awfully long time,” gasped the man. “What if I practice twice as hard and for twice the amount of hours every day?”

“Then it will take you twenty years!” declared the master, looking right into the man’s eyes.

“But how come? If I study and practice twice as hard, surely I can achieve my goal in half the time?”

“No…it doesn’t work like that,” continued the master, “for, if you have one eye on the destination you only have one eye to watch and learn all you need about the journey itself.”

Old Japanese picture showing Zen master and disciple in the mountains

So, what do you notice along the way? Are your eyes open? Are you open to life showing you possible detours or unexplored avenues?

This is the thing about pilgrimages in a van; you can end up in some surprising places – and sometimes dead ends – as if life is trying to teach you something.

Stage 3: becoming aware of one’s companions

Who are you travelling with? What do these people mean to you? How did they come into your life? What gifts do they bring to your life? What lessons are you learning together?

On Armistice Day, 2018, at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk, we witnessed the ritual lighting of the beacon to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

We stood in the village square amongst hundreds of others, listening to stories and poems about those who had sacrificed their lives. Their memories live on; they are still our companions.

Stage 4: relates to the history; the story we are witnessing and its social, political, and spiritual implications.

What is the story behind the pilgrimage you are on?

When we walked to Canterbury Cathedral along the Pilgrims’ Way we dived deeply into the story of Thomas Beckett and his martyrdom. Come Evensong, we were fortunate enough to sit right by the candle that marks the place of his tomb before the reformation.

Ceiling inside Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
One of the magnificent ceilings inside Canterbury Cathedral

Stage 5: is about losing our role as observer and becoming part of the landscape, part of the story

This is a major challenge on a pilgrimage. How do we viscerally connect to the landscape and environment and become part of the story? How do we move beyond merely witnessing a journey or the destination itself and become part of it?

What’s called for here is getting out of your head! To put aside your everyday worries, concerns, inner dialogues – pressing the pause button – and living in the eternal now. But this is not an easy task!

How is it done? Meditation? Drink? Drugs? Fasting? Yoga? Walking?

The pilgrimage itself should become the ‘liminal space’ that creates an altered state within you, where your soul starts to re-awaken.

Stage 6: leads to a more visionary appreciation of the land, seeing it as a place where heaven and earth touch. Here we are seeing with the eyes of spirit

Like looking at and fully appreciating great works of art, to get the most from a pilgrimage you need to approach it in a certain way, an altered state if you like, similar to a state of reverie.

In this more ‘soul-conscious state’ you are free of the egoic mind with all its old personal stories and agendas. You are, instead, more connected to the bigger story of the pilgrimage itself.

When the soul awakens on a pilgrimage you really do see with different eyes, as taught by Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now – seeing how the mystics see.

view of Glastonbury from the Tor at dusk
View of Glastonbury from the Tor

Stage 7: affirmation that we are all God’s people, whatever we understand by that phrase

Deep down we are all spiritual people and pilgrimage is a way of opening ourselves up to a larger reality which is both confronting and revealing.

We won’t get caught up here in a discussion of what ‘spiritual’ means, but to our minds it’s really about refining one’s perceptions of reality and expanding one’s consciousness.

And this is what pilgrimage is about. Getting out of the ‘everyday’, not as a means of escape, but as a means of reconnecting to something eternal, both inside and outside of ourselves. Call it God if you will.

Maybe pilgrimage, like religion, is ultimately about coming home to ourselves.

We’d love to hear of any pilgrimages you’ve made in your van!

Where have you been? What was it about the journey that made it ‘spiritual’? Did it change you in some way?

And what pilgrimages and sacred places would you recommend we take next in our van?

Please get in touch with us or share your stories in the comments section below.


* Cited on https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/what-is-a-pilgrimage. The full quote is: “A devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot or on horseback, toward a specific destination of significance. It is an inherently transient experience, removing the participant from his or her home environment and identity. The means or motivations in undertaking a pilgrimage might vary, but the act, however performed, blends the physical and the spiritual into a unified experience.”

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