Pigrimage in Glastonbury Today
In the past the pattern of Pilgrimage was perfectly clear - What is it today ?
There are now indications that the percentage of visitors that could be said to be pilgrims at least equals that of conventional tourists and it may well are that the majority of visitors are now pilgrims. The Civic Trust report of 1996 estimated that pilgrim visitors to Glastonbury were 41% of the visitor total. The Glastonbury Community Development Trust's survey of 1994 was produced from questionnaires competed by a representative cross section of residents from all parts of the town. No visitors were questioned, but the views of the residents views were summarised as follows:
“The volume of answers given indicates that Glastonbury’s attractions cannot be limited to a single “unique selling point”. On balance, the majority of residents believe that visitors are mostly brought to Glastonbury by its many spiritual, religious, historical and New Age attractions. The full range of attractions should be promoted more fully in marketing the town”
Perhaps the most surprising answers were to the question “What brings visitors to Glastonbury”. Of the residents questioned, 85% said ‘the Goddess’ and 81% said the Abbey. Nearly all the other responses gave reasons that could be said to be of a pilgrimage type. The more conventional reason for attracting visitors came low down the list – ‘the countryside’ was only 21% and ‘Attractive small town’ 18%. It has become increasingly clear that Glastonbury is now accepted as one of the world's great centres of pilgrimage by spiritually aware people overseas. This view is not widely held in Britain and, as we have seen, certainly not universally held in Glastonbury.
The numbers are increasing - how are they being served?
The methods that a modern pilgrim uses to follow a pilgrimage are different from those followed in the Middle Ages - but the process itself remains the same. Let us look at these stages.
Deciding upon a pilgrimage - Once there was an established custom for pilgrimage. Nowadays this custom is not so clear. The potential pilgrim will either respond to the suggestion of a friend or receive their own intuitive ‘Call’ to go on such a journey. The first response to this idea will be to find out more about how one sets about a pilgrimage – and what is the purpose of such a journey?
The Purpose - Essentially a pilgrimage consists of a journey, frequently in the company of others - to a place that is accepted as sacred - an honouring of the sacred place with some form of ceremony - and a return to one’s home. The purpose of the journey is one of spiritual growth and transformation. The rewards for such a journey include the transformative energies of the sacred site, the possibility of healing and spiritual guidance. But the journey is not all seriousness – it should also be enjoyable and fun.
The Pilgrimage destination -There needs to be a destination that is worthy of the journey. Classically, the destination was one that was accepted as a Holy place by one of the established religions such as Mecca for Muslims; Lourdes and Santiago de Compestella for Catholics; Canterbury for Anglicans; Benares for Hindus.
But today, for people who are not followers of an established religion, the destination needs to be a place which they feel will enable them to find their own spirit within. By attuning to the Spirit of the Place, the pilgrim will be guided to an understanding of their own purpose in life and the way in which they can find true fulfilment. Such a place may well not be accepted as one of the established places of pilgrimage and would include many stone circles and sacred springs found throughout Europe and the British Isles. Glastonbury is accepted as having this special energy - something quite independent of its place as centre of Christian pilgrimage.
Blessing the Journey - In the middle Ages, having decided upon a place of pilgrimage, it would be usual for the pilgrim to obtain the blessing of the local parish priest upon the pilgrimage. Today this may no longer be appropriate but it would be helpful for the prospective pilgrim to be able to talk to others who had made the journey and felt that they had benefited from it.
Companions on the Way - In the past there would often have been companions on the way on any pilgrimage. The pilgrim will ideally locate companions for the journey.
The Journey - The journey to the sacred destination has always been seen as an important part of the whole. We have many tales of pilgrimages from the past including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. In the middle ages the pilgrimage journey was a long one, on foot or horse, and took many days. It was seen not only as a sacred journey but as a holiday and fun. The preparation for the journey, the company on the way, the nights spent at wayside inns, were all a vital part of the whole. It gave the pilgrim an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of themselves as individuals and how they related to others. The importance of this journey was recognised by the setting up of a formalised route for the journey. On the pilgrimage way across Europe to Santiago in Spain, small monasteries were set, up a day’s journey apart, for the rest and refreshment of pilgrims.
Today pilgrimages tend to be less rigidly planned but the purpose remains the same – to journey in a meaningful and fully aware manner to our destination – for much can be learned upon the journey.
Support - All the internationally known places of pilgrimage have a reception centre specialising in the specific material and spiritual needs of the visiting pilgrim. But in these places the task is relatively straightforward in that all the pilgrims are of one belief and only services appropriate to this belief are required.
In the new centres of non-denominational pilgrimage, and Glastonbury is one, the task is more complex. We now have a visitor centre equipped to advise people on all aspects of their visit. See the information on our links page.
Facilities available at the Abbey - The Abbey was a huge working monastery but sincere pilgrims were welcomed into the life of the monks to share in their life for a few days. Every conceivable facility needed by the pilgrim was available including food and lodging, spiritual support, one-to-one guidance and quiet places for prayer and meditation. Also available was the possibility of participating in the services in the Abbey church, having access to the Library, receiving instruction in the history of the Abbey and spiritual counselling, and joining the monks in their work in illustrating books and manufacturing artefacts.
There is a contemporary version of these facilities but instead of being supplied by one organisation they are supplied by many individual teachers, healers, artists and craftspeople.
A Memento of the Journey - The pilgrim would have expected to be able to purchase a souvenir of his pilgrimage both as a reminder of his visit and as evidence to show his friends. Glastonbury now has many shops offering a wide range of spiritual books and artefacts. Maybe some articles and books designed specifically for pilgrims would be useful.