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Pigrimage in Glastonbury Today

In the past the pattern of Pilgrimage was perfectty clear - What is it like today  ?  It's the

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 but how well are they being served?

The methods that a modern pilgrim uses to follow a pilgrimage are completely different form 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 set 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 PRC will need to spell out quite clearly on its web site the value and rewards of a journey to a distant sacred goal These include the transformative energies of the sacred site, the answers to questions, and the possibility of healing and spiritual guidance. But the journey is not all seriousness – it should also be enjoyable and fun.

 The Pilgrimage destination -mThere 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.

 The potential pilgrim will investigate a number of possible destinations for their pilgrimage. The PRC, working with the Glastonbury web sites, needs to present a clear, comprehensive and realistic picture of the special qualities of Glastonbury as a pilgrimage destination.

 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. The PRC will need to build up a data base of such contacts

 Companions on the Way - In the past there would often have been companions on the way on any pilgrimage. It would be helpful if the PRC was able to put prospective pilgrims in touch with others individuals or groups who might be visiting at the same time.

 Planning  - The journey needs planning and in the past there would have an established pattern that could be followed. The PRC will need to ensure that comprehensive information on planning the journey is available on one or other of the local web sites.

 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. Nowadays the journey is usually by plane, train or car. It might be an idea for the PRC to think about planning ways of facilitating the pilgrim being able to walk the last few miles to Glastonbury on foot. Luggage could be transported separately. Walking towards the Tor would be an inspiring way of completing the pilgrimage journey

 Servers on the Way - In the past, an essential part of every pilgrimage was the role played by those who made the journey possible – the guides, innkeepers and escorts in dangerous places. Today the needs are the same but mass tourism means that many of the services needed are already in place – and the internet means that the pilgrim is able to obtain very comprehensive information on their destination and how to get there. But in any such journey there will be synchronous events and meetings that will form an essential part of the experience for the aware traveller. Part of the task of the PRC will be to make potential pilgrims aware of the importance of the journey and the experiences which they have along the way.

 Welcome - In the present day established centres of pilgrimage there is always a place where pilgrims are welcomed. In a centre like Santiago, which is honouring a Christian saint, St James, the specific object of the pilgrimage is to visit the tomb of St James in the cathedral. The first port of call of the arriving pilgrim is the reception centre where they are helped to find accommodation , directed to the tomb of St. James, told the hours of services and given spiritual help and guidance where required. The pilgrim is encouraged by seeing, in the entrance hall, a large heap of crutches and walking sticks no longer needed by pilgrims who have completed their mission!

 The pilgrim is supported by advice and help throughout their stay. Once the pilgrim has visited the tomb of St James, and carried out the simple ceremony of honouring the saint, then the pilgrimage has been completed. There is a clear understanding that the objective has been achieved.

 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. The pilgrim needs information on the basic amenities of the place and this can effectively be supplied by the local Tourist Information Centre (TIC). But the pilgrim has needs that the tourist does not. They will be looking for information specific to their own area of spiritual interest, they will want accommodation with specific amenities and they will want to meet people with similar interests.

 They will also be looking for the place where, once visited, they can feel that their journey has been completed. By the very nature of these new centres, there will be people around who can provide all the help and guidance which each pilgrim needs, but it may well take some time to find these people. The pilgrim who can only spare a few days at the destination may never find these people and may find their visit very frustrating and unsatisfactory. They are seeking very esoteric information.

The TIC iprovides information on historical and archaeological facts. In addition, there is now a Pilgrim Reception Centre (PRC),  that shares premisser in the Abbey Car Park with theTIC and  provides a contemporary version of the service that would, in the past, have been provided by the gate-keeping monk of the Abbey .

The PRC gives information on the sacred places and the transformative process that may be experienced whilst the pilgrim is inn the town. It also has a sensitive and intuitive understanding of the needs of each individual pilgrim so that suggestions can be made upon what might be the most appropriate program for that specific individual. The pilgrim’s own intuition enables them to select what is right for them.

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 now a contemporary version of all these facilities but instead of being supplied by one organisation they are supplied by many individual teachers, healers, artists and craftspeople. The PRC has an understanding of these services so that the pilgrim can be helped to find what is of most interest to them.

The Keepers of the sacred place - Historically every sacred space has had its keepers. They may have been physical people or spirit guardians. They would be dedicated to maintaining the fabric of the place – keeping the springs clear and the water flowing and caring for the sacred relics. They would ensure that the environs were peaceful and allowed the pilgrims to approach the inner shrine in a suitable manner and would have arranged the ceremonies that that allowed the resident spirit to be properly honoured. Spiritual help was given where needed and instruction given on the special features of the place. The keepers would have been servants of the spirit of the place and honoured for their Holy Duty and they would have been sustained by the tithes and gifts of the visiting pilgrims. In the case of centres of pilgrimage honoured by an established religion, the keepers would often be the monks or nuns of a local by monastery. In other places they would be the priests or priestesses of the Temple or spring.

 Some of the sacred sites of Glastonbury, such as Chalice Well, already have caring groups looking after them. 

Ceremony in the Sacred Place - In a centre such as Santiago, there is a specific object to the pilgrimage. In this particular case it is to take part in a service in the cathedral and to touch the great statue of on the tomb of St James.

 In the past, in the Abbey, there would have been a ceremony that would be the high point of the pilgrimage. It might be praying in a chapel or perhaps an all-night vigil beside a particularly holy relic.

 Strangely enough, there is no such ceremony that is recognised as completing a pilgrimage to Glastonbury.  There is a growing awareness that such a ritual or ceremony would be a proper completion of a pilgrimage. A number of groups are currently engaged in researching pilgrimage walks and other ceremonies that might be incorporated into a collection of what might be called ‘Completions’.

 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.

The Return - On the return journey, the pilgrim would have felt full of the spiritual energy of the place which had been visited and would have the insights gained to accompany them on the long walk home. The days spent walking back would give time for reflection and thoughts upon how to integrate this new understanding into their every day life. Perhaps it would be helpful to work out ways in which the pilgrim could take slightly longer than usual over the return journey to allow time for introspect 

It would also be helpful to establish ways in which the returning pilgrim could keep in contact with Glastonbury. Some form of Glastonbury Pilgrim web chat group might be useful. Chalice Well has set up such a group which seems to be well supported.

Paying for the services received - These services to pilgrims take time and money to provide. In the past pilgrims were expected to give generously to the Abbey in exchange for the facilities offered. It was accepted that these gifts were in proportion to the wealth of the pilgrim. Now we do not have a centralised Abbey. Some way has to be found to finance these services to pilgrims. This may be by donations from local friends, businesses and visiting pilgrims or by the sale of acceptable products and services at an acceptable cost.

Serving the pilgrim - It is interesting that, despite the growing number of pilgrim visitors, only the independent, voluntary, PRC  offers a service specifically aimed at these people..  

 The reason for this seems to be two fold. The conventional Town has the resources to support such a scheme but does not understand the importance of pilgrim visitors. On the other hand the Alternative community fully understands the need of pilgrims and appreciates their importance to the economy of the town but, up until now, has not had the resources to fullysupport such a service.