Whether it’s Mecca, Santiago di Compostela or the Old Bull and Bush down the High Street, a pilgrimage has a number of common elements. They’re walks with purpose, driven by a desire to reach an end point which will have emotional spiritual or psychological significance. Whilst the end point is the whole point of the pilgrimage, people will also remark on the journey they took to get there: it’s not just the product, they exclaim, but the process too! It’s about the journey as well as the destination! It’s as much about the anticipation of redemption as it is feeling redeemed.
It’s about recognising, as per all ancestral myths and good blockbuster films that you’re about to embark on a three act structure of your very own: the set up and getting there, the being there and then the final winding down and return from whence you came. You are about to become the hero in your very own heroic adventure. Joseph Campbell (he of The Hero with 1000 Faces) would be proud of you.
So what marks out a mini-pilgrimage from the high caffeine pilgrimage? The set up will be one distinguishing mark. If I want to travel to Santiago in order to experience the Way of St. James, then I will need to spend months planning an itinerary. I will need to book taxis, trains, boats and planes unless I’m a real stoic and undertake to make the whole journey by foot. Including the section that would involve crossing the English Channel.
This planning will take for ever and almost certainly eat up three year’s salary. It will involve informing the family, the neighbours, the cat and the dog that you are about to embark on a long perilous journey after which life will never be the same ever again. Whilst the family might just shrug this off as another middle life crisis fuelled by too many pints from the Old Bull and Bush which you’ll soon sober up from, the cat and the dog will look at you in complete disinterest (cat) and utterly distraught (dog).
The beauty of the mini-pilgrimage however is that it needs little in the way of planning apart from figuring out when the next bus leaves town. If you have a bus pass it will cost you nothing. If you have a loaf in the larder, you can even make your own sandwiches to take en route. You can, if you are so inclined, take the dog with you, leave enough in a bowl to feed the cat and tell the family that you’re just popping out for a bit and will be back soon. No-one will have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Assuming they heard you in the first place.
The second distinguishing mark of the mini-pilgrimage is the act of being there, once you’ve arrived at your ultimate destination. In the full fat, high caffeine pilgrimage, you will have travelled with hundreds and thousands of people of all different shapes and sizes. As you get nearer to your destination, you will become alarmed about how many more people had exactly the same idea as you all those years ago and experience that utterly devastating moment of realising that you are but an ant in the whole of human experience, not worth a micro-bean of any-ones’ attention, apart from the street vendor who is trying to sell you some inexplicable goods at exorbitant prices. You can be sure that on the proper pilgrimage, that not only you and thousands like you have crossed land, sea and air to get to this sacred place – but that hundreds of sellers of pop, trinkets and endearing slinky things that fall apart as soon as you put them in holy water have also found their way to the holy place that is your final destination.
The pilgrimage vendors know a good crowd when they see one and they will bask in the full knowledge that once your pilgrimage has been attained, they will count up their proceeds, plan for this year’s summer holiday for their whole family in the Maldives and feel safe in the knowledge that this has been secured for the best possible reason: your salvation.
The beauty of the mini-pilgrimage of course is that given its impromptu set up, the ignorance of your nearest and dearest (apart from the dog) and the fact that you can jump on a bus pretty much any time of day, means that no-one is there to meet you at the other end to greet you with trinkets, inhalers or funny little glow sticks that go bump in the night. You will be left alone with your sacred moment, able to share it just with the site itself; and of course your dog, should he or she have lasted the whole bus journey without crashing out due to heat exhaustion.
And finally, the act that differentiates the mini-pilgrimage from the full fat, high caffeine, full spiritual make over pilgrimage is the return home. Campbell calls this the return to the human world and it’s marked by various moments; a comic flight, a crashing down to earth, a huge sense of anti-climax and even bigger questions of what was it all about in the first place? Why did you ever consider that a five month walk to Santiago de Compostela would answer the questions that were gnawing away at your soul ever since you tipped over 40 and realised there were probably less birthdays still to have than you have had already?
These big existential questions of course lead to a mental climate in which another pilgrimage beckons: bigger, better and more authentic than the first one of course. That’s the main problem with the proper pilgrimage. It demands you ask even more questions which can only be answered by yet bigger pilgrimages. Knowing the answers of yesteryear are no use: what the next pilgrimage has to answer are the questions of tomorrow. So you set about your next journey, this time to the North Pole in mid January in 2022.
The mini-pilgrimage is thankfully the antidote to this tendency for pilgrimage dependency. Given it only took you a few hours to get there; that you weren’t stripped of your goods and chattels by holiday-hungry vendors and their charming children and that your dog is still looking adoringly at you, the beauty of the return from the mini-pilgrimage is that you can be back home in time for tea, settle back down in front of the TV and thank your lucky stars that you’ll be ready for work in the morning without anyone noticing you’ve been away. If everything goes according to plan, you can be back in the Old Bull and Bush before closing time for one last swift one, before the questions of what on earth you thought you were doing earlier start flooding back in.
Whilst Mecca and Santiago de Compostela clearly have a lot going for them in terms of significant spiritual and psychological make-overs, there’s nothing quite like a mini-pilgrimage to the Old Bull and Bush to allay your thirst for spiritual satisfaction. Especially if it’s got ‘Single Malt’ on the side of the bottle.