Shells and Pilgrimage

An introduction to pilgrimage by Revd Julie Howell

Pilgrimage provides the opportunity to step out of the non-stop busyness of our lives, to seek a time of quiet and reflection. It allows time for a different pace, to slow down, breath more deeply and appreciate our surroundings.

In the ordinary sense, pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a sacred place. From its earliest times, people, have been drawn to certain places where they have felt that the gap between heaven and earth are slightly less – ‘thin places’. Pilgrimage has become popular in the last 20 years for peoples and ages of those with a faith and none.

Pilgrimage, like any journey, is often planned, has a beginning and an end, a destination but and it may lead to others journeys and experiences, never imagined or expected!

If you think it is just for walkers you would be wrong. A pilgrimage can be taken from the armchair of your lounge, around your home, your garden or anywhere outside. A number of online and actual pilgrimages are planned (social distancing and restricted numbers adhered to).

What to expect?

Well, come with an open heart and expect nothing!

The best way to experience a sense of one’s own self and the presence of God is to do so in silence, allowing just your own inner voice, the rhythm of your breathing, to take over your attention.

Setting off

Luke 9.1-3 “Take nothing with you for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt

Have you heard the expressions “travelling light”? When embarking on a journey, it is wise not to carry too much ‘stuff’! Spend time thinking about how much we want to take with us, carry on this pilgrimage? By far the most important thing is not the physical items for the journey (although important to kept fed, watered and sheltered from rain etc) but our mental attitude and what we want to bring during this time. How many of us feel burdened down by things that are heavy and make any journey more tedious? Things that make us feel anxious, fearful, that take up all of our mental thinking time? And what of the material things we seem attached to and depend upon? These last six months have been very challenging for many for a whole host of reasons. We have an opportunity to think carefully about this time, and how we are feeling.

Letting Go

A pilgrimage allows us to reflect on the attitudes and prejudices that we carry with us on our journey through life. Some of these are unnecessary and difficult to travel with. There will be an opportunity during the day to think about what is important in our lives, our journeys, what can we shed, lay down, and “let go”  of in order to make the journey easier. To think about those things that slow us down, hold us back, that are heavy and overwhelming at times.

Discarding these things can make the journey lighter. Think about what might represent something you wish to let go, put down. Perhaps, a stone, or stones from your garden, a twig from a tree or a flower could represent what you wish to let go.

It is our intention to have a place set aside, in either church so that all of our stones or other bits and pieces maybe left, there…let go of.

The journey

Matthew 6.31-34 “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself, Each day has enough troubles of its own”

The landscapes and places around our homes, our neighbourhood are very familiar to us. But taking a journey into another room, another part of the garden, another landscape may not be so familiar.

Take time, to take in the differences. What are your eyes drawn to and why? Try to use all your senses, what are the smells, sights, sounds? How does your body react to these new experiences and senses? Many of us find in all the busyness of life we cannot be open and aware of subtle differences that may present themselves.

Try to reconnect with your surroundings, a new landscape, with a renewed sense of wonder and awe, not to mention surprise! It may be a photo, a memento, that takes you part to a past event, of better times. It maybe the beauty of a flower, or a majestic looking tree, that has stood for hundreds of years. Take time to appreciate how you are feeling, and the intensity of the experience.

Taking Up

How can I know the way?

Do not let your hearts be troubled I go to prepare a place for you. You will know the way to the place where I am going. Jesus answered: “I am the way and the truth and the life” From John 14.

As part of the day, we will be offering each participant a scallop shell – the traditional sign of a pilgrim.

The scallop shell, is the symbol of baptism in Christianity.  The baptismal font is often shaped like a scallop or decorated with one.  The dish used by priests to pour water over the heads of those in baptism is often scallop-shaped. 

The scallop, too, is the symbol for the Apostle James the Greater.  St. James used the scallop shell during his pilgrimage to beg for food and water.  Even the poorest people could fill the small shell, so he always found help along his way.  Later, followers of St. James wore the scallop-shell symbol on their hats and clothes and it became the symbol of pilgrimage. This is still the case today. This symbol is now synonymous with the famous pilgrimage route in Northern Spain the Camino de Santiago. But the scallop shell has one more meaning, a metaphorical one. It is considered that its lines represent the different routes pilgrims take to arrive at the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.

Part of the day is to consider your own heart, what you need to experience that stillness, that wholeness. It maybe as part of your reflection, you decide that you need to set aside more time for quiet and stillness in order to feel nourished. It maybe you need to reconnect with someone or something in nature. Consider what has been important in your life how relationships have been shaped, by the actions of others and yourself. How your actions shape the environment around you.

The scallop shell can be a reminder of the need to carve out that time or to reconnect.  The scallop shell may be that reminder of the need to take up, something, a visual reminder of your commitment.  This may lead to a sense of peace, or healing and joy.