Pilgrimage: A Journey Towards Sunrise

On the Go

Rashid writes about his walk along the ancient Michael-Mary’s ley line in England.

Walking, eating, sleeping, walking. It’s what our bodies love to do – what they’re made for. Walking clears the head, allows the restless mind to rest, the heart to open and receive the world.

Nine of us set out to walk a section of the Michael-Mary ley line. It is an ancient route of pilgrimage that rides exactly on the angle of the rising sun on May Day. Starting from the western tip of Cornwall, it runs about the longest distance that it’s possible to draw a straight line across England. It ends at Hopton on the Suffolk coast.

Map St. Michaels Way

Zoom map

Ley lines are the geomagnetic lines of energy below the ground. Like water and most minerals they are detectable by dowsers, and, it seems, were known to our more simple ancestors.

The Michael-Mary ley line is made up of two interweaving flows that link stone circles, churches, sacred wells and standing stones, old prehistoric drover’s tracks and Iron Age forts. It links St. Michaels Mount with Glastonbury Tor, Avebury, Royston Cave, Wauluds Bank, the Icknield Way and Bury St Edmonds.

We were unholy pilgrims on spiritual – not necessarily religious – business. Richard was our guide. He was the parent and prime-mover of this exploit too, inspired by Broadhurst and Miller’s book The Sun and the Serpent. He invited us to co-create with him an experiment in meditation, a walk through ancient Britain. Richard was clear to set the tone for us – silence during walking as a meditation and no alcohol. He had also done a lot of work in preparation. He learned the tangled ways of English footpaths, arranged the camping grounds, bought a van to cook in and to carry all our heavy camping gear, engaged a sympathetic driver. He found us on the internet and by word of mouth.

Carns les Boel

Our starting point was a standing stone, Carn les Boel. It is a granite presence erected many thousand years ago on cliffs that hold – and hold back – the surging Atlantic Ocean.

The stone is the size of a small up-ended hatchback – though many times its weight.

The nine of us, four women, five men, of different ages and different backgrounds, were mostly strangers to each other. The words ‘silence’ and ‘meditation’ had brought me to this place.

We were headed towards the rising sun, towards renewal, towards an inner rebirth.

Close by the standing stone we stood a while, each one of us alone. On three sides of us was ocean; green, turquoise, ultramarine fading into greyish blue. The faintest shadows in the distance were the Isles of Scilly. The sun was in and out of clouds and a harsh wind fingered us.

We gathered in a circle: at our feet, orange coloured lichens and small, pink, star-shaped flowers growing out of granite rock. Now an emblematic buzzard spiralled overhead. Richard our guide acknowledged its presence, perhaps as his guide, and placed a heart shaped stone in the circle. We shared briefly our feelings, expectations and anxieties. Then we were off on Pilgrimage.

Orange lichenOf the deeper significance of our pilgrimage there is nothing to record. And this is my record.

We walked in silence and in single file up curving sunken lanes. The banks on either side of us were vivid with cow-parsley, red campion, bluebells and a scattering of speckled butterflies. Larks sang overhead. Our path led up and up and up towards a church dedicated to an Irish Saint of the sixth century. So high is the tower it has been used for centuries by shipping as a point of navigation. The church is spacious, quiet. A fifteenth century oak rood screen – carved with the scallop symbol of the mediaeval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – reminded us of timeless, nameless seekers gone before. Good it was to sit out of the wind and rest the legs after such a lengthy uphill start.

In early afternoon we were to visit a sacred well. At the gate into the field, we were met by warnings that a swarm of bees had settled in a bush by the entrance to the well.

Along the coast from Carns les Boel

Now bees are my passion and my love. I tend half a dozen hives in our orchard at home. A swarm is a colony’s way of reproducing itself, like an amoeba dividing. The old queen leaves the hive to a new queen still in her cell. She takes half the worker bees with her. From a temporary resting site, scouts go forth to look for a hollow tree, a sheltered cave, an unused chimney. Before leaving the old hive, the bees have filled their stomachs full of honey in preparation for some homeless days. It is now they are most passive. The sound of a swarm is a song of serenity. The swarm can be handled carefully and with impunity.

In the late afternoon sun we walked down the meadow to where the well nestled in a curtain of well grown hawthorn bushes. And there, at head height, hung the glistening, pulsing pouch of twenty thousand bees.

“Bees have both an individual and a collective intelligence,” I responded in answer to questions. “A worker can find her way out of a maze and as a group they can share out jobs and act as one. For me this is one of the essential miracles of bees and one that we can learn from; to be one and to be many.”

We drank and filled our water bottles and lay back in the sun, talking bees for half an hour. I pointed out a scout bee dancing her vibrating dance to indicate a possible new home. One of the pilgrims asked for volunteers and had four of us dancing a simple geometrical dance. We were becoming a collective.

All day and the following morning we walked and walked. Before setting out anew we gathered in a circle for silence or an observation or request, a story or a joke. Someone read an anecdote from the life of the Eternal Fool, Mullah Nasruddin.

The Mullah’s father told Nasruddin, ‘When I die you will take over the care and maintenance of this shrine and the income from it. So go out now and explore the wider world’.

Nasruddin took the old family donkey and travelled through Lebanon and Palestine into Egypt then through Jordan and the Persian empire into Afghanistan. There, on a high pass in the mountains, his old donkey gave up the ghost. Nasruddin was grief-stricken. He buried the animal with much ceremony but for days he could only sit weeping and moaning beside the mound of earth.

Passers-by took pity on him, brought him food and warm clothing, left him money. From all around people who heard of his sorrow and devotion came to offer support and alms. In time a rich man had a shrine built beside the Mullah, other rich men built him a house and donated him land. Far and wide his fame spread as a devotee and ascetic. Pilgrims came in their thousands. Eventually his old father heard of the rare phenomenon and travelled to see him. Mullah Nasruddin told him the story of the sad loss of his donkey. “How extraordinary,” exclaimed the old man “That is exactly how our family shrine started with my old donkey.”

We walked down unused bye-roads, through twisting emerald lanes and fields of monoculture maize, across rich meadows home to curious cows. With the rhythmic swish of tall bent grasses on the boots, the smell of new mown hay, the dappled light of wooded lanes and the colourless call of doves, our bodies began to find their natural pace and our minds to slow their endless chat.

Quay Street, PenzanceSometime on the second day, this tentative collective was temporarily in tatters.

Our path had led through the town of Penzance. We straggled. We lost ourselves and each other; in desires and fears. Some of us wanted a coffee, some to do shopping, others to press right on, others couldn’t decide. We lost contact. Two of us were standing with Richard at the top of the High Street. We saw a strange figure, part scare-crow, part desert father straggling up towards us. He was our man, a respectable university professor; and he was our mirror. We could see that within such a short space of time we had lost our fit with social norms, possessions, schedules and the bottom line, yet had not quite discovered our freedom from them.

St. Mary's in Penzance

The fragmentation carried on well out of town along the coastal path until, perforce, we had to have a meeting on a distant beach. Again we had lost each other and ourselves.

The wading through ‘civilization’ had aroused our egos; pilgrimage was reclaiming us to nature and simplicity.

The meeting was intense and urgent. As the waves lapped closer and we scuttled closer to the cliff, each shared their reason for embarking on this venture. We reaffirmed our need for both individual and collective responsibility: we exchanged mobile phone numbers and agreed to make sure that the one behind you was in sight when you reached a fork or turning on the trail. We escaped being cut off by the stubborn tide and started inland with recharged energy and promise.

That day my boots gave up on me. My long time, sturdy, comfortable, dependable boots detached their uppers from the sole. I grieved. My companions suggested that I bury them and sit beside the mound mourning them. As fellow pilgrims they would see me right.

But next day at dawn we folded up the tents, stood in a circle, listened to another story and moved off. The wind was keen that day; I missed the chance of my very own shrine. As one friend said, “If we stand in this circle much longer, we’ll freeze and become another stone circle.”

Stithians Church

We met that morning at a Norman church, a tipsy leaning menhir, a charm of finches looping up the lane ahead of us, a high pass ruled by buzzards. We tacked downhill through a valley of chrome green corduroy potato crops, through meadows waiting to be mown, then dropped down into woods of ash and sycamore: mind slowly comes to rest and the legs walk by themselves.

Walk, eat, sleep, walk. Wherever we are, here we are. Eternally present our future slides into our past. A tin miner’s chimney, glimpsed small and far ahead, becomes larger and larger, stands close to us, is lost and reappears behind us small and far away. Time fades with mind. The clock that sets in motion measurement and problems is discarded. Well not the clock itself. It is the mind that plans, sets goals, compares performances, fears other people’s judgements. Now, with the mind at rest, the trees slide by on either side, the ground slopes up or down, the flowers arrange themselves in patterns of delight, the legs walk by themselves. This is meditation, this is pilgrimage.

One pilgrim said to me that evening, “When people ask me how I came to meditation, I tell them in my early years I had been a long distance runner. Then I knew what meditation was before I ever heard the word.”

What is meditation? It is walking without legs, flying without wings? It is going nowhere because there is nowhere to go? It is losing ourselves to find our abiding selves?

Somewhere on this pilgrimage we had to cross a main A road that links the South-West to the rest of England. We stood and watched the dragon cars and coaches, vans and trucks howl by at sixty, seventy miles per hour. What is the hurry? I asked myself – I who drive ten thousand miles each year. What is so urgent? Why do we need to travel with such haste when we could be walking at three miles per hour?

The West has explored and conquered the outer world in many of its varied forms creating all the wonders of the post industrial age. On the other hand the East has put its brightest and its best into exploring the inner world. Despite its current tilt to out-consume the West, it has nevertheless created the language and the maps to navigate the inner world of spirit. Doesn’t this suggest the root cause of our global breakdown, our world-wide schizophrenia?

St. Michael's Mount

As the sage Osho has asked, “Why chose one against the other? The New Man will live both the material richness and of this earth and the spiritual richness of a Buddha?”

St. Michael’s Mount is an iconic church and castle on an island in the sea connected by a causeway to the land at low tide. It has almost forgotten its sacred character. It has been institutionalised, westernised. The spirit of the place has been vacuum packed to market to the tourists. Tourists are not pilgrims, nor pilgrims tourists. “Each man kills the things he loves…some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word.”

We arrived there at nine o’clock on a full moon blustery evening. We walked the causeway speared by rods of horizontal icy rain. We were met by locked gates, warning notices, quaint tea rooms and artful reminders of the past. Nevertheless, the National Trust could not completely repress the exhilaration and surge of energy that arose in us that darkling night.

Causeway approaching St. Michael's Mount

Pilgrimage is both a journey on a way made sacred and too, it is a journey to the deepest levels of our being. Perhaps the ground itself is not as important as the fact of walking. The walking itself quietens the mind. All ground is sacred and is largely desecrated. We walk in wild places to re-member the wild in ourselves, to hear again the soft voice within. It is wordless, timeless, without boundaries. It is consciousness itself. It recognises all that is as one organic whole.

Quantum physics says, “There’s no such thing as a thing.” This is the truth as known through meditation. The meditator comes to know that all of nature – not only birds and animals and insects but trees and grasses, rocks and earth – all of nature is alive, is sentient, remembers and communicates. Not through the mind but through the silent heart. Not with words but with being.

We live unconscious lives, unconscious of the glory and the unity we are. Meditation is the key to re-open that forgotten door to consciousness. When I, with my western mind, first came to meditation I couldn’t do it. I could not step back from my monkey mind, I could not rest. Only after trying meditations precisely devised for Westerners by Osho could I begin to find tranquillity, find the richness of the other world that’s hidden in this world. Pilgrimage in silence is a meditation we westerners can use. As all the wise men say – the journey is the destination. Training for the pilgrimage is also pilgrimage. The journey never began and never ends.

Through all recorded history there have been pilgrimages. Now, while religions are in decline word-wide, along with all the other global institutions, pilgrimages are on the rise. The thirty nine most popular sites of all religions are seeing over 200 million visitors each year. It looks as though pilgrimage is giving people something that religions are not. For us Westerners who have no tradition of meditation, perhaps walking in nature, immersion in the harmony of nature, is a step towards the essential inner exploration.

Pilgrimage gives expression to our longing for grace and for rebirth. The walking and the fellowship return us to our natural state. We become who we truly are – Consciousness on legs.

Ancient Path

The days and miles fled past us. We walked through rain and sun, through open moor and villages and gloomy woods, through Monet’s eyes, and Turner’s lucent washes. The winding lanes unwound – England is so blessed with bridleways and footpaths.

Our lungs responded to the long steep hills, swallows wheeling in an empty barn diverted us, a growling tractor scared us, wild thyme lifted us to innocence, wild cabbage and sea-beet offered us a meal, strangers treated us with friendliness and often generosity and sometimes a lone buzzard overflew us. We learned to take the rough with the smooth, the rain with the sun, a snoring neighbour with a generous gift of Flapjack. If someone found it difficult to keep silence, then we learned to keep two chevrons apart from them. If someone found it difficult to keep up, someone stayed behind with them. At dusk we helped each other unload the van, set up tents, chop vegetables, gather firewood and wash dishes. I never once heard altercation, only laughter on this journey. In some camp sites we would light a fire and sit in silence staring at the flickering flames as modern man now stares at the flickering screen.

We held the final circle of our journey in an Iron Age hill fort, now the home of deer and rabbits and a family of new-fledged wrens. It is shrouded in tall deciduous trees. Below us surged a tidal estuary. One by one we brought a treasure to the circle. A frond of curious fern, a heart-shaped piece of wood, a pattern of shells and a buzzard feather, a stone, a flower, a branch. We presented to the ancient place something of itself, which it had shared so generously. Then we dispersed the offerings, leaving the place once again to its solitude. For ourselves the silence within had gone deeper and deeper. We embraced each other, free for now of judgement and of hankering. You could call it love, the dawn of a new man. Or you could say a small swarm of humanity was at peace with, and within, itself.

Or you could say there was nothing to record.

Rashid – first published in Kindred Spirit, UK, January/February 2014

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