Physicality, Mentality, Spirituality

 

 

Oft him anhaga                 are gebideð,     

Metudes miltse,               þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade                 longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum       hrimcealde sæ,

wadan wræclastas;         wyrd bið ful aræd.

 

The opening of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, which translated means: Often the solitary man enjoys the grace and mercy of the lord, though he, careworn, has long been forced to stir by hand the ice-cold sea on many waterways, travelling the exile’s path. Fate is relentless.

I think that poem is a great summary of the kinds of physical, mental and spiritual pressures you go through when you’re on pilgrimage. When I mentioned this plan to some friends and family, some expressed doubt that modern-day feet and joints are as suited to walking great stretches as those of a mediaeval person. I believe this doubt stemmed from a belief that for the regular mediaeval person, much more time was spent in daily life being physically active: no matter what walk of life you were from, you’d likely spend a lot of time in the outdoors doing something, whether it be farming, building, or perhaps horse-riding or hunting, compared to the arguable monotony of modern-day life, where most people work desk jobs for a living or spend free time watching television. Because of this, some friends and family were worried that we would not be able to complete our pilgrimage at all. I can certainly understand why people might think this, and indeed part of the reason I was looking forward to walking so much was so that I could get away from the monotony of student life, which is also filled with sitting in front of desks and electronic screens. I would agree that after the first day of walking, Terry and I very quickly entered a state of shock at the amount of pain we were in, and we were not as used to caring for our injuries as perhaps the mediaeval pilgrim might have been. I think what is important to bear in mind, however, is the fact that everybody went on pilgrimage. People from the entire broad spectrum of humanity embarked on these journeys, not just the physically fit farmhand or soldier, but monastic students who sat behind desks as often as we do today, and fat gluttonous lords with diets just as bad as those of some modern people. And, just as was surely the case back then, Terry and I took to pilgrimage differently. Without wanting to put him down, I think the reason I didn’t get blisters as severely or quickly as he did is because I am slightly more used to exercise, both in terms of sports and farm labour, though that’s not to say he doesn’t also engage in those things – and also, I simply wore shoes better designed for the purpose of trekking than he did. The disparity between us caused by our different types of shoe is one which would still have been present in the Middle Ages: different shoes are made of different materials and are therefore of better or worse quality. A rich knight that could afford more expensive shoes would have had an easier time with blisters than a monk wearing footwraps. A knight could also ride a horse, though, which is a bit unfair.

One aspect of our journey which I did not anticipate was the degree to which our physical health would impact our mental wellbeing and general happiness. Though it probably sounds obvious, the worse our various injuries got – Terry’s knee and my ankle being the prime culprits – the more the pain began to occupy our thoughts and our conversation. And of course, no one else being around, we understandably vented our frustrations on each other, which was unpleasant and also upsetting. By the second day, though the injuries were still present and the pain was still real, we had gotten over the shock of being in physical pain. I think what I should have accounted for in planning was not so much that the modern body is less used to exercise, but more that the modern mind is less used to coping with continuous nagging pain, what with the prevalence of quick medicine and painkilling drugs meaning we do not have to endure so much as a headache if we don’t want to do so. For me one other huge factor which I admit I had not considered would be such a problem before we started was the weather. Particularly on the first and fourth days, the topography of the area where we were walking presented some of the most mentally challenging aspects of the pilgrimage. On day One, this was the sun and the humidity of the coastline, which resulted in a harsh sunburn and heavy sweating. This was obviously physically difficult to contend with, and no doubt mediaeval pilgrims would have also found this uncomfortable, though perhaps this may have been easier for some than others. What took me by surprise was the mental challenge of this part of the journey. I remember thinking to myself on the first day “I can feel myself burning, I don’t have a hat or any suncream; I need to find some shade”, and there literally wasn’t any. Likewise, when the heat of the morning sun burned away the overnight due to create a sluggish atmosphere of dense humidity, each step a continuation of the endless quest for a source of water, all the while feeling every bead of sweat roll down your back and your throat close up with thirst. While these physical aspects were painful and uncomfortable, the fact that we were constantly hoping that there would be shade over the horizon, hoping that there would be drinking water round the next bend, only for that hope to be dashed again and again and again was real mental torture. On the fourth day, we experienced a different kind of mental challenge. Though the natural difficulties of the climate were physically tough to deal with and were never ending, just like those on day one, the wind of day four forced us into complete solitary confinement. Forced to march single file by the narrow path beside the main road and with my head bowed to the ground against the gale, I had absolutely no idea where Terry was or indeed what was around me at all. I found myself constantly having to check behind me to make sure that my friend was okay and still there, which only slowed our progress forward. The wind was so loud that we were not able to talk to each other, making the day a very lonely one as I entered deeper and deeper thought spirals of depression and anxiety.

A slightly more expected result of our journey was how much the challenges to both mind and body would affect the spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage. Before setting out I had fully anticipated that suffering through difficult periods of walking would make the final arrival at a place of shelter and religious devotion all the more gratifying. Though this was certainly the case, the extent to which this was true was nothing short of mind boggling. Having expected slight relief and a sense of wonder at the physical building itself and little more, I was surprised to discover how deeply emotional the experience would be. At South Queensferry Priory Church, exhausted after the first day of utterly gruelling walking, it was not so much the building itself as what it and the people associated with it represented.

What this pilgrimage taught me was twofold: firstly, that all of the various components are interlinked. Weather affects your physical wellbeing, which affects your mental state, which affects what you take spiritually from the experience. Secondly, the concept of organised religion and the rather strange things people do in the name of religious devotion were completely humanised for me. Having met people involved with pilgrimage in many ways, having done it myself and having seen what it does for people, suddenly it doesn’t seem so crazy. My pilgrimage may not have converted me to a fully-fledged Christian, but it made Christianity as a religion and an organised group of likeminded and like-spirited people far more relatable.