By Arthur Quiller-Couch
It is a disease of us English, and I think a reproach to that reformed religion which most of us profess, that we no longer go on pilgrimages. We travel more furiously than ever, and our propensity for it has passed into a by-word among the nations: but we travel among phenomena, and either in that rage for sight-seeing which Matthew Arnold summarized once for all, or in pursuit of bodily, not spiritual, health. Yet we were once a great people for pilgrimages for our spiritual health; and the roads along which we tear in motors or on bicycles intersect and sometimes follow for miles the tracks whereby the Englishman used to ride or trudge—once in his lifetime, perhaps, but for his soul’s great benefit—to Canterbury, Walsingham, St. Michael’s Mount. For most of us the frequented stretches of these old roads have had their significance rubbed out of them: it is where the track diverges—where the rider on his way home from the hunt crosses a ribbon of short turf winding over the downs—that the lesson is more likely to be read: and this is a pity, for it effaces by a foolish antiquarian interest what should be a present practical one. If the new road lead us better to Walsingham than the old, by all means let the old be superseded. But does the new lead to Walsingham?
I want to urge here a reason or two why this good custom of our fathers, of going on pilgrimages, should not be discontinued.
In the first place, a man ought, at least once in his life, to commit himself to some great undertaking such as a pilgrimage; for a man has only one life to live. Also it will help to make him an agreeable fellow. He will derive an astonishing amount of amusement from planning the cost, pouring over maps, and discussing the adventure beforehand with his wife; and afterwards he can tell his neighbors about it.
Next, although a holiday is good, a pilgrimage is better; for it proceeds from those impulses which, though he repress them by daily work, still intrude and whisper that he was born for higher things. Almost every man feels that his fate holds him down to a rut; that, though he love his wife and children, he has missed for their sake to do God (whatever his God may be) some service which had been within his free capacity. Therefore his release upon pilgrimage offers him something which is more than a holiday, and at the same time something which is better, being less. It has not the dissoluteness of a holiday, which so often disappoints because the holiday-maker has cut himself off from his interests, and changed them for
Moving about in worlds not realized,
Whereas the pilgrim is one who has made an appointment with his higher self, to meet at some distant date and place. As Donne says—
Twenty dayes hence, and thou shalt see
Me fresher and more fat, by being with men,
Than if I had staid still with her and thee.
“By being with men”—that is another gain of the pilgrim’s. He not only, like Ulysses, visits cities and foreigners, and learns their minds: he makes acquaintance, among his fellow-travellers, with men at once “practical”, taking the day as it comes, and congregationally bent on bettering their souls. Their sociability (you may note this in Chaucer’s pilgrims) does not hide their serious common purpose, but rather takes it for granted, and so makes it more real.
Again, the pilgrim is doing what the race has done constantly for many thousands of years; and to any one with a catholic mind (no matter what his creed) this ought to be a tremendous argument.
Lastly, he is putting into drama and acting for himself that parable which—so true is it—has in one way and another inspired the very best books in the world—among them the Odyssey, and Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote. All these are but different versions of the Pilgrim’s Progress: and if this little book dares to follow the parable, it is because a truth so universal covers the small equally with the great.
We are all on pilgrimage here: and though to beguile the road I have sung a song or two, and told perhaps too many stories, there has also been time to make a notebook of a few good thoughts I met on the way and pondered and sometimes took to rest with me. Perhaps the best of all, for all weathers and for every business, is the following of Fenelon’s, which I have kept for my preface:
“Do everything without excitement, simply in the spirit of grace. So soon as you perceive natural activity gliding in, recall yourself quietly into the presence of God….You will find yourself infinitely more quiet, your words will be fewer and more effectual, and, while doing less, what you do will be more profitable. It is not a question of a hopeless mental activity, but a question of acquiring a quietude and peace in which you readily advise with your beloved as to all you have to do."