Maggi Dawn has written a fascinating memoir about her journey into the spiritual practices and history of pilgrimage, giving it a contemporary twist with the inclusion of her own experiences of pilgrimage. Yet before you hear the word ‘pilgrimage’ and feel like a very unspiritual Christian who can’t connect to this concept, know this: Dawn’s way of pilgrimage makes space for the realities of everyday life and one of her accounts is entitled ‘Pushchair Pilgrimage’ in honour of the pilgrimage she was able to make with her toddler. So, as a harried believer in the twenty-first century with more responsibilities than you know what to do with, you need not consider yourself disqualified at this point: read on!
Penned with a light touch, Dawn’s text moves seamlessly through spiritual reflections to travel writing and on into historical explanations – so much so that it is hard to see where one style ends and the next begins. It is arranged in three parts, which seem to me better described as ‘movements’ because they describe a sense of a gentle progression in the author’s own life along the meandering pathways of contemporary pilgrimage. Each movement is about fifty pages in length and this would perhaps be one of my main criticisms of the book: it is not well-suited to the reader who does not have time to devour the whole of one part in a sitting and, on the occasions when I had put the book down for a period, I found myself struggling to reconnect with the author in the middle of one of these portions of writing.
Each of these distinct movements seems to carry the reader forward along different, and yet somehow parallel, paths of spiritual discovery. One is set in Israel, the recollections of a trip which Dawn had never intended to be pilgrimage and yet which somehow made her, in her own words, an ‘accidental pilgrim’. Another is less rooted in the significance of one place (the reader is taken from Lindisfarne via Rocamadour and Walsingham to Snowdon and the Pilgrims Way across the North Downs!) and yet its unifying feature is Dawn’s personal search for pilgrimage’s very essence and her developing understanding of this ancient practice. The final of the three movements goes deeper still into the concept of pilgrimage.
I particularly enjoyed the first movement describing the author’s trip to Israel and also the initial reflections on Lindisfarne in the second movement. Dawn’s writing here is especially evocative and her gift for interweaving geographical description or historical detail with spiritual reflection is a powerful one. But I am afraid that as I approached the mid-point of the book and beyond, I somewhat lost the reading momentum. It felt to me as if the text had lost its direction and become a series of rather-too-loosely-connected snippets of narrative unified only by their common theme of pilgrimage. But perhaps that relates more to personal preference and is a result of not having read each movement in one sitting, rather than being due to the writing itself.
While Dawn hasn’t inspired me with this book to go on pilgrimage exactly, she has awakened in me a hunger to travel to Israel and also to Lindisfarne, because of their history in the things of God. And perhaps, just perhaps, I too will discover that in these trips I have become an accidental pilgrim?
Chloe Lynch describes herself as ‘part-time everything and full-time nothing’! Currently, her part-time roles include pastor, research student, blogger and open learning tutor in contemporary church studies and workplace theology.