Forth, Pilgrim (a bicycle pilgrimage from Iona to Canterbury)

pilgrimage booklet cover drawing by John Hutchinson
pilgrimage booklet cover drawing by John Hutchinson

In 1981, there was a bicycle pilgrimage for disarmament that set out on Easter Monday from the abbey on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland and ended seven weeks later at Canterbury Cathedral in the southeast of England where a peace festival had been organized for Pentecost (Whitsun) weekend. There were nightly church-hosted public meetings along the way in such places as Clydebank, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Derby and Oxford. The core group numbered twelve but at times many others mounted their bikes for shorter distances. The project involved many national and local peace groups; the sponsor was the British branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Joan Baez did a concert for the group at Saint’s Margaret’s Church, next to Westminster Abbey, when the bikers reached London, while guitarist John Williams did a concert in Canterbury Cathedral Whitsun Eve. Through much of the night the pilgrims plus many others prayed both in the cathedral crypt and in the upper church. A single candle placed in front of the main altar gently illumined that vast space bearing witness to the potential significance of small deeds.

The original impetus for the pilgrimage was to protest the UK government’s decision in 1980 to house 64 American cruise missiles at Molesworth Air Base. I biked with the group the first and last portions and wrote a short piece on pilgrimage for a booklet distributed along the way.

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Forth, Pilgrim

By Jim Forest

Forth, pilgrlm, forth! Forth, beste,

out of they stal! Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;

Hold the heye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede;

And trowth thee shal delivere, it is no drede.

— Geoffrey Chaucer (Balade de Bon Conseyle)

Could Chaucer imagine, six centuries past the writing of his poem, such a band of pilgrims setting out between those ancient seats of pilgrimage, Iona and Canterbury? Our “bestes” have not four legs but two airy wheels and completely lack an appetite for grass and wildflowers.

The “gost” leading us upon today’s “heye weys”, however, was familiar to Chaucer, the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life” as it is put with grace and wonder in the Creed, that Spirit without which life has forever been trapped in dread— “drede” in Chaucer’s spelling.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

The pilgrim travels in time and place. How to describe the time and place which occasions this particular and peculiar pilgrimage, this outbreak of pacifists on the road? It is an age of high technology: I am hardly less baffled with the inner working of a quartz watch than Chaucer might have been. It is an age of much family wreckage, of graffiti, of dislocation, breakup and immense confusion, doubt and cynicism: the children of the ’80s, sings Joan Baez, are “gentle as a lotus and tougher than stone.” It is an age of unparalleled military might and destructive potential with weaponry that neither Attila the Hun nor Hitler could have imagined in their grimmest nightmares. Yet is is also an age of communication and unrivaled contact: never before has the human race been so inter-connected and interdependent, so self-conscious, so much in sight of itself.

And it is an age of fear. Of course it isn’t the first age of fear, and probably not the worst. Doubtless London knew fear far better when faced with the Black Plague, which many survived, than it knows today as a major target of thermonuclear weapons, which would be far less generous to life. Nonetheless, the fear is deep in us and is well tended and encouraged—fear of the Russians, for many, and the possibility of a future Soviet domination. That fear is the bedrock of the present military structure, In the west in which so much wealth and talent and hard work is daily invested.

But under the immediate, specific fear of the Soviet Union one finds older, more general fears: among these, the fear of being unarmed in a world that has so often been immensely dangerous and even vicious, so full of catastrophes, the worst of which are human-made.

We have become so deeply rooted in these fears, and so attached to the structures of fear, that a great many still I barely notice that there is no social evil threatening us which would be nearly as cruel and unhealable as the results of the kind of war we are now ready to fight. The very instruments which are supposed to make our lives more secure have become the chief danger to security.

This small pilgrimage from Iona to Canterbury is a modest attempt to challenge such fear.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

It is a peace project drawing deeply on a neglected but still valued tradition. Participation in pilgrimages marked high points of our ancestors’ lives. The pilgrimage tradition is associated with convictions about going, often in penance and always in hope, to places regarded as founts of the sacred, as places of wonder, of healing and restoration. In search of miracles, small or large, the pilgrim was willing to travel lightly and live at the mercy of the elements, the communities and households along the way.

Pilgrimage is also something of a missionary tradition: even if they don’t utter a word, the pilgrim’s passage expresses certain convictions, certain possibilities, certain hopes. Pilgrims carry a message. They are ambassadors of God.

“Know thy country,” advised Chaucer. This is especially good counsel for this particular band of pilgrims. One must know it both with affection and resistance—know what to love, what to maintain, what to endure and what to change.

But Chaucer goes on. “Know thy country, look up, thank God of all.” The knowing of one’s country, even in the worst of times, is altered in such looking up. The God we look towards is, after all, not a national God or the great blesser of any particular economic or political system or party. God is the “God of al.” God is as concerned with the life of a Russian child as one in Britain, and as caring for Moscow as for Glasgow. Often to our embarrassment, our God is a God of love, longing for, even insisting on forgiveness and reconciliation. To know the God of all is to know love itself and to become in the world’s life, including its political life, a channel of love. It is, however, not always an endearing sort of love. “Love in practice,” Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

When Christians, for example, start taking seriously and putting into practice Jesus’ requirement about love of enemies, they will widely be accused of having left religion behind and become politicians, but fuzzy-headed politicians “out of touch with the real world.”

Despite the travel revolution that has happened in this century, allowing contact across borders of a kind no internationalist of earlier times could imagine, this is still an age of nationalism and regionalisms. But the pilgrimage tradition has always been international. Pilgrim routes had no regard for borders. The pilgrimage tradition helped restrain and break down the nationalist mentality. The pilgrim’s encounters along the way, the pilgrim’s dependence on voluntary help and hospitality from strangers, allowed a far more intimate and intense experience of other peoples and cultures than most jet-carried tourists experience today.

drawing by John Hutchinson
drawing by John Hutchinson

Pilgrimage is not only an event but a way of life, a way of life which is God-centered and which draws special attention to the power of God, the God who ordered us not to kill, and who replaces dread with thankfulness: “and trowth thee shal delivere, it is no drede.”

This is a pilgrimage of disarmed life and it carries with it a very specific invitation, a brief text which we have made our own and to which we invite others. We say we are ready to live without the protection of armaments. The statement is not made possible because of naiveté. Evil is doing well, hideously well, in the world. We say it because we know that dreadful weapons will eventually be put to dreadful uses, and that it is neither capitalism nor communism which is destroyed but hundreds of millions of ordinary people. Our own weapons have become more dangerous to us than any opposing system or human enemy.

We are also pilgrims because we see not only what is wrong but what would work better. We have found in nonviolence another way of opposing injustice and defending human values. Should we ever have the Russians to contend with—in fact a most unlikely event—we would far rather arm ourselves against them with the nonviolent methods the Polish people have taken up than with the incinerating methods of nuclear war.

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