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Anne Catherine Emmerich, the great German mystic who died in 1824, once said that it was revealed to her in a vision that most medieval souls prepared for spiritual events with a devotion greater than what was present even in her own day. She explained that this fervor of deep religious spirituality which existed in the Middle Ages could not be comprehended by the people of her time, who had lost such a profound inclination.

Medieval pilgrims clothing

If this is so, then how much more must we, almost 200 years later, be unable to comprehend the inner world of the devout medieval pilgrim preparing for his spiritual adventure. Yet I cannot help but feel that it may be worth considering what these preparations were like and what this can say for my own daily pilgrimage here in Italy and throughout the greater pilgrimage of life.

The externals of the pilgrims spiritual preparation are historically documented and easy to come by. Encouraged to prepare for the well-being of their soul, there was an assortment of rituals or personal actions that they could take. These included:

  • attending a consecration ceremony where they would obtain the Church’s blessings on their souls and their journeys.
  • confessing their sins to the priest and being “shriven.”
  • being sprinkled with Holy Water.
  • given a staff to carry on their journey. This became a symbol announcing to the world that they were a pilgrim and not a traveller with less honorable motives. There was even a blessing for this staff which would be imparted.
  • fasting.
  • speaking with an elder who had experienced pilgrimage first hand, gaining wisdom and insight for the road.
  • making vows, such as not to speak unnecessarily or to abstain from sex, all in an effort to focus on their inner experience of the journey.

These are just some of the external actions that could be taken and can today be historically studied. What is more elusive  is the effect that these exterior actions had on the souls of the pilgrims and what other private devotions they may have added. In a nutshell, what was the spiritual life of a pilgrim preparing for such a journey like?

A pilgrim as pictured on the side of a medieval cathedral in England

This is where we enter into the undocumented realm of private devotions, prayers, meditations, and contemplations. If Anne Catherine Emmerich is right, and many medieval souls were far more devout in their preparations for great events, then we can only begin to imagine what intensity their prayer lives and personal devotions must have reached and the resulting richness they could have experienced.

It is likely that they prayed more and may have spent more time in meditation and contemplation. They may have asked for spiritual illumination and profound experiences that would change them in powerful ways. They may have asked for saints to intercede for them, guardian angels to look after them and they may have tried to approach each day as sacred while remaining open to signs and clues along their path.

Of course, this is just my speculation, but as a Catholic I am fortunate in that I possess one direct link back to this mindset, and that is my faith. What I believe today was believed 800 years ago, and thus while my external experience may never be the same my internal one has the potential to resonate strongly with that of the medieval pilgrim if only on the level of personal spirituality.

As I try to piece together what their secret preparations must have been like, I begin to see that it was a mental realm of intense faith unlike that of what we understand today.

For my own pilgrimage here in Italy and for the voyage of my life, I find in their example a need to cultivate this faith in the supernatural to levels that are the exact opposite of what our modern society expects from us. I see the importance of approaching each day as sacred and as a journey in itself. 

Only then will the richness of a soul seeking the divine be able to flourish and only then will I understand what it truly is to be a pilgrim here in Italy and throughout my life.

Perhaps I will also be able to understand something of what is was like centuries ago as well.

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The concept of pilgrimage reaches back across millenia to times so distant and remote that they can evoke shadows of mystery and wonder. As early as the 7th century BC, members of Israel and Judah embarked upon treks to holy sites, eventually settling on the temple in Jerusalem as their religious focus. In ancient Greece, individuals sought the shrines of oracles and cults. But in no other time was the idea of pilgrimage so vigorously undertaken than in the Middle Ages, and in no other era has the deep meaning and potential for transformation that pilgrimage offers been forgotten than in ours. 

A group of medieval pilgrims appear to be offered hospitality at the castle of a rich lord

By the Middle Ages, Europe had become a wonderland of holy sites that sparkled and enticed people from all walks of life to make long and perilous journeys, fraught with bandits, sickness and even the possibility of death. Yet these hardships could not deter the throngs of souls who wore down the roads with their ever advancing steps. There was scarcely a town or city in Europe that did not have some relic or holy reason to at least pause for a visit, however brief. The pilgrim’s wonder stretched all the way across the continent to Jerusalem, which was the final destination of many.

Medieval pilgrims said farewell to home and hearth with special blessings and many would don clothing and badges that distinguished them along the road.  Some even carried bells that they jingled and sang to as they passed through towns. For them, the journey was enhanced by what they thought and felt inside, and what they utilized without.

Sadly, the protestant reformation tore away at the centuries of devotion until pilgrimage came to a grinding halt, never to be restored. The glistening jewels of medieval Europe that had sprung up all across the continent, from cathedrals to holy sites of rich meaning, began to fade in significance as the modern world built its own new ideas and concepts over the increasingly forgotten and neglected graves of the past.  Much was lost, but perhaps the most poignantly sad loss of all was the mindset of those who had once traced across Europe in search of transformation as pilgrims.

This loss can be seen in our modern era, when a tourist needs a guide to explain the symbolism and significance that literally drips off the walls and shouts from the rooftops of a gothic church or an intricate fresco. Yet over 500 years ago, a simple peasant without any education could have easily translated and been edified by what highly educated doctors and lawyers fumble over today.

This loss could be considered the equivalent of walking into a fully stocked library yet being unable to read one word without serious effort and labor. The work of so many authors would be lost and only enjoyable as a laborious academic pursuit of analyzation until the texts’ meaning was discovered, rather than just letting the words work their magic moment by moment in full fluency.

The richness of medieval European civilization is likewise lost on the modern mind that can no longer understand the intricate spiritual language of the past. With a cultural mindset radically shifted to one of entertainment and the “here-and-now,” deep spiritual and religious nuances have become an agonizing labor to comprehend.

Many, frustrated with their modern mental conditioning and longing for an encounter with the divine, escape to cultures that are still emerging out of a simpler time. Still breaking free from such a basic cocoon, these places lack the sterile decor of McDonald’s and commercial advertisements, and easily help the visitor to escape the mental zoo of modernity.

Yet it could be argued that Europe holds a treasure ground far richer than these. While it has become a land overrun with the harsh reality of the present, this can makes its history all the more captivating. Europe has become the land of the treasure hunt, and all great treasure hunters know the unique joy of discovering that one lost but precious find.

A pilgrim undertakes his journey

Such a treasure hunt may also require much bravery and courage. When something becomes so lost that its meaning is forgotten, twisted, and even condemned by the current world view, it is easier to escape to places that do not challenge the mind both historically and personally. Yet if we take the time to explore, and to really look, we may either become those who will witness the final glimpses of a lost Atlantis before it sinks beneath the symbolic ocean tides of modernity, or we may be those who can carefully salvage it, pull it from the torrents that seek to wash it away, and bring it to light again in small yet meaningful ways.

Like the pilgrims of old, we will need all the courage we can gain. Our robbers and bandits are no longer the same as the ones that medieval pilgrims faced. Instead, they are those who would distract us from tapping into the old ways, by covering them with modern versions that no longer can be defined as truth for they interpret incorrectly and therefore fail in doing their subjects justice. Our possible sicknesses and death are those of an entertainment culture, quick to numb our minds with neon signs, loud sirens, bustling clubs, and a multitude of deterrents.

But perhaps there is no greater voyage than this; the voyage of a contemporary pilgrim trying to unravel the mysteries of the European past, while the modern world fights so aggressively to swallow it completely. Perhaps there is no greater challenge for a pilgrim than to resurrect the dead and to find that they were still alive all along. Perhaps there is no greater epic story than the voices of the past finding their way through the mental walls of time and unveiling their beauty on their own grounds.

Europe is still a fertile ground for pilgrimage and transformation. If we are brave enough to find our way through the layers of the present and courageously search for the lost treasures of the past, we never know what riches we may journey home with.

 

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