Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a book many have heard of, but probably few have read. Written well over 300 years ago, it chronicles the journey of a man called Christian from his home in the City of Destruction to the Celestial City as he seeks to free himself from the burden of the weight of his sins. At the time of its publication, it became the second most popular book after the Bible, and still resonates with people even today with its accounts of the struggles of Christian to overcome obstacles such as the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The idea of pilgrimage has existed in fact or fiction throughout human history. As early as the 4th century, Christians were making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the 14th century Chaucer’s pilgrims followed the route from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by King Henry II in 1170. In more modern times, the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela in Spain has become very popular for people wanting to visit the shrine of the saint, and every year over 2,000,000 Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca. You do not have to go far afield to do a pilgrimage.
Four years ago the Peak Pilgrimage was devised to mark the 350th anniversary of the Eyam Plague. It covers 39 miles and visits more than a dozen churches. It starts at Ilam, where the small church is the centre piece of the fine view from Ilam Hall. Going north there are churches of all shapes and sizes. In summer time, many are decked out for Flower Festivals, and all welcome the pilgrims as they pass by. On a walk like this, you not only experience fine scenery, but also see the work of ordinary people who over the centuries have cared for each other and for the land, people who were conscious of the presence of God, and continue to witness to Him today.
The walk finishes at Eyam, where 350 years ago there was an outbreak of the plague and, under the guidance of the Rector William Mompesson, the village cut itself off from the outside world in a great act of self-sacrifice. In the next four months, 260 people died, at least a third of the population, but thousands in the surrounding towns and villages were saved from the infection.
A pilgrimage is more than a trip through beautiful scenery visiting tourist spots en route. It is a spiritual journey in which we step outside our everyday world to encounter God in places where he has revealed Himself. In our lives as we follow Jesus we are on a pilgrimage, for he shows us the way to go and reveals God to us. Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see is not often sung now, but it reminds us that our aim in life is ‘to be a pilgrim’