The Story of a Pilgrimage by Michael Ford

After several years of mental illness and a suicide attempt off a railway bridge, Guy Stagg made a pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land by foot. What was unusual about his mission was that he travelled as a non-believer, hoping nonetheless that the rigor of walking and encountering holy places would heal him in some way.

Leaving home on New Year’s Day 2013, the Cambridge graduate travelled alone through the Alps, spent Easter in Rome with a new pope, joined in mass protests in Istanbul, and even got caught up in a terrorist attack in Lebanon. Each night he had to rely on the kindness of strangers, staying with monks, nuns, priests, and generous-hearted families, gleaning a unique insight into the lives of holy people in the 21st century.

A journalist by profession, Guy wrote an account of his experiences. What is admirable about The Crossway is that the author does not exploit or dramatize his mental health; instead, he spreads the background to his illness across chapters so understanding what has happened to him is a little like following a detective story. But this is not fiction. It is a raw and toughly honest account of one human being’s search for psychological reparation after a breakdown at the age of 23. As he writes: “I wanted to mend myself. But this reason I was ashamed to admit. I do not believe in God, do not believe in miracles, and do not believe that a sacrament can cure sickness.”

But although this nominal Anglican had his doubts and even suspicions about the world of spiritual devotion, he found his preconceptions challenged as he walked. He told me: “I had gone out on the journey not believing in miracles yet hoping that something unusual, perhaps even exceptional, would happen. It was around the time that I came to the Great Saint Bernard Pass that I realized that perhaps there were other people who had gone out on their journeys, with a similar paradox or doublethink in operation. I was hoping that some psychological healing would happen and I was also hoping that religious, if not spiritual, practices might play some role in that healing. I was open or undecided as to how exactly that would happen. I was willing to set off and see.”

Following the traditional route of the Via Francigena, the 10-month trek took him from Canterbury to Rome across the Alps, then on to Israel through Albania, Greece, Mount Athos, Turkey, Cyprus, and Lebanon, a journey of more than 3,400 miles. He was hoping to walk free from the past but found himself still carrying painful memories “like the rucksack on my shoulders, the burden on my back.”

As he lingered at shrines, monastic churches, and mission houses, Guy found himself reflecting on the pilgrims from the past who had walked that way in search of a miracle. The story of the patron saint of pilgrims, the 18th-century wanderer Benoit-Joseph Labre, resonated with his own journey: “What struck me was that he had set off on his travels as a young man like me,” said Guy. “He had been travelling around in what we call the modern period of history which felt very close to me. He had been written about by writers I had heard about and read, and it was that combination of qualities which meant perhaps that this saint’s story wasn’t a distant and slightly comical account that belongs in the same cultural space as stories about King Arthur. It was a story about someone who actually lived whether or not they performed miracles. He would have had identifiable human motivations.

“I realized early in my journey that a number of saints and religious figures were likewise young men who had done outlandish, strange, unusual and in some ways self-destructive feats or adventures. I began by thinking that all these people had a strong faith that I didn’t share and so I presumed, therefore, we wouldn’t share anything else either. Then it occurred to me that we shared a great deal, apart from this faith. Perhaps we had the same strange combination of ambition and a desire to do something that would impress. I could be reading myself into them but I found it very helpful because it turned these figures from being almost caricatures into human beings I could relate to in some way.”

As Guy walked, he kept his thoughts and observations in notebooks which he sent back one at a time to his parents so they didn’t get lost or stolen. What these jottings revealed was a growth in understanding of how monks and nuns perceive their vocation. He spent numerous spells with religious communities which were either physically isolated from the world or within themselves gave time and space to being alone. “When you are deliberately making yourself alone, this is not necessarily an escape from the world even if you are removing yourself from it,” he said. “When you are by yourself in your cell, you’re not necessarily entering some blissful state of detachment. It’s then you have to confront things about yourself you don’t like or are uncomfortable with. I gained some understanding of this and then this fed into my own understanding of what I was doing.”

Although cautious of using a word like “holiness,” through his encounters with believers and people with a strong faith Guy gained a clearer idea of the qualities he would associate with the term. He found their lives compelling and inspiring. They tended not to be people proclaiming their inner strength or nature of their conviction, but women and men with an unusual degree of humility, patience, or charity. It wasn’t any dramatic feats of piety he witnessed but people contentedly living quietly in remote places, showing him kindness and giving him attention, then carrying on with “their ordinary little lives” with no seeming desire to move on to bigger and better things.

“When you see people living in a way that seems more moral and more devoted than you could ever live, you wonder what they have that you don’t that enables them to live as they do. I wondered if I could learn something from them because the way they were living seemed a fuller and more content way than I could ever live.” He concluded this was a more effective form of evangelism than a convincing argument about the existence of God or encouraging people to read the Bible.

Occasionally these days, Guy reads works of spiritual biography, curious about the spiritual struggles of a particular figure. He finds he can identify with figures like Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton, and Simone Weil with their “relatable psychological states.” The spiritual status they are afforded by the church or the possibility they might have performed miracles holds little appeal. “All that seems to be a slight distraction from the fact that these are human beings who will have shared or mirrored the same qualities as me but, through some often mysterious combination of factors, have been able to live their lives at an extraordinary level of commitment and intensity. It’s their human qualities that make me think there is something I can learn something from this person rather than the apparatus of sainthood.”

The aim of Guy Stagg’s pilgrimage was not to become hardened and robust, but “to be like the branches of a tree in the wind that can be moved this way and aren’t going to snap, hopefully.” Guy isn’t expecting a future life without difficulties but hopes the new reserves and resources will enable him not to be overwhelmed by what comes his way. He says he has a stronger sense of self-integration than he had before the walk. “I have learned not to shut off, wash my hands of or shut away things I regret or which were a mistake, but to find some way to say, ‘This, too, was me. I’m glad of what I have been through, even though I wouldn’t want it to happen again.’

“One model of mental health is the ability to think about what you want, rather than to have your mind at the prey of memories and stray thoughts you are unable to get away from. Now they can stay in my mind without destroying me.”

Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.

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