Pilgrimage as a pathway to climate activism

Pilgrimage, in a religious sense, is a pathway to finding God in one’s life and world; using inner and outer landscapes. It also provides a metaphor, and a framework, for a journey of meaning. Whilst not all pilgrimages are religious, all pilgrimages are spiritual. Spirituality has its root in the Latin word spiritus, meaning the deepest centre of the person, and whether in a religious or secular sense, focuses our ultimate nature and meaning beyond the bodily sense, beyond time, and material things.

All pilgrimages involve place, either in the mind or a geographical space; and whilst in this context of place, our participation changes and a connection is made between the place and the heart. The journey does not have to be arduous, but as Alistair McGrath says, “pilgrimage involves at least a degree of commitment and hardship….an act of self-denial or personal discipline…and an opportunity to reflect on life” [Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.133].

A pilgrimage provides meaning: a practical way of seeking and retrieving answers from deep within, in a way that our everyday living and encounters cannot. And when it takes place in the natural world, it’s also about having a listening ear, since the earth is a living being, a living being in the sense of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, a being that is crying out for justice.

However people who do not have a religious belief can also sing songs when they experience the splendour of the natural world, moved by a sense of awe and wonder; their hearts beating in love for a world that also wants to be loved.

The theologian Mary Grey says that, in addition to praise and thanksgiving, we also need to recover the dimension of prophetic lament, “where sorrow and grief for what has been destroyed and lost are given liturgical space….where the prophetic aspect inspires a new ethics, calling for lifestyles of living more respectfully of the earth and organising active protest.” [Mary Grey, ‘Ecological Spirituality’, The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, p.262] If we are open to what might unfold on an eco-pilgrimage, breaking away from self-centred ideas and lifestyles, we will be ready to embrace change and will be transformed. In what follows, I shall try to explain how pilgrimage can be a pathway to climate activism.

In 2015, the Conference of the Parties met in Paris to forge a strong climate agreement. Pilgrims converged on the city from many parts of the world. Some walked from other European capitals such as Rome and, as a symbolic act, shoes were collected, including a pair from Pope Francis. In this way, the pilgrims could record that they had been part of something truly remarkable; empowered by love, hope and prayer.

At the time almost every country in the world agreed to implement the agreement nationally, promising to reduce emissions in order to keep global temperatures below 2°C and ideally below 1.5°C. Since then attempts have been made to introduce nationally determined contributions to this effort and there is continuing debate between the developed and the developing world about what the articles of agreement mean and their cost. If Paris was about principle, Glasgow will be about money.

Eco-Congregation Scotland commissioned a baton from the Greyfriars Recycling of Wood at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh, from recycled church furniture.  On its pilgrimage it went to the top of Ben Lomond down to the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Over 100 churches, schools and other meeting places took part. It even crossed stormy seas to Orkney, where it was warmly received by residents of some of Scotland’s most remote islands, which are currently engaged in a world-leading experiment in tidal energy.   

Another eco-mission is underway: and this is the story of four eco-congregations in the Banchory area of Deeside. The journey began in St Ternans Episcopal Church, with an ecumenical study of Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. Reading his wise words and humbly listening to one another, sharing experiences and expertise, gave everyone a sense of what was both personal and universal; something that had a symbolic liminal sense, that place and a person’s place in the world were intimately connected.

After some hesitancy about what needed to be done, a call came to meet in the upper room of the Church of Scotland’s West Church. From this a planning group was formed. The first important decision was to leave the pulpits and church halls behind and, rather like the missionaries sent out by Jesus, the Banchory pilgrims left with “no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic” [Luke 9.3]. They descended from the upper room into the ‘agora’, the Greek “gathering place” or “assembly”; in this case the Banchory Arts Centre on the edge of town. So we booked the theatre, and invitations were sent out to every representative of civil society in Banchory and its surrounds.

The expectation was that around 50 might turn up but in the event it was over 90, who accepted the invitation to our pilgrimage of learning; opening themselves to a process of transformation. The evening began with a short presentation from someone who had left the oil industry and made his own pilgrimage of learning to the Al Gore School of Climate Advocacy in Atlanta.

The audience then dispersed to eleven discussion tables around the room. The walk round the perimeter of the room was carefully designed to evoke specific impressions, through visual displays, encounters and conversation. The intention was to create a process of learning, to hear about spiritual and political activism, measuring one’s carbon footprint, locally produced food, advice on home renewable energy, reconnecting with nature and biodiversity, and other related topics. The pilgrims were encouraged to leave post-it notes of comments and ideas and at the end of the evening the notes were gathered, rather like the crumbs after the feeding of the five thousand, and someone transcribed them onto 20 closely typed sheets of A4.

A number of projects have got underway, though some have stalled because of the Covid-19 lockdown. We now have a clearer sense of who we are and what part we might play in providing a forum for groups, disseminating information and best practice, and investigating potential benefits for the common good. The pace is now quickening, and the Deeside Climate Action Network http://deesidecan.org.uk is joining up with a larger network of activists in North-East Scotland, promoting action on climate change, lowering our carbon footprint, reducing waste, reversing biodiversity loss and increasing local resilience to the effects of the climate emergency.

What these moments of encounter have stimulated is a reassessment and an adjustment of our connection with one another and climate vulnerable people overseas. Although we may think as individuals that the climate emergency is too big for us to resolve by our individual effort, nevertheless when we become a community of others, companions along the path, the cumulative effect is contagious.

Climate activism has an emphasis on “community‐building”; on having a sense of environmental citizenship which encompasses different levels of civil engagement, from local to international. This includes lobbying of political representatives and campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel producing companies, sponsorship of climate and environmental education, and the practical task of making town such as Banchory wildlife friendly.

To travel slowly and sustainably is what makes an environmentally friendly pilgrimage. It generally means spending more time in one place, choosing a sustainable form of transport, becoming more conscious and connected – connected with oneself, those around, and in the wider world, learning what makes best sense. It’s about retaining a sense of historical continuity, the collective wisdom of generations. Not so much about a walk to a holy place, more about a way of being in the world, while recovering a kind of freedom, the freedom of the pilgrim; adapting to a simpler lifestyle, freed from the slavery of consumerism that has become embedded in our psyche, and impacts on our culture.

Although my globetrotting days as a birdwatcher are over, I still have engrained in my memory, the fragile landscapes of mountain and meadow, jungle, and the extremes of hot desert and icy wilderness; as well as my encounters with the people who lived there. It has been a heart-swelling journey. I am ashamed that my legacy is part of the growing climate emergency with warming oceans, accelerated species loss, soil erosion, flooding and choking plastic. But it’s not too late to think more about my lifestyle, making decisions that may indeed mean taking a longer, harder path; using the time to reflect and just be, as an antidote to the pace of modern life; embracing the slow wisdom of eco-pilgrims along the climate activism pathway.

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