Meditations on pilgrimage, monasteries and the Christian concept of charity

My pilgrimage to Rome will give me the opportunity to sample the monastic way of life in much the same way as pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena would have done staying in hospices run by religious orders along the route.

I’ll be stepping out of my ‘comfort zone’ and will be, to some large degree, reliant on the kindness and charity of strangers.

Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury who travelled to Rome in 990 AD to collect his pallium from the Pope and whose route along the Via Francigena I will be following, was originally a monk at Glastonbury Abbey before being elevated to Archbishop. His journey to Rome is commemorated by a statue in the grounds of the Abbey.

I am planning to stay in monasteries at Wisques (Abbaye St Paul), the Benedictine Monastery at St Thierry, and possibly the Benedictine Monastery as well as the Great St Bernard Pass Hospice, a Franciscan Monastery in Chatillon, the Abbey of Santa Croce at Mortara, a Franciscan convent in Piacenza, a Cappucin convent in Pontremoli, the Abbey of San Caprasio in Aulla, the San Francesco convent in San Miniato, St Agostino convent in San Gimigniano, a Cappucin convent in Viterbo and a Carmellite monastery in Sutri.

Abbaye St Paul in Wisques

My walk will also pass the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1115. Bernard, a Burgundian noble was one of the principal driving forces of the Cistercian Order and was responsible for its rapid expansion, including founding Rievaulx Abbey and Fountaina Abbey in Yorkshire. Bernard was one of the most influential theologians of his time, involved in the establishment of the Knights Templar and the preaching of the Second Crusade in 1146 in a field outside Vezelay from where I started my own walk along the Sentier de Saint-Jacques to the Pyrenees in 1989.

Clairvaux Abbey

During my time living in Asia I stayed in a number of Buddhist monasteries including the Po-lin Monastery on Lantau island in Hong Kong, the Shouzen monastery in the Alishan mountains of Taiwan, the Labrang Yellow Hat monastery in Xia He province in China near the Tibetan border , and a number of Buddhist monasteries in Korea. But until now I have yet to spend time in a monastery run by one of the Christian religious orders.

Po-lin Monastery, Lantau Island

There is a monastic connection with St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke. The current church was built in the 12th century and from the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 belonged to the Benedictine Abbey of Jumieges in Normandy. Founded in 654 by the Merovingian King Clovis II, in the ninth century it was burnt and pillaged by the Vikings, and a new church was consecrated in 1067 in the presence of William the Conqueror.

Benedictine Abbey of Jumieges

Enjoying the patronage of the dukes of Normandy, the abbey became a great centre of religion and learning, its schools producing, amongst many other scholars, the national historian, William of Jumièges. It reached the zenith of its fame about the eleventh century, and was regarded as a model for all the monasteries of the province. It was renowned especially for its charity to the poor, being popularly called “Jumièges l’Aumônier”.

On my journey I will be carrying with me a crucifix, blessed by the Benedictine monks of Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland to keep me safe on my walk.

So what, if any, is the connection between Monasticism and the Christian concept of Charity?

There is a paradox within the monastic ideal: on the one hand, monks are meant to withdraw from the world into spiritual and ascetic seclusion; on the other hand, scripture enjoins hospitality on all Christians. Saint Basil the Great, one of the fathers of Western monasticism, said that living in community is better than living as a hermit. “As a hermit,” he said, “one has no opportunity to practice Christian charity.” 

‘St Basil the Great

What the two phenomena, pilgrimage and monasticism, share in particular is the focus on sacred space. Pilgrims are drawn to a location by the inherent sanctity of the space, whether because it is the site of an event of the New or Old Testament, it is the burial site of a martyr or saint, or it has other holy attributes (e.g., healing springs), from which some spiritual or even physical benefit might be obtained. Monasteries similarly form at sacred sites for similar reasons, and monastics often become custodians of loca sancta.

Charity in Christianity is not just almsgiving, and should not be seen only as an obligation or duty. Charity is love. Christians believe that God’s love and generosity towards humanity moves and inspires us to love and be generous in response.

Jesus taught that to love God and to love neighbour are the greatest commandments. Charity is not an optional extra, but an essential component of faith. In Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), Jesus identifies himself with those who are poor and excluded, and teaches that we will be judged, not on how beautiful our altars are, but on the way that we treat others. We cannot profess to worship God in church, yet not express that love practically to our neighbour. And our neighbour is not just someone local to us. In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus made clear that our neighbour may be someone on the other side of the world, who is not ‘one of us’ but different. Because of our common humanity – because we are each created and loved by God – we cannot allow anyone to go without what is needed for a dignified life.

‘The Good Samaritan’ – William Henry Margetsen

The early saints of the Christian church had a very challenging view of charity. They argued that what God provides generously and freely is effectively ‘stolen’ by those who hoard their wealth instead of sharing what they have with those in need. A Christian understanding of charity is far more radical and demanding than simply giving from what we have ‘left over’. Christians believe that anything that we have is a gift from God and does not belong exclusively to us. It must be shared if there is someone who needs it more.

Later church teaching expresses this love towards others as ‘solidarity’ with those in need. If we live by this principle, when we act out of charity or love we do not do it out of patronising pity, but out of commitment to the common good, so that every human being can reach their full potential.

Pilgrimage, monasticism and Christian charity – food for thought and food for the soul. Hopefully my walk to Rome will provide enlightenment about the continuing relevance of these traditions in the modern world we live in.

3 thoughts on “Meditations on pilgrimage, monasteries and the Christian concept of charity

  1. Richard

    If you have not read Philanthropy by Paul Vallely, I can heartily recommend this. He spends a good amount of time exploring the consequences of the reformation on Christian giving.

    If you’d like a fellow pilgrim for any leg to reflect and share on some of these themes, just holler and I’ll see what I can do!

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    1. Jonathan Dutton Post author

      Hi Richard. Good to hear from you. I’ll download the Paul Vallely book on audible. Many thanks for the suggestion. Yes I would be happy for anybody to join me on any stage of the pilgrimage and can send details of my itinerary. A number of parish priests whom I contacted ‘on spec’, have very kindly offered to accommodate me during some of the stages in the UK.

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    2. Jonathan Dutton Post author

      If you are ever in the cloisters at WinColl look out for the memorial tablet to Christopher Gray, a contemporary of mine at WinColl ( where he won most of the school prizes) and university ( where he won most of the university prizes). My route takes me via Wìnchester, and I’ll be dropping off at WinColl to pay my respects to him. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaries-the-rev-christopher-gray-1309783.html?amp

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