Rosemary Nutt of McCabe greets the return of foreign travel and reflects on pilgrimage
As I write, we have just been advised that the United Kingdom is about to come off Israel’s ‘red list’. We have been on that list or its equivalent since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Now the hurdle is behind us, pilgrimages to the Holy Land can resume. For the first time since we were founded by Alistair McCabe in 1983, our business stopped. Since March 2020 we have been repeatedly postponing pilgrimages and moving pilgrims to new dates, mostly by twelve months.
Before the pandemic we would take around three thousand pilgrims each year to these most holy sites, enriching faith and widening horizons as well as deepening friendships with fellow pilgrims, not to forget all the wonderful local people that we have met and engaged with on our way. We always encourage our pilgrim groups to interact with what we have come to know as the ‘Living Stones’ and most groups to the Holy Land visit our three main partner organisations: the Jeel Al Amal home and school in Bethany, Al Shurouq Blind School in Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Centre which started life as a Leonard Cheshire home. Many groups have lunch here, thus supporting the vital work that this organisation supplies. The McCabe Educational Trust was set up as a charity in 1990 to give structure to the support for the Christian Communities we meet in situ on pilgrimage and McCabe makes no deductions for administration, ensuring these worthy institutions receive the full benefit of people’s generosity. If nothing else, they will appreciate the return of pilgrim visits and the vital donations which help to sustain them.
Our most popular destination has always been the Holy Land, with the exception of 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2020 when we would take large numbers of pilgrims to the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria. Another casualty of the pandemic has the been the 2020 season of the Oberammergau Passion play which was re-scheduled to take place now between 11 May 2022 through to 22 September. Happily, most of those due to travel to Oberammergau in 2020 have rebooked for 2022 – but we do still have some availability so it is still possible to go. All of our groups will stay both in the village of Oberammergau for one or two nights, and for the remaining duration of their seven-night pilgrimage at various Austrian resorts.
Other destinations have included pilgrimages in the steps of St Paul to Greece and Turkey, following the Camino to Santiago de Compostella, the growth of early Christianity in Italy as well as more remote destinations of Georgia, Armenia and Ethiopia – nations that adopted Christianity in and around the fourth century AD.
With the ban since March 2020 on most international travel, we soon realised that there was still an appetite on travel but needed to think creatively about what we might offer within the UK. Once restrictions started to be relaxed last summer, we arranged for groups to travel in smaller numbers than pre-pandemic, following in The Footsteps of the Northern Saints. In Northumbria we were based in Durham and visited Lindisfarne, Whitby and Chester-le-Street; and in Scotland we began our pilgrimage in Glasgow and travelled onwards to Mull and Iona, via Loch Lomond. However, these were not without their challenges, particularly as restrictions relaxed in Scotland more slowly than in England. Our final pilgrimage in October last year was to Iona where we enjoyed the hospitality of the St Columba Hotel as well as the Iona Community. One of my biggest challenges (and at the end a great sense of achievement) was the full-day walk around the island hosted by the Community. It was pouring with rain as we set off from the Abbey – I got drenched fairly quickly and although we enjoyed periods of glorious sunshine, we all remained damp until getting back to our accommodation. A truly British experience! We also had the opportunity to accommodate small groups at Epiphany House Retreat Centre in Truro where groups walked in the steps of Celtic Cornish Saints such as St Pirin and St Petroc finishing on the top of St Michael’s Mount.
In many ways, the pandemic has deepened the sense for us of what it means to be a pilgrim – having not been able to travel for a while, we appreciate it all the more now and possibly even with fresh eyes. As our ancestors must have done after their own plagues, we have rediscovered old routes as well as finding new ways of travelling, mining a vast, deep and rich heritage which stretches back centuries. We are able to reconnect with the thanksgiving aspect of pilgrimage, to come to a holy place with joy and thankfulness, grateful for how we have come through this experience.
The possibilities are endless for pilgrimage, whether to the Holy land or to a site of religious importance in a city or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, go in person or in imagination, through reading or watching or hearing. But travel on pilgrimage, pilgrim with other people, people with God – and you will be changed.
Visiting the places of the Bible is a powerful experience, pilgrimage is about traveling, living and worshipping together, and often the company becomes as important than the destination. As Dag Hammarskjold put it, in another context, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that is to come, Yes!”— see you next year in Jerusalem, I hope!
As this issue of ND went to press, we received the sad news that Rosemary Nutt had died suddenly.We run this article as a tribute to Rosemary and send condolences to her family, friends, colleagues, and all who knew her.