An Interview with Guy Stagg

What's it like to walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem?

The Crossway is Guy Stagg’s account of his walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem. Though a non-believer, he went on the pilgrimage after suffering from mental illness, in the hope of being healed. I interviewed Guy over Skype from Jerusalem (where he had finished his journey).

The reason why you decided to walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem is very clear, but can you explain how you decided to write a book about your journey?

Prior to the walk, I had been working as a journalist for a newspaper in London. My career wasn’t really going anywhere because I was struggling with mental illness. I wasn’t writing regular articles, but I was in the habit of thinking about my writing. I kept a diary every day.

When I set out on the walk, [I always planned to take] notes of everything I experienced. At the same time, I wasn’t thinking so far ahead as writing a book. As I explain in The Crossway, there were a selection of fraught personal reasons why I went on the walk. If I had gone…simply to write a book, I don’t think I would have got very far.

Over the course of the journey, two things convinced me that this was worth writing about. The first was the fact that I stumbled across one or two moments of (what seemed to me) historic importance – when I was in Rome for the [first Easter with] Pope Francis, when I was in Istanbul for the Taksim Square protests. This was just a coincidence, of course, but it seemed that these were worth witnessing and recording to the best of my abilities.

Secondly, the real test for whether I want to read a work of travel is whether the journey offers insights that would have been impossible to reach had the journey not been made. With encountering these scattered communities of believers and the people who took me in night after night, I felt I had got an insight into parts of Europe and the Middle East that would have been impossible any other way.

That’s why, come the end of the journey, I felt that it really deserved to be a book.

Let’s talk about the first part. When you reached Istanbul, I actually felt a real shift. Suddenly, you seemed much more directly involved in events, meeting with activists, being in and around the protests, as opposed to much of the rest of the world where you’re a pilgrim, you’re walking along, you’re observing. Why the change?

Prior to the walk, I had not anticipated that current affairs would have any major impact on the experience of the journey beyond the obvious fact that I wasn’t able to walk through Syria because of the conflict there.

Then I got to Istanbul just by chance while these protests were going on. I was coincidentally staying with someone who was living very close to Taksim Square. I was confronted with these events that I hadn’t anticipated. Once I was surrounded by them, they seemed more urgent, more important than really anything that was going on in my mind.

Equally the investigations I had been making into religious history, or the lives of believers, those were suspended because there was something more urgent going on. What I realized subsequently, in the writing of the book, is that something bigger had happened at that moment, which is that up to that point I was sinking deeper and deeper into my own thoughts, into my own memories, and I was closing in on myself.

But now something external was forcing me to pay attention to what was going on around me, this actually had a healing effect…I think that for rest of the journey – and I hope the readers experience this when reading the book – there is a sense of turning out into the world, and paying more attention to what’s happening.

I want to focus in a bit more in your time in Israel. What I thought was quite striking was that the narrative simply continued, almost as if you had walked from Lebanon rather than flown to Jordan and then crossed the border. What were your feelings about crossing a divide that for so many people in this country is almost unimaginable? What was the difference going from Lebanon to Israel?

The experience is similar in Lebanon as well. A lot of the Lebanese Christians imagine visiting Jerusalem and know that they probably never will. At the same time, when you move into Southern Lebanon, or if you move into Northern Israel, what you’re struck by is that there is very little difference in the landscape at all. Bits of Israel are a bit more green, bits of Lebanon are a bit more mountainous. The distance is short and the terrain is similar. I was trying to create a sense…of the physical proximity of these places.

I was also keen to give a sense of the deep history that was underneath…I wanted to give a sense that there had been challenges in navigating this terrain for much of history and certainly long before the creation of the State of Israel. There were pilgrims who would turn up, and they would find some Ottoman authorities not letting them enter into Jerusalem or whatever it was. I just wanted to give a sense that this experience went further back than the twentieth century.

You walk on the Israel Trail and, of course, one of the themes of the book is what is a pilgrimage, and what is a pilgrimage in the 21st century? What is a pilgrimage to someone who’s not necessarily religious? You joined a few young Israelis on the Israel Trail, and you had this very memorable meal with them. Did you see the Israel Trail as a kind of pilgrimage?

The Israel Trail seemed to me a very pure example of a pilgrimage, not necessarily in a religious sense, but in that if you go on a pilgrimage, you typically leave your home behind, you leave your family behind. You’re only carrying a small amount of your possessions. There are fewer markers of wealth, of class, of social distinctions. You’re often encountering strangers who are going through the same experience. As is often the case, shared hardship brings people together, even if it’s only the hardship of climbing up a mountain or difficult terrain.

I was struck while walking…[by] what seemed to me the very easy interactions between all the people that we met. Now, this may partly have been a reflection of Israeli society, but it seemed to me that it was also that sense of companionship that people got from being on the trail together. Obviously, there may be people for whom it had a greater religious or national significance as well.

Throughout the book, of course, you visit a lot of holy shrines, churches, monasteries, and when you get to Israel you visited the Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee. In this 21st century pilgrimage, how important is the religious shrine?

This is a difficult question to answer. It’s partly because the importance is different for different people. There were people I saw visiting these historic religious sites, the religious sites you find in the Gospels. For them, this was perhaps one of the high points of their spiritual lives. You could see that it was having an enormous impact on them. It may be the case that if I went to one of these places and didn’t feel very much, that increased the sense of dislocation or the sense that maybe I was an impostor. Then there were also sites where I felt a sense that they were a bit tacky, or that they were basically tourist sites.

The souvenir shopping.

Yes, exactly. There was a part of me which felt that I was somehow more authentic. I was walking, in fact I was sweating. I hadn’t turned up in a coach. That’s obviously a vanity because when you read accounts of Rome in the 13th century, people are complaining about all the touts and all the shops selling souvenirs and stuff. These major religious sites, especially places like Rome or Jerusalem, have had pilgrims and tourists for centuries and centuries and centuries.

It’s not the case that one way of accessing the sites is more authentic than another. Having said that, time and time again during the journey, my own experience had been that any sense of the transcendent or the sense of there being something bigger than me had come primarily from the landscape or else occasionally from very remote chapels, small sites in lonely places. In Israel, when I reached the desert, I got a very powerful sense of something greater than me.

When you arrive in Jerusalem you say “Here I was just another pilgrim” and then “Yet I encountered little sense of the sacred – that threadbare hint of something big beyond human spectacle – and doubted that my life had been transformed by reaching the city.” For me the striking image was when you lay down near the Jaffa gates, almost like a marathon runner at the end of the race. Jerusalem seemed to mostly disappoint. Or perhaps that’s being unfair?

No, I think you’ve articulated it very well. I don’t think that’s the fault of the city. The expectations that someone builds up on a journey – especially a journey of such length – cannot realistically be met…Having said that, the Old City of Jerusalem – there’s nowhere that’s really comparable to it. I think it’s not surprising that for many religions and many believers it exists as much in their imagination as it does in the bricks and the stone and the buildings that make it up. Perhaps part of the difficulty that people have is mapping the imaginary Jerusalem and the physical Jerusalem and fitting them together.

Then you continue on and you cross into the West Bank next to Bethlehem. Writing about Israel and Palestine is such a fraught subject. Were you worried about that? What’s interesting is that your focus is not on the politics. There’s almost minimal reference to it. Were you conscious of that? Was writing about Israel/Palestine something that was of more concern than how you wrote about Albania for example?

Certainly I wanted to be as careful as possible in the language that I used, knowing that there was potentially no formula of language that wouldn’t offend someone. I was also fairly determined not to make it a major part of the book. The reason for that was because, as I said earlier on, you read a travel book because it can offer you a unique insight into a place that cannot be gained by any other means.

I feel that I had insights about the place from walking across it but I did not gain any unique or even particularly valuable insights about the conflict.

Given that so much has been written about it by people so much better qualified than me, I thought that trying to introduce some material about that or trying to conjure something vaguely original based on my experience was a waste of time.

You said that you expected the “wrecking of Christianity”. Instead you found it “holding tight to its decayed inheritance.” What is the place of Christianity and religion in today’s world and personally for you?

I think that the impulse towards worship of some kind is pretty deep within us. There are examples of early forms of religion dating back as long as the archaeological record…Then the question is what do you do with those impulses? One way that we can redirect them is by creating idols out of things that are not religion. So personal success, beauty, fame, wealth, power. All of these familiar idols that people make the primary purpose of their life and then devote themselves to.

The problem with those idols is that the pursuit of them can be very damaging. I think in my own life, in my early 20s, whatever it was I wanted, those goals were not helping me to be happy or fulfilled. It’s certainly the case that religion can provide a series of goals or teachings that are equally damaging, but the believers I encountered on my walk, on the whole, seemed to understand something which I didn’t understand. That has to do with how to live a content and fulfilled and meaningful life. I felt that I had something to learn from them over the course of the journey.

When I got to the end of my journey and when I was trying to work out how to incorporate these insights into my everyday life, I wasn’t suddenly a believer, but I was keen to try to keep hold of some of these practices and insights. Because I thought that they could be valuable over the long term. I don’t know, but I suspect that if I had grown up in the UK as a secular Jew, for example, the idea of attending synagogue to engage with the broader community, the idea of looking at the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament as a text of narrative interest, even if I didn’t necessarily buy into the theological or metaphysical claims, would have made more sense…Because of the tradition that I came out of, if I didn’t believe, it never occurred to me that I would get anything out of religion at all. What I’ve been finding since I finished the walk is that there’s still very rich cultural resources that I can engage with. I go to evensong about once or twice a month, where you have beautiful choral singing, and you have the King James Bible which is beautiful language. If I’m in a different city or town, I’ll visit their church or their cathedral, and there’s often beautiful architecture. All of this seems obvious now, but it had just never occurred to me prior to the walk.

Two final questions, one big and one small. You said that, “Perhaps I would keep going. Perhaps the pilgrimage would never end. If I wanted to finish the pilgrimage, I should start walking again.” There’s this constant sense that really what you want to do is to keep walking. Have you been able to carry on? Is the pilgrimage about the destination or is it about the act of walking? Can you see yourself integrating, maybe not such an epic walk, but further acts of pilgrimage into your life or was that really a one-time event?

The hunger and the desperation behind the journey, behind the original impulse for walking, I’m glad to say that that’s no longer a feature of my life. In a way, the walk did the job that I hoped it would do. I no longer feel the need to set off across the continents to try to mend or heal something within me. At the same time, there are lessons that I learned on the journey, which I hope will remain with me for the rest of my life. The most obvious one was the generosity I was shown by so many strangers along the way.

I was often passing through remote communities, rural communities, the people showing me generosity often didn’t have very much themselves, but they shared with me all the same. This was an example as, or more powerful, than any of the more obviously pious behavior that I encountered. Then the second thing was that I had these ambitions to write prior to the journey. The journey gave me something to write about. In a way, I continued the pilgrimage in the writing of the book. This is now, I hope, the major project of my life, to continue writing. A number of the interests that I began to explore in the walk and the journey, those stayed with me and I hope I’ll be able to revisit them in future work. As I’ve mentioned, I go to church occasionally. I enjoy hiking, but one or two days is enough for me. Increasingly it feels like the pilgrimage carried on in my life through writing.

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