Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve [Review]

This is part of a semi-regular section of The AQ Blog called ‘AQ Reviews.’ It primarily involves book and film reviews. Film will be rated out of 5 stars. Books will either be ‘recommended,’ ‘not recommended,’ or ‘recommended with reservations.’ I will attempt to review things that are readily available on the internet, Netflix, at libraries or bookstores and will provide links to what I can. There’s no sense in reviewing things that can’t be shared by all. Enjoy.

After reviewing the Richard Dawkins documentary series, I want to move on to another secular series exploring a part of religious observance. Pilgrimage is well hosted by Simon Reeve, a traveller who is not religious but wishes he was. Part historical exploration, part religious musing, this documentary looks at one of the things that many religious people feel is their duty and the highlight of their lives. Travelling through Britain, Europe, and Israel, Reeve offers a look at the historic routes that pilgrims would have taken and where pilgrims go now. It is an enjoyable, fascinating look at the practice, but more importantly it offers an antidote to Dawkins’ antagonistic mode of operation.

“I Wish I Was”

Reeve notes in the first episode of the series that he is not religious, but wshes he was. Part of the documentary is him coming to an understanding of the real power of pilgrimage. He talks to pilgrims, to clergy and historians all in an attempt to understand what it all means. He obviously enjoys the experience and even experiences his own emotional breakthrough moment while visiting the birthplace of Jesus in Israel. It is moving to see someone who is not of faith have his own spiritual moment.

But he is not without questions. He visits one holy relic and is given the chance to see it taken out of the ornate box it is usually housed in. When faced with the ancient skull, he tells the monks with him that some people might find it rather macabre. The monks hadn’t thought of it that way. Reeve’s question is not an antagonistic one, but merely an observation of an outsider, of someone who does not understand but it is trying to put himself in the shoes of another. It is refreshing after watching Richard Dawkins’ somewhat wilful misunderstanding of the religious experience (ie. likening Haggard’s church to the Nuremberg Rally) to see someone approach the unknown and foreign with an open mind.

Reeve does not convert, of course, and it is to be expected that he wouldn’t. But he is more sympathetic, more understanding of people different from himself. The limitation of it being a travel documentary is that the inner experience of the presenter is left out for the most part. One review said that it was too muddled to make any real impact (at least in the first episode). To an extent that is correct. But for people who have direct experience of faith, even the unspoken part will have some sense. Because they know what it feels like first hand and will not need it explained to them.

Padre Pio

For me, the most interesting part of the whole series was the spectacle of the “shrine” to Padre Pio. I put shrine in quotes because the location has all the hallmarks of an evangelical megachurch. Its modern architecture and the tourist aspect of it puts me very much in mind of the commercialism of some high power preachers. The inside of the church was just as bad, though impressively emblazoned with gold, which we are told was donated by devotees of the padre. The mosaics ring around in a kind of stations of the cross way, depicting Padre Pio in various activities, including opening the mail. At one point, Reeve stops to look at a mosaic depicting the Padre snuggled up to Christ on the cross – perhaps a reminder of the stigmata he bore on his own person. But it feels wrong, it feels shallow, and the viewer is somewhat uncomfortable along with Reeve.

The town where the shrine is located probably should have disappeared years ago, but now it boasts an impressive tourist economy. Reeve interviews a hotel owner whose family has multiple hotels in the area. Originally, they were agriculturalists, either farming or owning sheep (I cannot quite remember which). It highlights some of the controversy around this modern saint.

The website The Arts Desk had this to say about it, and honestly I think it does a good job of summarizing it:

“For a study of religious belief in modern pilgrimage it was an excellent choice, however. Pio is still a controversial figure, much loved by working-class Catholics, yet described by a friar and psychologist in the 1950s as “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity”. At the time of Pio’s canonisation by Pope John Paul in 2002, the Catholic Church was accused by some of capitulating in the face of his popularity, while Pio’s supporters decried the elitist denigration of a figure of huge popular appeal. The controversy rumbles on. In 2011 an Italian historian claimed to have evidence that Pio’s stigmata were artificially kept open with carbolic acid.”

Modern Pilgrimage?

Reeve’s documentary, warts and all, truly is an exploration of what pilgrimage looks like today. The entire experience has many of the notes of modernity, including phones giving directions and safety measures (notably a look at the cameras in Jerusalem designed to prevent terror attacks). But throughout the series a feeling of ancientness, of venerableness, and of historical depth is present. Reeve feels it and so does the viewer.

In a way, pilgrimage will never be “modern.” It is designed to take people back in time. Relics, ancient shrines, the memory of the past and the dead – these all go in to making pilgrimage something other than modern. It is timeless.

This documentary series is a beautiful tribute to the historical practice and to the experience of modern pilgrimage. Reeve is a sympathetic character and the places he goes are staggeringly beautiful. No, it does not go into it with the same amount of spirutal depth that many Christians might like to see. But it offers a secular foot in the door to an experience of the soul that is sorely lacking in today’s world. For overall experience and enjoyability, I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.


Episode 1 on YouTube
The Guardian review of Episode 1
The Arts Desk Review 

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