Glastonbury a destination for the modern pilgrim

Spiritualities converge in Glastonbury, England

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GLASTONBURY, England Aug 23, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Although once a market town with some light industry, Glastonbury (population 8,932) is now a prime tourist destination. Situated less than an hour’s drive from Bristol but about four hours from London, it is well-known for a popular rock concert and performing arts festival held a few miles from town almost every year since 1970. Yet Glastonbury is a very special venue for another reason because the town is a focal point for three spiritual tendencies.

This area was one of the first parts of Britain to be converted to Christianity about a millennium and a half ago. In the middle ages it had the richest monastery in England and, in fact, the town initially grew around the monastery. The great Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed in the Reformation of Henry VIII and the last abbot (along with two monks) was publically executed on the Tor [hill] outside town. Today, the magnificent ruins are a tourist attraction and for an admission fee of six pounds sterling visitors can stroll the grounds contemplating the era when the old Catholic church held great power in England.

Another ecclesiastical attraction is the Anglican church of St. John the Baptist off the High Street which actually dates from pre-Reformation times. Elsewhere, several late 15th-century buildings once connected to the old Abbey have remained. One of these, the George and Pilgrim Inn right on the High Street, is an old-fashioned pub serving meals as well as offering accommodation. There’s something here for the history buff but perhaps also for the Christian seeking out an old tradition even in today’s very secular England. To tour the town’s fuller architectural heritage pick up the pamphlet by Neill Bonham, The Glastonbury Millennium Trail available at the tourist information in the High Street for one pound sterling.

Glastonbury is also noted for its claims to a fabulous history of myths and legends. The famous King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere are supposedly buried in the old Abbey grounds. Watch for the marker signs when you visit. Some believed Glastonbury Abbey was the final resting place of the Holy Grail which had been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, uncle of Jesus Christ. As a boy, Jesus is thought to have dropped in at Glastonbury. St. Patrick is also supposed to have passed through Glastonbury on his way to Ireland. Historians put little stock in any of this but, nevertheless, it does pose an interesting question for popular culture. Why are so many legends centred on Glastonbury?

Layered on top of all this is a third and more recent spiritual tendency, highly visible in Glastonbury. The town is the home for various New Age religious types, alternative medicine healers, holistic therapists, mystics, Druids, goddess worshipers, yogis, gurus, Wiccans and so on. Many of the brightly decorated shops in the High Street sell their wares to the delight of visitors.

Why this tradition settled on Glastonbury is not entirely clear. In part, New Age believers know that places of strong Christian tradition, like a great abbey, are often built on former pagan sites. Additionally, there may have been some attraction to Glastonbury by its many legends and myths from the remote British past.

In some parts of Glastonbury the various spiritual traditions overlap. At St. John the Baptist Church there is a peculiar Glastonbury thorn bush which produces berries in winter. A sprig is cut by a schoolchild and sent each year to the reigning monarch. According to the legendary history, the original thorn bush grew when Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff in the ground. Clearly it’s a mythical and Christian overlay to something quite old and pagan. Likewise there is the Chalice Well where for a modest fee the visitor can enter a pleasant (modern) glade and sip the supposedly therapeutic waters from this ancient spring. The name of it (Chalice) is Christian but I thought it’s probably the closest we will ever get to enjoying a sacred grove of the Druids.

Myths, Christianity, new Age Spirituality, perhaps they share something in common. At Glastonbury each demonstrates how humankind tries to impose a spiritual topography on the physical landscape.

| Fred Donnelly

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