The word sounds a bit old-fashioned, a bit musty, a bit redolent of old schoolrooms and tattered copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—those wonderfully funny (and sometimes slightly naughty!) stories told by a group of pilgrims in the Middle Ages, travelling together on the famous Winchester-Canterbury pilgrimage route to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury. How could this possibly be relevant in New Zealand in the 21st century, so far from all the famous pilgrimage routes of Europe (and the theology that said that pilgrims earned merit in God’s eyes by visiting holy places)?
We decided to find out. We joined a pilgrimage organised by Whakatane Parish to the sites associated with Wiremu Tamihana and Tārore: one of the first converts to Christianity in the 1830s, the peacemaker during the Waikato Land Wars; and the little girl who was murdered at Wairere Falls, and whose copy of a Māori translation of the Gospel of Luke was stolen and touched the hearts of her murderer, her father, and the great chief Te Rauparaha with the message of holy peace.
I began to better understand those pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales: travelling together on a bus wasn’t quite the same as riding on horseback, but the same sense of camaraderie and enjoyment, the same urge to tell stories, to learn about each other, seemed to be as present in these modern-day pilgrims as in the ones in Chaucer’s time. Partly it was a way to pass the time between sites, but it was also a chance to find out how we came to be there, to get to know each other, and to share our joy in God’s love.
Praying at the very simple little grave of Tārore, standing next to that little white cross and picket fence out in the glorious spring sunshine of the Waikato is probably a different experience from praying in the chapel of St Thomas, but nevertheless, it was a “still place”, with all the wildflowers blowing in the breeze and the sun soft on our faces, and the sense of this small girl’s love for God and message of gentleness and forgiveness close all around us. We could see the Wairere Falls directly across from her grave, some 10-12km away, and had a sense of the sad journey her father had to bring her body home and his own struggle not to seek revenge for her murder, but to be faithful to the way of peace he had chosen.
The stained glass windows in All Saints’ Matamata commemorate both Wiremu Tamihana and Tārore in a stunning, modern style. There she sits, at the base of the Falls under the kowhāi, with tui and piwakawaka (fantails) fluttering about her, reading her Gospel. Another window nearby shows St Francis preaching to the birds of New Zealand that same message of compassionate love and peaceful courage.
St Thomas à Becket has had pilgrims coming to his grave for nearly a thousand years, after he was murdered by a greedy king for standing up for the faith and the church of his time. Tārore died in 1836, on her way to the mission school in Tauranga, after it was moved from the location near her home, and her grave has been a place of prayer ever since.
Both Thomas’ and Tārore’s stories inspire us to journey with them in the way of God, the way of compassion and love, the struggle to forgive and find peace even in the midst of bitter pain and loss. They tell us that listening to and learning from the saints who have gone before us is important—not to put them on pedestals, but to hear their human voices, their frustrations and their triumphs, and inspiring us with their steadfast courage in the face of loss and risk as they travelled with God in their own day, and as we travel with God in ours and find our own courage and hope with them.
Pilgrimage in 2014? Oh, I think so.
This article first appeared in the St Luke's Parish (Rotorua) magazine Reaching Out, St Luke's Day/Advent edition 2014