Place & TravelReligion & Spirituality

Glastonbury – the town that teaches discernment

Photo by Hans Splinter
Photo by Hans Splinter

Last summer, I decided to visit Glastonbury for the first time. The place, as the heart of the county bordering on my native Gloucestershire, had long intrigued me. And, as somewhere that claimed to be a special spiritual place, I wanted to get under its skin, to take a kind of experiential snapshot.

According to current estimates, there are 70 – 100 different faith groups in today’s Glastonbury. The town is home to the only Goddess temple in Europe and an array of esoteric practices and beliefs that generate a vibrant spiritual economy and a wealth of workshops, meetings and rituals beyond the capacity of any one person’s diary. These sit alongside branches of the main global faiths, including of course Christianity. Glastonbury Abbey dates back to the early years of British Christianity, and legend has it was founded by Joseph of Arimathea when he came to Somerset with the young Jesus.

So, with a nod to the literary genre in which the traveller writes about his native land, I set off in search of Glastonbury.

What I found was the clearest example, in the form of a place, of the need for discernment that I have ever seen. Discernment, a term used to describe the delicate process of deciding how to live and what to do in moral, practical and spiritual terms, has long been part of the Christian tradition; these days it’s also widely recognised in pagan and other traditions as essential to right living.

The point about discernment is that it requires engagement, and it takes time. Trying to discern the right choice rules out the uncritical embracing of an attractive option, just as it inhibits the hasty dismissal of the unfamiliar. It takes time and patience to come to the (working) conclusion that this or that person/life/group/idea is or isn’t for you. Maybe it was, and now it isn’t any longer: discernment is open to change.

Discernment, in other words, is the antidote to dogma. And, because it’s something that everyone needs to use in their own lives, it distinguishes itself from rational scepticism in that it includes the psycho-spiritual and is personally meaningful.

For the discerning visitor, Glastonbury is the business. It would be impossible to go there and appreciate it with an attitude of dismissive scepticism: that would be like Richard Dawkins writing the biography of Rowan Williams, and miss the point entirely. As testified by its long spiritual lineage and cornucopia of faiths and beliefs, there is clearly something going on in Glastonbury. Its distinctive nature and atmosphere attracts spiritual tourists from all over the world, along with a regular influx of residents who move there in the hope of a different way of life. To dismiss this all as New Age nonsense would be to ignore a vitally interesting example of the interplay between meaning and place.

At the same time, those looking to Glastonbury for easy answers and pain-free transformation are likely to be disappointed. This all-too-human town, as some of its residents in my travelogue point out, presents challenges to those who go there, especially to the unwary. ‘Discernment needs to be used a lot,’ says Morgana West, founder of the Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre. ‘This is what we advocate – be discerning, explore, but keep your feet on the ground and sort the wheat from the chaff.’

‘Sometimes someone has a guru and realises that it’s just another human being who’s getting a lot of money out of them,’ she adds. ‘A lot of people come and think, “it’s Glastonbury, everyone here will have all the answers”. Unfortunately, they don’t.’

In Search of Glastonbury is out on 20th June.