About 25 years ago, the thought occurred to me that one day I might do the Land's End to John O'Groats walk in the UK. On this walk, walkers make their way from the far southwest corner of to its far northeast corner, a distance of just under 900 miles.
Of course this takes months, and seldom does one have that much time. However, having retired, I realized that, if I so chose, the time was now mine to undertake this long-considered project.
I wanted to undertake it, however, in a spirit of pilgrimage rather than simply physical accomplishment. And I didn't simply want to visit notable places of pilgrimage, such as Iona or Canterbury. I wanted to walk fairly directly from south to north as a pilgrim, and take note, as I walked, of signs of interest in pilgrimage in places other than where one would usually expect to find them.
So, for example, I noticed a new statue in the garden of the bishop's palace in Wells, an androgynous figure in a windblown garment with the simple name, "Pilgrim." I walked down Pilgrim Street in Newcastle. I chanced upon a little rural parish in that had organized a pilgrimage among the churches of its deanery. Most curiously, I noticed in Orkney some advertising brochures for a Danish line of jewelry for men, again simply called "Pilgrim"! And in parish after parish, I noticed in the bulletins encouragements to parishioners to go on pilgrimage.
I did start at on March 21, aiming to reach John O'Groats June 21. The first two weeks were very hard-rainy and windy, with much of my path muddy, slippery and stony. The guidebook I was using had clearly been written by a 24-year-old Olympic athlete (he neglected to mention this), and I very quickly (by day 2!) had to adjust my itinerary to match my capacity. Why, I moaned, had I ever left my washer and dryer?
It took about a month to adjust the weight and balance of my backpack to a point of complete comfort. During this time a pilgrim's staff did indeed "comfort" me, saving me from falling countless times. I also wore a fabulous pair of boots, in which I walked somewhere between 400 and 500 miles without a single blister.
What Philip Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage calls "companions on the way" was also important. Five friends joined me, two men and three women, the shortest for one day, the longest for nine days, and we walked together in the spirit of Newman's hymn, "Lead, kindly light"-"O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent," "One step enough for me." Sometimes we knew we were on the path; sometimes we just hoped we were on the path-the difference is enormous, and the parallels between this kind of walking and spiritual direction came thick and fast.
About seven weeks after I started, I found myself one day in Newcastle Cathedral, simply looking at its many treasures and not thinking about anything in particular. Then the cathedral organ began to play-don't know what, something majestic. I found myself weeping, and realized that, in John Wesley's words, my heart had been "strangely warmed." It was a deeply integrative moment, a simultaneous experience of confession and absolution, an experience in which the many jigsaw-puzzle-pieces of my life came together into one pattern--or perhaps I just fell through the floor into God's basement and landed on my feet.
On the path in
Whatever remains for me to understand about this moment, it came to me instantly then that my pilgrimage was complete. I didn't have to go to John O'Groats if I didn't want to-and I didn't (tarmac, bogs, midges!). My great learning here was how pilgrimage takes time to come to organic fullness. It took me seven weeks of shedding cares and burdens, busyness and distraction, to reach a place where my heart could be "strangely warmed" in an ancient cathedral on a stopover between trains.
The kind of life we live in gives us precious few opportunities for this kind of experience. Even when a few of us are granted sabbaticals, we fill them with projects, and the heart remains insulated and untouched. And so I have returned to my own place and culture, knowing that I am still a pilgrim, and moved to try harder to resist the way that, like so many, I have heretofore, mostly, cut up my life into little pieces. None of these little pieces is bad in itself; but to live one's life this way fosters dis-integration rather than wholeness before God.
Thus, a word of encouragement - if you can so arrange it, plan to give yourself a substantial time of pilgrimage in which you can walk apart from your regular life-and then just notice what happens in your heart. If this isn't practical right now, then try to integrate into your life the spirit of pilgrimage, of walking freely and simply with God on a daily basis. Either way, let Walter Raleigh's words be yours, as they were mine:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage:
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.
Don retired in 2004 from SFU and in 2005 from St Oswald's, Port Kells. He is planning to lead a 12-day pilgrimage in August 2007 along in to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Anyone who can walk without difficulty is capable of doing this walk. Limited to 12 participants. For further information, contact Don at [email protected] or 604 709-0883.