It was Good Friday, 1979. I had made a pilgrimage with approximately 30 other walkers from the west coast of Britain to the east coast. We stood on the shore across from the ancient monastic pilgrimage destination called Holy Island, or Lindisfarne. We were joined by fellow pilgrims from Edinburgh and Newcastle, in total about 150 walkers, mostly students, accompanied by clergy, friends and hiking enthusiasts. Some were devoutly religious; others were curious adventurers. We had travelled just south of the Scottish Border, near the town of Berwick Upon Tweed; we had followed the Pennine Way and had traversed part of Hadrian’s Wall. We were together with each other, with history, with creation and with God.
We had travelled some 125 miles over six days. Carrying full packs we were tired; our feet were sore; in some cases emotions were raw; we were grubby and smelly. Yet despite all that, there we stood viewing the island glimpsed by Saints Cuthbert and Aidan; we stood on the edge of the unsettling world of the North Sea — crashing waves, cold wind, salty spray — and the causeway passable only at low tide on certain days in particular seasons.
We pilgrims joined those who over centuries sought release from the ordinary in order to glimpse and experience the extra-ordinary, a metaphysical taste of God in all divine fullness, a real presence in our lives, invigorating our faith, inspiring our loves, our hopes, and vitalizing all our days (well, most days).
Not all pilgrimages are so romantic, historic, dynamic or emotive. They don’t have to be. During the pandemic many joked about the pilgrimage from the home office to the kitchen and back. My own household was blessed with a young Labradoodle, who pandemic or not, needed her own pilgrimage to the rolling hills of Kamloops.
A few years ago I enjoyed the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen. Determined to finish his late son’s Camino journey, he carries cremated remains in an act of sacred disposition. The path followed is the historic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a route and practice increasingly popular for many Canadians who seek time and space for a deeper engagement with life, love and the beauty of Creation. Many have been richly blessed by that particular historic walk. They identify the walk as both an invitation and a reward. The Camino however is not the only accessible pilgrimage. We can walk anywhere, anytime, especially throughout beautiful British Columbia, which many will during 2022 as part of a special Anglican Pilgrimage initiative.
There are many reasons to make a pilgrimage, alone or in community. Pilgrimages can be long or short — a half day, to a week or months. Some break walks into short sections depending on their availability; others have the opportunity for longer periods of time and travel. Time or circumstance are not the most important factors in making a pilgrimage. Intention and it’s first cousin, desire, are the most important requirements for a fruitful pilgrimage.
So ask yourself a simple question — can you separate yourself for a time, from pressing commitments, from work or other activity, from the delights and demands of family life and friendship circles, just for a time, intentionally? As with much religion and spirituality, the intention to live and love differently, even briefly, will provide the necessary detachment to enter into a different creative, thoughtful or prayerful space.
A second feature of pilgrimage, in fact one of its greatest gifts, is the opportunity to discover in a new way your place in a messy, mucky world, by taking yourself out of the action, for a time and for a reason – personal, social and spiritual refreshment. An intentional walk/pilgrimage shaped by a director can increase self-awareness and help you reflect upon and cherish all your connections – with people, with nature and beauty, with all creation and with God-in-Jesus.
Another reason people pursue pilgrimage is to reckon in a new way with demanding life situations, with health concerns, with changing relationships. Pilgrimage is not therapy, though its benefits and yield therapeutic results. Slowing life down, to a walking pace, governed more by breathing tha by external demands of obligations steadies the heart and mind, offering time for thought deeper than what is possible in normal circumstances. Step by step, the transition from one foot to another will connect in a visceral way with the transitions of life.
These pilgrimages we now promote are specially designed to refurbish our respect for, delight in and engagement with creation. We do so knowing very well that creation itself is injured; God’s world is in the critical care ward, crying for health and recovery. We know the effects of the climate emergency in our front and back yards. A deep engagement with the earth, mobilized by the physical discipline of walking, from one physical point to another, with a clear destination in sight, with other like-minded and heart-equipped pilgrims will generate hope and resilience in a new community with other travelers.
If you asked a Camino traveler about their greatest memory of their particular pilgrimage, all would mention the path and the place of the journey. Years afterward most will go further, saying that it is the conversations and the stories shared along the way that stay in the memory best.
The trailhead awaits . . . may these words constitute an invitation to a particular adventure, in faith, hope and love, through pilgrimage.