Pilgrimage, a way of life  

Sheana Barby & Celia Potter
Easter 2020

When in sweet April the sweet showers fall
and pierce the drought of March to the root
then people long to go on pilgrimage
and seek the stranger lands

Thus begins the ancient book – ‘The Canterbury Tales’ – a story of a band of pilgrims walking to Canterbury and, en route, sharing their stories. 

We too long to go on pilgrimage but sadly have to wait . . . we cannot do that now.

And in this lockdown time when we can only live from day to day and enjoy the present moment, I begin to realise how fortunate we are, as Franciscan pilgrims. 

We are all very different and the extroverts amongst us may find it a time of great difficulty whilst introverts might well enjoy being hermits – but wherever we are as personalities we have shared memories and experiences which can perhaps help us to cope.

Pilgrimage is often described as going on a retreat – but without the silence and stillness. It’s a time out of our normal everyday lives when we can focus entirely on each day – the route, the next accommodation, the next happening of the day.

Guardians of groups cannot make detailed plans for more than one day; housekeepers cannot buy too much to carry; cooks have to be flexible when village shops wreck havoc with their plans or big ovens get transformed into small microwaves; troubadours have to seize the moment and those who guide our thoughts and prayers may have to change their plans at a moments notice – when the weather changes or the hall does not have suitable resources.

Everyone has to contribute in some way, discovering something new about our fellow pilgrims, having to discipline ourselves to group sleeping times which may be at odds with our normal pattern, having to accept simple foods which may not be as tempting or tasty as our normal diets.  We all have to accept that map- readers can make mistakes or paths we expect have disappeared. We have to sing different, and perhaps not favourite, songs and perhaps worship in unfamiliar ways

All this speaks of being challenged by something different and learning to live in a much more unplanned, uncontrolled way, than we normally do in our well adjusted, diary-driven, organised lifestyles. We have to learn to be much more tolerant, we have to learn that there are other ways of doing things than ‘our way’ and we have to see people through the eyes of Jesus and St Francis who valued people whatever their status, age, rank, etc etc. Everyone becomes a valued member of the group and has something to offer, whatever specific responsibility they may or may not have.

And above all we begin to realise that we can cope with more than we ever thought we could – sleeping on floors, walking whatever the weather, sharing extremely limited, shower less, bathroom facilities, managing with far fewer clothes than our full wardrobes can provide. We surprise ourselves – and even whilst admitting we are idiots, we can still enjoy each day, each place! Above all we begin to work out what are our real priorities in life

And it is these resources we have built up over the years which can perhaps help us now, in this strange ‘retreat’ time. Its easy to become self-centred in our own homes but we have the gift of knowing how enriching others can be to our lives; its easy to forget the outside or see it through the prism of our restricted lives but remembering our discussions helps us to be reminded of a wider world. Those of us over 70 can easily feel useless and unable to help – with the perception that we are a liability to society.  But at such times I hold on to the fact that I am a valued member of a group,  whatever my status or age, a child of god. Its fantastic that, even as I write this, the radio is full of demands that the nation must look after those in care homes and value the elderly.

I remember that on a pilgrimage we take turns in cooking etc – we do not have to be busy helping all the time, every day – we let others serve our meals or wash up! We support those who need a helping hand.  But we also have to let people serve us or help us!

All these very practical examples, I hope, can help us cope now. And we can continue all we have learnt in serving, supporting and being helped in the past for this present time.

For we can all support and give in all kinds of ways . . and then build up our strength for the next challenge ahead of us.

Our pilgrimages end in gathering together and then going home – and on that last pilgrim day we share and reflect on the week, the journey we have just had, before returning home.   

Hopefully, changed by the experiences of the week and ready to see ‘home’ in a new way:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – The Four Quartets

This year our theme has been Hope – when we started planning it in 2019, and writing materials to help with discussions, it was all very abstract. But the other day, someone on the radio said  ‘Hope’ has an air of determination to it . . well that was one word I don’t remember including in all our words exploring Hope last summer. But how right – we have to live these present weeks, not in some ephemeral wishy washy romantic dream, but with determination and courage looking to the events of each day, admitting the realities, but not letting the darkness overcome the light and life of pilgrimage.

We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song

St Augustine