Tag Archives: Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage reflection – Boxes, mindfulness and what Jesus can give to the world.

First a bit of background for those who don’t know. Last week a group of us from our church spent 5 days walking from Reigate to Winchester (about 75 miles). Before you ask (everyone has) this was pilgrimage for softies. We stayed in hotels and had our luggage taken for us. But, as I hadn’t done nearly as much training as last year it was physically a lot tougher.

One of the great things about a pilgrimage is it re-connects the spiritual and physical in a very real way. It also gives some space to consider and reflect. On the fourth evening we stayed in a retreat centre owned by the diocese of Winchester. This meant we had lots of room and also access to a quiet chapel. On this evening we were asked to take some paper and draw boxes on it. In each box we had to draw or write something which represented a part of our life. We then put these papers on the altar and offered them to God. The drawings I did are below:

Boxes

But drawing these pictures, with the definite lines between them, made me start thinking about the way I live my life. If I were to draw this as an accurate representation it would be a mess. The lines would be blurred; each box would seep into the other. Some boxes would be superimposed apon another one like an old ‘double exposed’ film. So, for instance, while I’m watching TV I’m thinking I ought to be cooking. While I’m praying I think how I’d like to be reading a novel. While I’m writing a blog post I’m thinking how I ought to be doing the housework. And I don’t think God wants me to live like this, not anymore.

This afternoon I was chatting with my daughter and she said that she was struggling with one of her skating moves. ‘I can’t do it full-heartedly,’ she said. Of course it was the wrong word. But I like it. I want to live full-heartedly. Each day on the pilgrimage came with joys and difficulties. On two days I was navigating which meant I also had to make sure everyone was keeping up and going in the right direction. Also, because I wasn’t very fit it was tiring at times. But there was great joy both in the beautiful landscape, being with my fellow pilgrims and walking with God. Living in the moment I felt I was really walking with God.

Towards the beginning of the walk we stopped at St Martha’s church. This is a small, ancient church set high on the downs. After spending some time inside the church we had some time to explore the churchyard before we set off again. So I got my paints out and painted this quick sketch over the valley:

From St Martha's Hill

And I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t worry about what other people were doing and while I was doing this I was completely lost in the moment. Enjoying the beauty of the view and being able to put it into paint.

Two themes kept on coming up during the conversations on the pilgrimage – mindfulness and evangelism. Mindfulness is much in fashion at the moment. For non-Christians it means filling your mind wholly with your immediate experience and letting worry and anxiety slip away. This could be your own breathing, a beautiful tree or some great wise saying. This is not a bad thing and, in this sense, both walking and painting are great mindful experiences. The rhythm of walking, especially day after day, soothes the mind. Moving gradually through a changing landscape fills the mind with interesting things at a pace it can cope with. Painting a scene in front of you is wholly absorbing, there is simply no room for anything else while you are doing it.

But, for a Christian, mindfulness has a much deeper purpose. By calming the mind and filling it with good things we are allowing God to speak to us. We may sometimes hear God’s voice directly but often it is the good things themselves, the beauty of the landscape, the conversation of friends, which will speak just as clearly. I am reminded of Jesus’ story about the seed:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. Some of it fell on the road; it was tramped down and the birds ate it. Other seed fell in the gravel; it sprouted, but withered because it didn’t have good roots. Other seed fell in the weeds; the weeds grew with it and strangled it. Other seed fell in rich earth and produced a bumper crop”

Our minds are rich earth indeed. But if they are full of the weeds of worry then nothing will grow in them. But if we are growing and walking with God then we can do what we like. Day by day, minute by minute we can choose what we do and it will be the right thing.

So there are many gifts Jesus can offer to the world and to us. Kindness, justice and compassion are just some of them. But, and it seems to me that the world needs this more than anything, the greatest gift is peace. Peace in the world must start with peace in our hearts.  In the slow tramp of feet, the landscape opening up and closing in, the ever changing conversations and the moments of stillness I began to find that peace. It still seems like a fragile thing but, even so, I pass on the timeless greeting:

Peace be with you

 

New Year, New Pilgrimage

Misty Walk

We had a very strange walk yesterday. A thick fog had come down onto the country and it just felt like the dead end of winter. I felt a strange sense of dislocation with no idea of where we were and no visual clues beyond what we could see 30 metres ahead.

This time of year is odd. We are constantly being told to ‘make resolutions’ and ‘look ahead’. Yet I can honestly say that I don’t know what this year will bring. Like the walk I’m taking things one instruction at a time.

And there was no colour in the landscape. Only a dull brown and green. In a month or so there will be snowdrops and crocuses but even the Christmas lights are packed away now.

Dark WalkI took this picture about an hour before we finished. Luckily it was quite a clear path and not too muddy. Every now and then the lights of a house would be visible in the darkness. Husband and me joked that we could knock on the door and find ourselves in a ‘murder mystery’.

So, what is on the horizon this year? A new job in a couple of weeks time, A new pilgrimage in April (this time from Reigate to Winchester) and a swimming holiday in Croatia. New Year resolutions are:

  • Blog more
  • Paint more
  • Worry Less

That’ll do.

Berlin – A family pilgrimage

I don’t know what I expected. This photo seems to capture something of what I found. Berlin was a strange mixture of old and new. New images and lights on old style buildings. But nothing really old. In London there are little Tudor alleyways next to brand new office blocks. Here, everything has been built (or re-built) since 1945. And its very quiet with lots of electric trams and bicycles. We stayed in a little hotel in the East side of the city. Several people I had spoken to in England had warned me that it would be grim but it wasn’t. In the 25 years since the wall came down the city has been transformed. The old buildings, built by the GDR in the 50s, are still there but painted and with new windows. At street level they are full of cafes and boutiques.

Elias Sachs GraveOn the first morning we visited the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. This is the grave of my Great-Great Grandfather and mother, Elias and Flora Sachs. He was born 1829 near Katowice in (what is now) Poland. After running a successful metal processing plant the family moved to Berlin where he retired to help bring up his children (according to my Dad, he wasn’t very good at it).

After looking at the grave and discussing how we could keep it in better condition we wandered through the cemetery. Two things struck me: One was how many other Sachs graves there were, the other was that the cemetery was completely intact. It was a bus ride out of central Berlin but, unlike everything else, it was completely undamaged. Grand monuments had been placed next to modest grave stones; some of them quite old. There were some new graves as well, but these all seemed to be in this century.

Me and my Dad started talking about Jewish history in Germany. He is a keen amateur historian and has co-authored a book called ‘German Family Snapshots’. On the way back to the bus stop he talked about various members of the family. Some of these had been quite prominent members of German society, some had lived quiet respectable lives. Some had died peacefully, others had their lives ended or disrupted by the Holocaust.

When I was in Oxford last year I met a Church of England Vicar. He seemed much engaged with the problem of suffering, especially on a mass scale. ‘How do we deal with this as Christians?’ He asked. My answer, then and now, was ‘One life at a time.’ Each person who died in the Holocaust lived a life. Each person who survived it, but was forced into exile, lived a life. Those lives may have been shorter than they should have been or lived far from home but they were all important to God. Each one of those people felt love, pain, sorrow and joy. We can remember and celebrate this as well as the millions of other German people whose lives were ended or changed by the war.

AlexanderplatzLater that day we relaxed in these deckchairs in the Alexanderplatz, sipped iced coffee and chatted. With the brightly coloured trams and blue sky it felt like being in a picture postcard.

So, what have I brought back from Berlin? I feel rather proud. Proud to have our Jewish connection with this great city. Follow another branch of my family and you find James Simon (My Great-great Grandfather’s cousin). He was a great benefactor to the city. This notice is next to a park named after him. James Simon noticeBut I also feel proud of my German heritage. Berlin is a brave, amazing place, a huge project to bring together East and West. It is a city being created and built in a way I’ve never seen before. It didn’t have to be done and it may still fail but I’m glad that the German people have decided to do it.

It has taken some time to get to Berlin. There were many times in the last few years when it could have happened. But it felt like the right time and I was able to come with my husband and children (aged 15 and 20, so not really children any more) as well as my Dad. What also feels right is that we are all Christians. The circle has turned and we have come back to God. A different faith but the same God.

A new pilgrimage – Friday

Packing

There are all sorts of pilgrimages we can make. The last one involved a lot of walking. This one involves packing tents, sleeping bags, pillows and getting in the car down to a vast campsite in Somerset. Its two years since we have been to New Wine. How do I feel? Excited, a bit worried (that we won’t have everything). It feels like, as a family, we are a real team this year with the kids doing their bit and really helping. I’m going to have to keep this short as I haven’t packed any books, washing stuff or anything. But, I’m going to make a promise. That I will blog every day we are there. Even if it is only a picture sent from my phone. See you there.

 

Pilgrimage Story – Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral

After 5 days of walking I expected to feel exhausted, desperate for the end of the walk. I also expected to feel a sense of completion. Neither was true. We often talk about ‘life changing experiences’ and, I guess, every experience changes us a little bit. But I honestly think that I will look back at those five days and realise they were a turning point. I am still not sure what my future holds but I have learned some important things:

Firstly that God wants us to live now. Not constantly worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. When I look back my most vivid visual memory will be walking through the beech woods before Rochester. The silver trunks of the trees moving in some mysterious pattern against the blue and green of bluebells and new leaves. I had hoped that the rhythm of the walking would slow my thoughts and so it did. And I finally realised that, by the grace of God, I am OK. Not unbattered by life’s storms, not unscarred, but really OK.

Secondly I have discovered that I really like long distance walking. I was lucky in that I had time to prepare but I love the gentle sense of discovery, a sort of slow motion uncovering. Having spent most of the last 25 years in front of a computer screen it was a great joy to use my body in this way.

Thirdly that there can be a great joy in supporting others. There were many times when those around me were struggling in different ways. I’ve never been particularly good at coming up behind people and helping them along but I began to see that I could do this.

Almost the last thing we did was attend evensong at Canterbury Cathedral. I wasn’t that keen. We had already had a private service. But it was exactly right. The beauty of the ancient ritual and the choir singing was like a gentle full stop to the whole experience. I will carry these five days with me for the rest of my life.

Pilgrimage Story

Day 1

Millenium Stones

The pilgrimage started in mist. Yet for me it felt as though the mist had lifted. All the fears and moods I had experienced for the last few weeks lifted and I felt a lightness of spirit that continued for the whole of the 5 days. As we gathered in the car park at the top of Reigate Hill I really felt I was setting out on a journey.

My memories of that first day are of abundance and space. Our first stop was at these rather mysterious ‘Millenium Stones’. Each one had an inscription from the last two thousand years. Starting with the first few verses of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

It is the beginning of an extraordinary passage which links words with actions and God with the reality of the physical world. In the rhythm of the steps we took; In the ups and downs of the North Downs, we all experienced a bit of that reality.

Sheep and Goats

This is some of us on the first day near the stones. The sheep and goats were very friendly and interested in us, especially our packed lunches! As we walked along the mist lifted and we had amazing views over the countryside and then sometimes we were in woods, quite closed in. I remember especially fields of wild garlic under the trees with their great glossy green leaves. We also saw our first bluebells that day, but just a smattering, not the carpets we saw later. And there was an abundance of conversation. One of the people walking with us that day was a young man about to train as a priest. I was really interested in how he had come to that decision. It seemed that other people had recognised this in him before he had in himself and had told him so. And I walked with a lady swimming teacher and we talked about how kids did and didn’t learn to swim. On that first day I didn’t feel a need for silence, that came later.

After almost 20 miles of walking we came to a strange sort of wood. A number of large bushy pine trees had come down across the path. We couldn’t tell if they had been felled or just fallen. It seemed at first as though it would be impossible to get through them but there proved to be a way round or over all of them, all of us felt this to be symbolic in one way or another.  Then we came out of the wood and had sight of Chevening  House. It looked much like any other large country house, only the tall metal fence around it showed it to be a government residence.

Chevening Altar

As it grew dark we came to Chevening village. I knew we were going to stop at the church but I hadn’t expected such a warm welcome: Coffee and cake and a wonderful lecture on the history of the church. The image I cannot get out of my head is of coming into the warmly lit church through a curtain. We were tired and dirty but made so welcome. On the altar was this wonderful carving of the last supper.

 Day 2

The second day seemed harder. For many people in our group it was a lot harder. Blisters and knee problems set in. I was lucky that I had had time to prepare and get my knees strong enough but I know that some people in our group were really struggling on that second day. It was on this second day that the walk began to feel more like a pilgrimage.

Pilgrims WayIt had rained heavily in the night and the clouds were still over the downs. There were quite a lot of small steep, slippery paths and, although we still had some amazing views we had to concentrate on the footing.

Then, quite suddenly, we came out on a large clear space high over the valley. The land around belonged to a Christian training centre and they had put a large wooden cross at the edge of this space to act as an open air worship centre. As I looked at the cross I seemed to see another cross on another windy hilltop long ago, as the sky went dark:

Cross

Walking in woodsAs we talked together many people said ‘Oh, but the walking’s not the important thing’. But for me it was a sort of calming rhythm that forced me to exist at a slower pace. I had wondered what it would be like to be without the pressures of working with computers and, that afternoon, I started to find out.  I dropped behind and just enjoyed the beauty of the woods ‘A cathedral of treeness’. Each kind of tree had its own special way of growing and existing. At the end of that day, coming into Rochester we walked through a long wood full of elegant beech trees that made different shapes as we walked.

Ladybird and nettlesEvery now and then I would look down and see the spring growth at the side of the path. I caught this ladybird sitting on a bed of nettles.

 

 

 

 

Day 3

Day 3 did not start well for me. We had arranged to attend morning prayer and communion at Rochester cathedral. I was not raised in a Christian family and our own church is fairly informal so the complexity of these services was baffling. I couldn’t understand why we had to pause in the middle of sentences (and for how long?). The Dean was wearing a beautiful robe but it made the service like a theatrical performance. That, and not being able to follow the short service in the various books we were given, I felt I was just looking on as an outsider, not involved at all.

Then at (a very good) breakfast in the church café it was suggested that we should all walk together at a slower pace. I had really enjoyed the fast pace and long walks of the last two days so this didn’t seem like a good idea at all in my current state of mind.

At this point I should explain something: Each one of us had been given a ‘Prayer partner’. This was someone who was not walking with us but was supporting us through prayer and other means. Vanessa and I sent texts to each other and she had also prepared a little card for each day with a thought and a bible verse. I had a daily shock as she hit the nail on the head with amazing accuracy. Her thought for day 3 was:

You have an inner strength and I know you can help encourage others. Keep going, this may be the hardest day but you can do it.

Sometimes we just need to be told! The walk was a lot shorter that day.

StepsBut we had a lot of steps, endlessly up and down, and it was the only rainy day. I hope I was encouraging to those around us. I’ll remember it as a day of conversations: A conversation, walking through the rain, about God and Science (two great passions of my life) and how they each made the other come alive; A conversation over coffee in a pub about our lives when we were younger; A conversation about answers to prayer and, near the end of the walk: a conversation about these very strange flowers growing under some Yew trees:

Strange Flowers

 Day 4

Vanessa’s text for the day was Matthew 11:28:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Lean the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Message translation)

Pilgrim's Way

And so it was. It was a day of fast walking on easy tracks but the sense of lightness and rhythm increased. We had a singer with us and she tried to get us all singing. The problem was we couldn’t remember the words. We were walking mostly on the original pilgrims way and I had a sense of all the thousands and thousands of feet that had been before us. What were they hoping for? Healing of their bodies or souls? Resolution or forgiveness? As I walked along in the spring sunshine I imagined Jesus walking beside me, keeping step. Not the western vision of Jesus: tall and delicate, but a short swarthy chap with dark skin and a hooked nose, in a rather grubby linen robe. In the evening I drew this picture of the both of us walking together:

Walking with Jesus
At lunchtime we were joined by a few others, including our Vicar, Phil. There was the option of driving a few miles and doing a shorter walk or walking another 11 miles that afternoon. I was quite keen to do the longer walk and in the end there were just 3 of us doing the whole 11 miles. One of our youth ministers, Wendy, was with us and she extracted all sorts of information from me and Hazel: How we met our husbands, how we ended up in our professions. When we finally came into Chilham we were certainly ready for a drink and a rest but it was a good afternoon.

 Day 5

Pilgrims

The final day was just as I had imagined it: Lots of people walking together, sunshine and fluffy clouds. With only 7 miles to walk it was like a holiday. We passed through lots of apple orchards with blossom on the trees. With everyone walking at different speeds there were lots of stops and conversations. I had lived for two years in north west Canterbury so the countryside became more and more familiar to me.

BlossomIt seemed like a different person who had walked through the chestnut woods 26 years ago and in a way it was. It was before marriage, children, Jesus and a whole career in computing. In spite of this it was good to be back. As is so often the case, it was all smaller, brighter and really quite pretty compared with all those years ago.

And then, finally we were at the cathedral. And what happened there, and what happened next will be in the next post.