Moments of pilgrimage often came as a surprise.
In Assisi I climbed the hill above the town with spring flowers all around
and it seemed as if St Francis might walk around the corner any moment
to greet me,
and that the thunderstorm with drenching rain
that sent me scurrying down the hill to find shelter
was maybe his little joke.
Cycling in the Loire I kept ‘discovering’ St Martin sharing his cloak,
and in an almost forgotten 12th century church with thick stone walls,
where I sought solace from the summer afternoon heatwave,
was an exquisite altar plaque
that depicted the people carrying his body from the village where he died,
across rural fields to the city of Tours for his funeral.
A much beloved leader from so long ago,
when stories of Christ were far more recently told.
In Lourdes I felt my distance from the church,
and Mary organised a meeting with two Kiwis -
a shared meal when I was in need of company and conversation-
that was really a kind of communion.
While in Cahors I stumbled on the Camino route by accident –
over a medieval pilgrim bridge
a climb up a steep cliff, a stunning view as a reward
then a walk through fields of red poppies in the spring countryside.
That night I met a ‘modern’ saint - a woman who had walked for three weeks
from Le-Puy-en-Velay, and whose face radiated a deep joy.
The memory of her face and her joy lit my first inklings
that I too might walk the Camino…
In Ireland I met two saints firmly bedded in the faith of my ancestors.
St Kevin saw Glendalough in all weathers
but I had the good fortune to walk its hills in glorious sunshine.
Croagh Patrick brought harsh weather even in midsummer
and taught me about penitence learned in Irish hardship.
And so eventually I came to receive a pilgrim blessing in Le Puy
and set off myself along pilgrim routes to Santiago
knowing the company of those ancient pilgrims.
And in due course, I too arrived in Santiago,
with lessons learned in the daily rhythms of walking
lessons of simplicity, sharing, hospitality, thankfulness, and talking to God -
but I never walked with St Jacques Santiago St James
though he was very real for some.
This saint, for me was just a relic
of political power struggles in centuries past.
I never expected to meet him out walking in the fields…
Now, I wonder if I might walk some of the other routes towards Santiago
a different act though familiar
I think about the Frenchman Francis whom I met on my walk
perhaps for me a model pilgrim-
who noticed others, remembered them, gave wise advice
and prayed in the silence each day
But if I think about walking like him,
I am speaking in ‘shoulds’ instead of surprises
and surely everyday life
is the place to practise the mindfulness of others I learned from Francis?
My inklings now are more about walking and rhythm
and being outdoors for weeks in places where pilgrims walked centuries ago…
The memory of seeing a flower bursting forth out of rock
and the celebration it wrought in my heart
seems like a reason to walk again
as if somehow this healing is important for more than just me.
But can I ever be a ‘proper pilgrim’ on the route of St Jacques
who has never ‘spoken’ to me like St Francis or St Martin
and seems like a political warrior?
Maybe since millions have walked this way, I can too, despite my doubts.
There was a wound seared in soul
the moment my father died and was abruptly gone
I can’t forgive God
a trust was broken -a distance can’t be overcome
Yet somehow when there is pain in the feet that walk so far
My cross makes sense
and needs no other bridge
Pilgrimage lets me talk to this God even lets me be held
Those moments where God was absent in my grief
are cried for and walked through in the outdoors
and the centre of me understands the grief of some others.
Maybe that is enough reason for me to walk.
Maybe that makes me a pilgrim.
Or maybe it is time I just left that grief behind and walked
because our bodies were made to walk.