So as it is the first of September, and I haven’t written a blog for a while I thought this was a good time to start again. I have had lots of ideas on what to write, but as we have only been home for less than 2 weeks from our 7 week extravaganza overseas, it has taken a while to get the discipline to write anything.
However I feel I have to reflect on our holiday one more time in print, and I apologise, because it will contain some more of the walk. So here goes….
It is hard coming back from holidays. Somehow you have been in a different place, at a different pace, experiencing different things, and then, woosh, you are back. It’s a bit like time travelling. Yet the things we learn and experience on our holiday can sometimes affect us for the rest of our life.
So let me share a few.
We were in Dingle in Ireland, where I had been when I was in my 20s. I wanted to go to a bookshop/coffee shop that I loved then, and initially we found a bookshop which we thought was the one. However when I casually asked the owner, when buying a couple of books, whether there were any more bookshops in town, she surprising replied, oh yes there is one that has been here for many years. So we were in the wrong one! We followed her lead and sure enough there it was. So much for my 50 year old memory. A bookshop coffee shop before there was such a thing in Australia, which had been in the same place in Dingle for 37 years, with the same owners! It specialized in Irish writers, and had many, many books by John O’Donohue, a priest, and poet, who a friend introduced me to. So of course I bought one, for Dorothy and I to share! And took the obligatory photo.
When I took this book home, it spoke to me of Ireland, but also of the spirit, and of the God we come to find in nature. It is gentle, rather like the author, and reflects on life and the heart of our faith. It finds God or something spiritual (if you don’t want to use the term God) in the world around us. But also encourages us to find quiet time, reflective time, in which to embrace it.
So recently Matt and I have been lucky.
As you know (unless you haven’t been reading my blogs!) we completed a section of the Camino De Santiago, an ancient walking trail in Spain while we were away. It is also known as “The Way of St James” because it follows a pilgrimage taken by Christians from medieval times to the city of Santiago de Compostela. While today there are many paths to Santiago, the most popular is the French way, the one we followed, which is about 700 kms. Don’t panic though, we only did 110kms. People do the Camino, either the short or longer versions for many reasons. However while there are those who now walk it for exercise, or who bike ride or even use horses, it still has a great deal of spiritual significance. It is a pilgrimage that allows people to listen to their inner voice, what drives them, what gives them meaning and purpose, what sense if any do they have of God.
So as we walked, one step at a time, getting into a rhythm which placed us firmly in the here and now, not looking too far into the future and not looking back, these meditative aspects of the Camino were often on display.
We passed a lot of stone markers that point the way on the Camino, ancient signs that direct the traveller. These are very comforting, for those of us lacking directional sense. On them are often written notes, or notes are placed under stones. Many others have piles of stones on the top without notes. Towards the end of the Camino as you come into Santiago there are a length of steel fences that go on for some time. On these fences we found crosses, shoes, papers, poems, anything really that reflected the inner journey the walkers had been on, what they have left behind, what insight they have gained. It seems symbolic, this ritual placing of the stones or objects, as people shed things as they walked, giving up what was unimportant and superficial to them and perhaps discovering what instead was real and essential.
But it wasn’t just the symbolic letting go that occurred, people found voices about what they wanted to do as well, how they should live. There were many signs left along the way, many writings on bins, on bits of paper, on the road, that called us to act in the world, to make the world a better place. One person wrote out the song Imagine by John Lennon, on about 10 separate bins as we passed by. Every 5 kms or so there was a bin with another line on it. Others had statements written on trees, “we have two lives and the second one starts when we realize we only have one”, another one, “be the change”. Still others placed quotes and statements of poets and writers across the path on string. Anything from Jesus to Mark Twain. It was amazing. Walking the Camino is like an active meditation. By reflecting on life and even God, by listening, many people found themselves working out how they wanted to be in the world. And it was to live a life for others.
I think one of the best ones came from Anthony, our friend with the donkey, “love only love”.
For myself personally, I didn’t leave any stones or shoes or notes or even walking sticks, but I did feel lighter and freer at the end of the walk. As you all know there was a great deal of change and upheaval in my own life before we left, and so to have time to reflect, to feel and see the beautiful countryside, to engage with people from all over the world in gently conversation, opened a space in which the light shone in.
At the end of the walk once you enter the Cathedral Square in Santiago pilgrims head to what is known as the Pilgrims Office. Walkers are given a certificate printed in Latin, with your names in Latin inscribed on it, as though this was the beginning of something new. For the first time ever, when asked what I did for an occupation, I put Minister, rather than Scientist. With all the good and bad things that conjures up!
I know it seems a rather small step, but it marked a significant change in my life. A transformation in fact. Maybe I could accept all the contradictions tied up with being a follower of Jesus and that I do belong to a tradition that seeks God, and always will. I probably should have put my work book from RPH on the fence!
It also marked a change in membership, we had joined the Camino family and would never be the same again….
So my experience on the Camino, and on may other parts of our trip opened a newer way of being a person of faith. The inward journey, the meditative part, the inner voice seems more important now. I am utterly convinced that the God we meet in our deepest self, in the heart of us, drives us to be better people, better communities and hopefully a better more just world. And that Jesus leads by example!
But don’t get me wrong, I am new at this game really. I have always been a “head” person, a person of reason, I want to reason my faith, and now with the progressive Christian movement there is a place to understand Christianity and the historical Jesus and even God without leaving as they say, your brain at the door. Seeing God in all things, from the moment the universe began to what we have become now opens up a freedom not given to previous generations of people who confess a faith. It also opens up ways of seeking the wisdom in other faith traditions, sharing together our common bonds.
But I can also see in our busy, work centred lives, the lives where every second is filled that there is a need to actively seek silence or stillness, a time to empty the mind of the thoughts of the day and just be. If we find these places, then maybe we will also find the ground of our being and the being of the world. God can speak to us in these moments, just as the spirit can speak to us anywhere. But we have to be listening and that is the problem most of the time.
So I think I want to start some meditation, some quite moments in my day in an intentional way, and maybe introduce these at Wembley Downs Uniting in some way. Not that this community has not had that in the past, they have, but it is time to revisit them. We are hoping to build a labyrinth which is an ancient sacred way of replicating the Camino in the future. For not many people can walk 700kms!
So as I finish this blog I want to return to Ireland and John O’Donohue. Let me read a small passage from the introduction of the book I bought, which is called “Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”. It talks about the Burren Valley of his birth, which Matt and spent time walking in. It seems a good place to end, for today. For the journey will take a life time!
“Either way, as you travel this path and you look up at the sides of the valley as they climb to the horizon, all you can see is barren limestone speckled with green. The mind wonders how life could be sustained here, but if you could be guided by the wonder of your heart and you took a chance to cross the wall (without knocking it!) and climb, you could be starting a pilgrimage. Hidden in the fissured face of the mountain are surprising shelves of green showing to the sky, which sustain and nourish the animals over the bleak winter. Here you can gaze and graze in the wondrous pastures and the conversation begins. In this awakening you realise that, having tasted the mountains, nibbling at the sides of the path will satisfy you no longer”