I am taking a course on Celtic spirituality as a part of my Doctor of Ministry studies, and am leaving Sunday afternoon to spend two weeks in Scotland and England. That meant I needed new boots!
The second week I will spend in seminar with about eight other people on Holy Island, a tiny dot of land that can only reached at low tide. But the first week I will be walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, a pilgrimage that traces the journey of Cuthbert from Melrose in Scotland (where he became a monk) to the island abbey at Lindisfarne (where he eventually was bishop).
The walk is about a hundred kilometers and it will take me five days, walking alone. The paths are well marked but rugged with hills, pastures, and dirt paths. I have sturdy hiking boots, walking poles and a good raincoat. My pack is not too heavy. Perhaps most importantly, I have been practicing.
Although I normally go to the gym several times a week to walk on a treadmill, I decided that the only way to be really prepared for this pilgrimage was to put on my boots and walk outside. So I walked wooded trails in cold, warmth, rain and sunshine, usually for a couple of hours at a time. This may have been a cool spring, but I’ve had three sunburns on my face already!
Especially at the beginning, those long walks felt very strange. Walking is not the usual way we get around here in the suburbs. Most of us drive everywhere, since our destination is too far away or we are in too much of a hurry. I am not used to doing more than taking the dog for a quick walk.
Walking such long distances made me feel slow. And tired. And vulnerable. I was exposed not just to the elements, but also to the people who could see me through their windows or as they drove by. Sometimes I was embarrassed to find I was praying out loud, talking to God as if I was talking to the clouds. Sometimes I was too cold, or too hot.
Yet walking also made me feel alive. Refreshed. Connected to the trees and grass and birds. I noticed how the ice storm damaged many of the willow trees. I discovered a new park. I couldn’t believe how high the water was in the creek while the snow melted. On Holy Thursday before our evening worship service, I walked down in the valley near our house and reveled in the sunshine and quiet company of God’s creation around me.
This is why I am going on a pilgrimage, even though I am nervous about traveling halfway around the world by myself with little more than a map and a compass. I want to immerse myself in beauty and silence, nature and divine presence. I want to pray and think and reflect and consider those saints who have walked before me.
Each day I will begin with words of blessing that are included in Esther DeWaal’s book, “The Celtic Way of Prayer”. They are words for you, too, wherever you are walking these days:
Bless to me, O God, the earth beneath my foot,
Bless to me, O God, the path whereon I go;
Bless to me, O God, the thing of my desire;
Thou Evermore of evermore,
Bless Thou to me my rest.