Holiday Nostalgia, Journeying and the Path Ahead

Sometimes something makes me reflect on the impact of past events. One such is that Facebook brought to my notice that Journeying is thirty years old next year. That struck a note with me because the first holiday I went on with what was then Pilgrim Adventure was on their tend anniversary. That means that next year is twenty years since I first holidayed with them. Not that I have holidayed with them ever since.I haven’t but we are not getting ahead with the story let me go back to the beginning.

I booked the first holiday less than a week before leaving. This is not my normal style, I do slow planning. However, that year I desperately needed a holiday and had not got one organised. I suppose I should say something of why but forgive me my brevity there are long stories and confidences involved. About three years earlier my boyfriend had turned out not to exist. If that does not make sense to you, that is fine; it does not really make sense to me after living with it for over twenty years. I also was supporting a friend who was being stalked and there was a break down in relationships around us. I was also working full time and doing church-related study. The church-related study might sound silly but it was also the main way I got support from outside of the tight-knit group around my friend.

At my friend’s suggestion, I got hold of the Retreats Association publication that listed many retreats.  I am a Reformed Christian. The Reformed tradition does not really get ‘retreats’ as a whole. It does, however, get walking particularly walking within the natural environment as there is a strong environmental streak within the Reformed psyche. On the back page, I saw a small advert for Pilgrim Adventure and it clicked with me. So I think I must have emailed them and then received an email back saying there was a space on a holiday less than a week later. The next week was frantic with negotiations going on as to where exactly to meet up with them and trying to locate the necessary accommodation. My boss made an emergency trip home to pick up a sleeping mat for me the day before I left. But a week late I was staying in the tent below in the Lake District

In those days camping was fairly normal, indeed they owned the tent. The holiday worked for me in a number of ways. I found I enjoyed camping though I was cold, my sleeping bag really was not up to camping in a typical English Summer i.e. cool and damp and the sleeping mat was minimal although if I recall correctly one camper did not even have that. The camping enjoyment was two-fold; I found being forced to be away from tech good, my day job means I am always using tech, and I had my own space in the tent.   I enjoyed the walks although my fitness level was relatively poor. The group was unusual; fortunately, nobody who wanted any more than light friendliness with me. I was not ready for close friendship, there were Pilgrim Adventure stalwarts and a number of maturer Anglican women who seemed new to the organisation. The reasons that I remember it is twenty years is that I can remember the conversations about this being ten years.  For a variety of reasons, we must have been an odd group but a lot of the time I was floating and not being drawn into subgroups. I was sorry to go home at the end. I can remember sitting on a style and just not wanting it to finish but knowing it would. I am not going to pretend it was perfect but if it had been perfect it would not have suited me as well.

Not surprising the next year I was back. Firstly there was a camp at the end of June and then I think a holiday in Ireland or was it the other way around?

The following a trip walking St Cuthbert’s  Way. I can only date that because it was the year  Mary Low published her guide with Wild Goose. There was something really special about walking that route.  I am struggling to explain the holiday. It is probably the most influential of the holidays I took with Pilgrim Adventure. The crossing over to Lindisfarne by the Pilgrim Path is something special, in part captured by the piece I wrote last year after walking St Cuthbert’s Way by myself. Yet at the same time, it was a difficult time for me and cracks started to show. I had not yet learnt that I need to regulate myself similar to Lindisfarne. There are times when I enjoy being with people but there are also times when I need to be by myself. Maybe just maybe, there was something more complex yet going on. Whatever it was I ended up ill and needing some time out.

I think the year that followed,  for the only time in Pilgrim’s Adventure/Journeying history there was a Northern Group, that complemented the core group around Bristol and did weekend walks and such. The North is a big place and getting together for a day walk can be difficult. The next summer ended up travelling to Shetland. The time was fantastic for wildlife including being called over by one of the leaders to stand inches from a sleeping otter. One thing these holidays taught me is that if you want to see wildlife you need to be out for long periods of time. The year after I went to Ireland again but things did not work well. I ended up struggling with lactose intolerance (I think the Irish put milk into a lot of their bread) and being peopled out. Pilgrim Adventure was now usually staying in hostels or B&B and that meant sharing a room.  It was not that I needed my own room, it is that I need alone time and travelling with people, sharing meals with people and sleeping without the freedom to head out in free time just exhausts me.

Did I go on one last camping trip or was that the end. My memory serves both stories. Whatever it was life, was moving along.  I was now doing a masters degree in Sociology at the OU and then start my PhD (finished two years ago). I would go through burn out with my involvement in my local congregation and then spend a summer volunteering on Iona (shared accommodation, shared meals but in time off I could disappear whether to St Columba’s bay or just to my bed to sleep).  Finally, my Goddaughters, who I would have been guardian too if anything happened to their parents, moved to Scotland and I need to use my holiday to keep in contact with them.

Time moves on again, the PhD is finished and my Goddaughters are growing into young women and no longer need me as a guardian. This could be just an exercise in nostalgia only it isn’t. The last three years I have been getting myself fit enough to solitary walk and last year I walked the Northumberland Coastal Path and St Cuthbert’s Way. This year I walked the Cleveland Way from Helmsley to Whitby. The experience of walking a route with my pack is something I relish. There is something very deep about the moving a walking pace from one place to another with all you need in your pack and meeting fellow travellers on the way. There is something special about receiving what the path brings you as gift. As you have to be out regardless, I carry full waterproofs, you are out in the most spectacular of weathers.  Yes, I am already beginning to plan me walk for next year, the next challenge. I am not yet up to carrying camping gear as well.  I know there is something in me that really want to. I ask questions about how I would cope as just over fifty is different to just over thirty. So I book myself beds for the nights but I am happy as long as it is somewhere to sleep.  So even if I am not going on one of Journeying’s holidays next year, the holidays I am doing are still shaped by them

Shrove Tide

Between the lighting of
a candle and
the beating of
batter,
at the barren bound time
when the cold iron air
hits the hard flint
earth
a spark
is created
that will light
the spring fire
of the coming year.

This poem I published in  “Everything Looks Green From Here” a collection of prose and poetry from Broomspring Writers in 2010

Sacred Compass: The Spiritual Way of Discernment by J Brent Bill

Book Cover

This book is written by an American Evangelical Quaker. So there are a number of things that need tackling before getting into the book. I have learnt that while Quakers are often seen in this country as liminal to Christian orthodoxy in the US they come in two varieties. There are those who are theologically in a similar position to UK Quakers and there are the Evangelical Quakers who clearly are orthodox though pretty liberal with respect to the Christian tradition but hold to elements of the Quaker tradition as well. J Brent Bill comes from this Evangelical stream. As such his theology would be a pretty close fit with that of many URC  congregations particularly those that draw on elements of Separatism. Secondly, through Ship-of-Fools I have become aware that Quakerism has a wholly separate tradition of spiritual discernment and given the way even in this country we overlap I wanted to include some exploration of it within what I looked at.

Firstly this is not a book that places the spiritual accompaniment in a wider context. The metaphor used is deliberately that of a compass and not a road map or a SatNav. He also has the Puritan idea that what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. To illustrate this he uses the Draft in the US and the decisions made by him and two friends. One friend coming from a more Radical Quaker tradition openly resisted, the other friend  a Lutheran who could have been excused sought to go and he himself having no clear guidance sought to delay. Though the responses were very different yet each decision was brought out of who that person was and their journey with God.

Secondly, core to discernment processes are  leadings with certain characteristics that he lists in his chapter on paying attention he suggests testing out leadings against:

  • the Fruits of the Spirit
  • caring
  • a sense of harmony with God
  • generosity
  • persistence
  • rightness
  • surrender of our wills to God’s.

He also suggests that they should come from within and not imposed from outside.

He deals with being lost times and I found myself quoting him while on the Spiritual Direction session simply because he says that in the New Testament

lost is simply lost, not damned or condemned.

I added that I suspect if you sense yourself as lost it is the first step towards being found.

He outlines a process which passes through sensing, waiting and acting. In the discernment process, we are moving continually back and forwards between the stages or completing the circle. He describes spiritual friendship as a

friendship between people committed to each other and to the deepening of their faith lives

He talks of what Quakers call “Weighty Friends” who are people that others instinctively turn to for spiritual guidance. In some ways ironic because having to explain the times my faith intuition seems able to grasp something ahead I used the metaphor of “thin” as in the Celtic Spiritual  term “thin place“. I think because I am so often surprised by it myself. He describes such people as having a “call:
to create a safe place for spiritual investigation
to embrace hope
to hear the Spirit
to encourage faithful obedience”

I think so far this has been the most useful of the books I have read. In that it has cored me back to what I already sensed and yet has given some form to the process without being prescriptive.

Pilgrim Path

past the water channel
that marks the boundary
of the arrow-grass salt marsh
we finally step out onto mudflats
then awkwardly hop about
as we remove clumsy boots
tie  laces together
and hang them from our packs
then roll our trousers above the knee
in preparation for the traverse
cautiously we move
trying to avoid the glasswort
in case it is slippery seaweed
towards where the poles
point heavenwards
in an otherwise horizontal world
the left behind causeway becomes
just a distant murmur of traffic
drowned by the keening of seals
hidden in the light’s vastness.

sanderlings flicker-feed beside us
a heron languidly flaps by
black-backed gulls speed overhead
between blueness of sky
and its browned reflection in the sand
we walk between masts that mark
the safe route across this unveiled
sea-wilderness that stretches
the horizon

broken shells sharp against our feet
seagrassed mud-mires grasp our legs
firm bottom runnels cool our calves
soft sands ooze between our toes
each step a different experience
each step a repeat of all others
a pole in front
one behind
mesmerised
there is no map
or sense of distance covered
only the journey

yet this too is finite
eventually we come
to the point
where marram grass rises
above sand-dune
and we reach landfall

Solitary Walking – a Reformed Spiritual Practice?

This is initial thinking and it is not simple.

Firstly, one of the big shocks of my thesis was that the Reformed Spirituality is instinctively Green. It is really weird because the people who are most surprised by this are the Reformed.  The idea that getting out into the natural world is good for the soul seems to be deeply embedded and has deeper roots than the idea that we are the driving spirituality of capitalism. The Green nature of Reformed may well stem from John Calvin’s idea of the natural world as the theatre of God’s Glory. Or rather it may well be that John Calvin’s own spirituality connected with the natural world which led to his doctrine of the world as “theatre of God’s Glory”. That is the connection made in  Ravished by Beauty by Belden C Lane. If so we are also called not to turn it into some safe primary school image of itself but to see it in its complexity with the dark and the dangerous included. I am never quite sure whether I like God, God is far too challenging for the word “like”.

Secondly, we are inherently an active tradition. This means that we like to tackle problems and achieve things. The idea of sitting quietly in a room does not fit naturally with who we are, so the idea that we should go out into the natural world and just breathe in the beauty is not going to fit with the Reformed activism. Here walking comes to our aid. We are doing something; it might not be getting us very far, far quickly but we are doing something.

Thirdly, there is a substantial literature on spiritual aspects of walking, quite a bit of it generally secular. However, what is probably more important to the Reformed Christian is there is a strong linkage with radical ideas of society and justice. Walking is not a practice that gives us just space but it also connects to radical views on what society is. People such as Peace Pilgrim, Jarrow Hunger March, and this teenager against climate change have used walking as a means of engaging in wider aspects of society.

Fourthly, Pilgrim sites may be un-Reformed but the journeying is far more ambiguous particularly within the Separatist tradition in England. It is the tradition that both created the Pilgrim Fathers and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The metaphor of the Christian life as a journey runs deep. It is also true that if Geneva is the birthplace of the Reformed tradition then it is also a tradition whose creation was dominated by refugees. There is no accident in the Reformed traditions perpetual return to the stories of Exodus and Exile. We are a travelling people and that goes for the English Reformed as much as anyone due to the Five Mile Act.

So walking in the countryside seems to be a good match with Reformed Spirituality. What do I mean by Solitary Walking? The normal term for hiking alone is Solo Hiking. What I want to get at with Solitary Walking is the deliberate embracing of the spiritual side of walking. Solitaries are another term for hermits so in this respect, I am exploring a spirituality that links with the eremitical tradition rather than the monastic.  So here are the Spiritual connections I see.

Firstly the Bible has lots of people travelling and because of the history of the Bible, a lot of these journeys were on foot. So we assume that Adam and Eve left the garden on foot, a journey from, not a journey towards. Abraham is called to journey (actually it is his father Terah who starts off the journey but there is no account of the call of Terah), the  Exodus,  Ruth and Naomi’s journey, the Exile and Return, Jesus’ peripatetic teaching ministry in Galilee and Paul’s missionary journeys are all stories of travel. There is no lack of travel during God’s revelation. Perhaps it could be argued that God is able to reach people particular when they are moving, it is the stationary periods where things particularly go wrong.

Secondly walking is physical, repetitive and slow. As such it is at odds with much of the modern culture which focuses on the new, the virtual and the quick. We become, myself very much included, stimulation junkies. Walking allows us to lower our desired level of stimulation without us going to the cold turkey of a plain room, silence, and stillness. Let me deal with each term in order. Walking is physical, you need to be at least partly present in the moment or you end up walking into things whether lamposts, other people or dog dirt. There is, however, more as the art of walking is keeping going and that means paying attention to very practical things such as food, what you are wearing and how far it is until you next rest. It thus in a very practical way brings you into the present. It is repetitive in that involves the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, usually several thousand times in a days hike. In this perhaps it fits with a number of other spiritual practices such as bead prayers (e.g. the rosary) and  mantras (e.g. the Jesus prayer). Thirdly it is slow. I walk relatively quickly about 5km per hour on a reasonable terrain. It still takes me two hours to walk ten kilometers something a car cover in about 10 minutes! That means things change more slowly and I begin to notice things simply because I have the time to.

All of the last two paragraphs apply equally well to group walks as well as solitary ones. However, the solitary nature of a walk brings other spiritual aspects. These are silence, vulnerability, and freedom. I will take each of these as I suspect I am applying them in a bit of a different way.

Silence is rarely complete when walking, there is nearly always the crunch of your feet. However, when walking alone and not having a companion to talk with one of the things you do get is consistent big chunks of time when you are not trying to communicate with others. The only conversation you have is that which goes on in your own head.  The big advantage, therefore, is you actually get to listen to yourself  consistent spell of time. There is so much going on in modern life that distraction is everywhere. Although not necessarily physically noisy (though many distractions are) distractions are noisy in the sense used in signal processing. This noisiness means we loose connections with ourselves in much of modern life. The process of walking alone reduces the level of distraction so that we can hear ourselves and possibly in that gain some connection with God. However, unlike a silent retreat, it does not have the effect of a dive in off the high diving board into complete silence.

Vulnerability is not popular these days. We try and make ourselves secure against the need for other people. A single person is often seen as intrinsically vulnerable. I am dependent quite often on the kindness of strangers whether it is the offer of a cup of tea, helping me with directions or advice about local transport, the kindnesses are all welcome. In our seeking of self-sufficiency, we often cut ourselves off from receiving these kindnesses. This gives us the illusion of not needing others. What travelling as a solitary person among other people does is draw our attention back to our interdependence.

I really considered not including freedom in the list. It is perhaps not the usual item included in the spiritual practices and yet for me it is intrinsic to the process. There is on one level a very basic freedom, I have usually a number of miles to walk in a day and provided I cover those miles exactly how I do it and which paths I follow is totally within my control. It can feel quite liberating to take a path that is not that specified in the guidebook when appropriate. It reminds you of your self determination. On another level it gives a different freedom, that is the demands for time and attention most people live with most of the time. I am slightly disconnected from the continually on society that is part of modern life. If an email comes to work that needs urgent attention then it has to wait as I cannot deal with it until I have proper connections. What is more the people I meet do not know me, they are meeting me for the first time and thus have no expectations. I do not feel I am expected to be the canny statistician, dutiful daughter or loyal friend as no-one knows those personas. Personally I seem to attract these projected personas and they are not always compatible with each other.

Finally, having made a case for solitary walking as a spiritual practice largely suited to Reformed Spirituality let me point out why can only ever be part of the experience. I, myself and my shadow with the Bible are never sufficient within the Reformed tradition to be the Church. The Church must always consisted of an attempt to belong to a community. Some of this I believe goes to the heart of the Gospel where we have a God who seeks those who are separated from him. Other parts are very practical, loving people as an abstract idea is a form of wishful thinking, we can only really love people in the concrete physical reality of the present. Finally, my PhD has persuaded me that the discipline of the Church is realised within the life of the local congregational community.

That said I am still working on this and am not sure where it is leading.

Works Cited

Belden C Lane. Ravished by Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Hardback. ISBN:9780199755080

You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.