Choose your own adventure: some thoughts on pilgrimage

IMG_1936My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.

There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.

There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.

Durham CathedralThere are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.

Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.

IMG_1942A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.

IMG_1941As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”

This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.

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My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?

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The thing we rarely talk about

In which Sara explores a Dirty Little Secret, with apologies to her areligious readers.

One morning during our Coast-to-Coast walk, we found ourselves sharing breakfast at our B&B with a couple we’d seen a few times over the past few days. We had a lively breakfast conversation, early on in which the woman and I discovered that we were both priests, I in a church in Portland, Oregon, and she in a parish in North Yorkshire. We talked of many things, although I’m sorry we didn’t exchange names throughout our conversation. She and her husband were ending their walk at the next village, which was a half-way point for most walkers and an ending point for some. As we passed each other in the hall during the time between breakfast and setting off, she said: “It’s too bad we didn’t meet each other earlier; we could have been saying Morning Prayer together all this while.”

Ah, yes. Morning Prayer. The Daily Office. The Prayer of the Church. The Office to which English clergy are bound by their ordination vows, in a way that Episcopal clergy ordained in the United States are not. We are bound to pray, and I many priests I know are indeed faithful to the traditional Office, but more are not. I have always envied those from branches of our Anglican Communion who do, in fact, manage to say the Office twice a day as a matter of course. Ken Leech once wrote: “the moment the Office is a place you go, rather than something you pray, you need to reorder your priorities” (or words to that effect).

I have often described clergy prayer life as a “dirty little secret.” The secret being that most of us who are ordained, if we were to reflect with complete honesty, on our prayer life, would say we didn’t have much of one. (And I would venture to say this applies across denominational lines; I don’t think Episcopal clergy have a monopoly on spotty prayer.) As St. Paul says, we, whose work is so often to encourage others in prayer, “do not pray as we ought.” Speaking only for myself, of course.

My prayer life is almost always its most regular and fruitful while I’m on vacation. Sabbatical has proven no different, although the shape of my prayer has changed from stage to stage. For some time leading up to sabbatical and including the first few weeks, I read through the whole Office faithfully each morning using the wonderful resource of Mission St. Clare. I have especially enjoyed knowing that a growing handful of folk from St. David’s use it each day. And yet, I have missed the Prayer Book with its beribboned heft, and found myself packing it, rather than the iPad, for my trips in May to Alaska and then to Ashland.

IMG_0213The Mission St. Clare app depends on good wifi, which has often not been present over much of the past several months. In mid-June, after some rich conversations with colleagues about such matters, I began experimenting with a pared-down version of the Office which allowed me to focus more on the gospel narrative and on prayer. Then, at the last minute while packing in London for the Coast to Coast walk, I jettisoned the Prayer Book, having no room for it in my backpack. Instead, I took with me a leaflet which is always tucked into my journal, of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. In Edinburgh, post-Walk, I have been re-united with my Prayer Book and have the sublime luxury of staying in a community which gathers for morning and evening prayer. So for these two weeks, my prayer life runneth over. I wake up and make myself tea and pray the BCP morning office in bed around 6:30 or 7. Then at 9:15, most mornings, I gather with community members for morning prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. At the end of the day, the community prays evening prayer from the Society of St. Francis, and at bedtime I return to my beloved Daily Devotion for the Close of Day. (“Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God” is one of my favorite scripture passages of all time. Why would anyone end the day with anything else?)

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I mention all of this because this summer I have dined at the smorgasbord of the generous variety of practices and prayer resources within our Anglican tradition. I know some who would say that the Benedictine principle of stability calls us to stick to one form of prayer whether we like it or not. However, it has been both refreshing and important to allow myself–at times of necessity–to avail myself of different practices. (Call it the Ignatian principle of God’s presence in desire, if it’s possible to so drastically mix monastics, mid-blog.)  It will be interesting to see which of these practices continue when I am home, left to my own devices, and returning to that other “office” where I go each day, and where I am relied upon by others as a Woman of Prayer.

I know that many people pray without ceasing, without aid of any written text. You may be one of those people. For me, written, structured prayer…it’s how I roll. I am both grateful for and dependent upon our rich tradition of psalms, lectionary, and prayers handed down through the ages. I appreciate the freedom to dip into it, in all of its fullness, and to acknowledge–if not always respond to–the invitation to go ever deeper.

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Disciples of the Desert Monastic Abba Agathon are said to have asked him: “Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort? Abba Agathon answered: “I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

I assume, naively perhaps, that laypeople have a better time of faithful prayer because their consciousness is less cluttered with Episcopocultural “shoulds” about such things.  And yet I have no reason to think that Abba Agathon was talking only about clergy when he described the struggle of prayer. So this question is for anyone reading this post: How goes the battle for you?

Up here at the 54th parallel

People who go to church with me know that I am fond of saying, about any given feast day (and even a few fast days), that this or that feast day is my very favorite day of the year. All Saints’ Day, Ash Wednesday, Advent I…all beloved. And this is how it’s been for me on this walk. With a few exceptions, every bed-and-breakfast, every meal, every village, has been better than the one before.

20130715-183534.jpg There was something especially sweet and enticing about the very last place we stayed before completing The Walk, Intake Farm just above the tiny village of Little Beck. (Beck is Old Norse for stream; we have followed many becks along this trek.) A working farm that raises about 60 head of beef every year, along with a few dozen lambs, the farm sits on a hillside with views of Whitby and Whitby Abbey to the north and the Yorkshire moors to the west. The farmhouse is huge, comfortably cluttered with thousands of books and mismatched overstuffed furniture. The upstairs guest rooms are large, light and airy. Our window looks east (where, somewhere over the hills is the North Sea and the end of the Walk) at a field full of cows and sheep and green hills beyond.

Up here at the 54th parallel it stays light until 10:30 pm, and the sun is fully risen, a bright wake-up call, before 5 am (daylight begins around 3:45). The nights are deliciously quiet, the mornings bright and inviting. This morning we both woke to the sun in our eyes as 5, and were packed and ready to hit the last stretch of trail by 6:30. With an hour to wait for breakfast, I had to be content with reading, drinking tea, and finishing my little coast-to-coast knitting project. Looking out at the sun on the hills, listening to the birds and the first sounds of sheep calling to each other, I didn’t want to leave. (“This is my very favorite B&B,” I said to Mark. “Let’s be sure to come back here.” It’s a running joke between us; we cannot imagine retracing the whole walk, but we have such a growing list of places where it would be great to come back and stay for a weekend, we might as well.)

When I moved to Portland in 1986, I did so in a Ryder Rent-a-Truck, driving from Boston to Portland along Interstate 90, which I like to think follows, roughly, the 45th parallel that bisects Oregon. I’d never seen most of our country, and it was a wonderful odyssey. I loved the vast, flat states–Wisconsin, parts of South Dakota–almost as much as the wild mountainous parts of Wyoming, Montana, and the Idaho panhandle. I was so moved by seeing so much of the country that I was completely unprepared for the most stunning part to be near the end, when the only thing on my mind was getting to Portland and out of that truck. So imagine my surprise when we drove through the Columbia River Gorge.

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That’s how it was today, finishing our Walk Across England. It was a perfect day for walking and we set out thinking only about the final finish line. I had expected that we would trudge through our three thousandth cow pasture and march through the village of Robin Hood’s Bay into the sea. Instead, we hit the sea about 75 minutes’ walking time north of the village, just south of Whitby, and were treated to a perfect path along the sea, worth every step it took to get here.

We made our way through the village down to the beach and did the ritual tossing of pebbles into the sea, pebbles we picked up eighteen days ago from the beach at St Bee’s on the Irish Sea on a misty-rainy day. It is hard to believe this particular journey – all 192 miles! – is behind us. I can’t wait to find out what’s next!

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Postcards from the North York Moors

It is hard to believe that The Walk is close to coming to the end, so soon after I feel I’ve finally gotten into,the rhythm of it all. We have four more walking days to go, before we throw our pebbles into the North Sea.

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Before heading for the hills, we passed this church, and for some reason I felt compelled to take a photo of the sign. Who needs four services on a Sunday, something for everyone? Why not four different services per month?

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After several days of relatively flat and–dare I say it?–somewhat ho-hum farmland, it was great to be in the hills again, with multiple steep, vast, wide-open climbs into the rugged landscape of Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, and the Hounds of the Baskervilles, landscape characterized, of course, by heather.

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The guidebook promises wonderful views from the moors, of the Pennines, the surrounding villages, and our first views of the North Sea. However, this was all we could see today.

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Boring Travelogue #2

In which Sara forgets what day it is, we expand our geographical glossary, and meditate on mattresses.

It’s finally happened. Two months into my four-month sabbatical, I’ve forgotten what day of the week it is. The only reason I can come reasonably close to naming the date is because the Fourth of July happened and I heard no fireworks and saw no American flags. I thought of friends with various Independence Day traditions, and while I miss the friends with whom I associate the holiday, I don’t miss the celebratory rituals.

On Day Five of the Coast-to-Coast walk, or C2C, Mark and I left Grasmere and hiked as quickly as we could the 7 or 8 miles to Patterdale, where we had copiously arranged to meet our son who was flying from Portland to Chicago to Manchester, and then taking the train north from Manchester to Windemere and then a bus from Windemere to Patterdale. We got to Patterdale long before the bus was due to arrive and checked in with the hotel which doubles as a bus stop, to learn for the first time that the bus we’d planned to meet only ran on weekends; this was Tuesday. The end of the story was that Nathan managed to take a cab to our B&B up the road and was all settled in by the time we finally got there. He was jet-lagged and miserable, it was a miserable, wet afternoon, the 400-year-old farmhouse where we stayed smelled like wet dog and cows, and I came down with a hideous cold. But….

On Day Six we said goodbye to all that and hike the most strenuous leg of the whole trip: 16 miles, mostly uphill (or so it felt) from Patterdale to Shap.

IMG_1734The Coast-to-Coast is like a small town that goes with you: you see the same people, not necessarily every day, but every second or third day, either on the trail, or at the pub later that day, or over breakfast. On the fifth day it seemed like everyone started at once (perhaps because all of our guidebooks had stressed what a long hard day it would be), but the trail was crowded, a long line of hikers going up the winding path from the town to this high mountain lake.

IMG_1743I’ve posted elsewhere about the Shap Abbey, but it’s worth mentioning again; in the middle of nowhere on the eastern edge of the Lake District, it’s what walkers see about 30 minutes before entering the town of Shap. Shap Abbey was the last abbey to be founded in England in 1199, and the last to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. The original tower is all that remains in tact. After walking 16 miles I didn’t really have the chi to actually tour the abbey, so in this photo you’re seeing everything I saw!

IMG_1746Day Seven was a much shorter hike, from Shap to the village of Orton. By now the landscape has changed considerably; we are definitely not in the Lake District anymore, but walking along stone walls through pasture after pasture in what I have always thought of as traditional English countryside; rolling hills and open spaces stitched together by stone walls and dotted with occasional trees and picturesque barns. The weather treated us better and better as the day went on and we could actually see our shadows by the time we got to Orton. We stayed in The Best B&B ever, the kind of place you might like to stay for a long weekend, not just a night between hikes. You can look it up.

IMG_1758On Day Eight we walked from Orton to Kirkby-Stephen, one of the booming metropolises along the way. (Meaning: more than one place to eat, an ATM, and the first traffic light we’ve seen since leaving London.) We had a fabulous dinner and explored the town and the church, which is named simply, Kirkby-Stephen Parish Church. The highlight of the church for me–worthy of a blog post all its own, perhaps–is the presence of the “Loki Stone,” the Norse god of mischief “Christianized” (according to the authorities) into a devil in chains. The trickster Loki comes to us from the Vikings and has been in place at the church in Kirkby-Stephen since the ninth or tenth century. Who knew?

Boring Travelogue #1

In which Sara injures several ribs and milks the injury for all it’s worth, Mark is valiant, we walk 38 miles, drink a lot of tea, and discover over and over again that English cuisine is much better than it used to be.

IMG_1690On Thursday, June 27, we took a train from London to St. Bee’s, the start of our 191-mile walk from coast to coast, that is, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. My first mistake, perhaps, was to allow myself a bit of smugness when I saw a couple on the train embarking on the same walk with medium-sized daypacks and gigantic suitcases, clearly having engaged one of the many baggage services that Mark and I have all along eschewed, opting instead for larger packs stuffed full with everything we need.

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Here we are with our packs at the very start of the journey.

However—however—I should have learned long ago not to be smug about anything. Our first night in St. Bee’s, after dropping off our packs at our B&B, putting on a layer of rain gear and tromping back into town for a delicious dinner, we walked up to St. Bee’s church, a wonderful historic place dating back to the tenth century, and in continuous use as a house of worship from then until now.

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We explored the church yard behind the church, where several headstones were decorated with the same distinctive, ancient cross I saw in a niche against the church building. In the back of the church year was a wall about chest high, over which my dear husband suggested we climb to get to the public footpath back to our B&B. There was a little ledge about the size of a banana half-way up the wall; he put one foot on the ledge, swung himself over and landed, gracefully as always, onto the other side. I followed, but my foot slipped off the mini-ledge. Had I been in better shape, I might have used that opportunity to do a handstand on the top of the stone wall. As it was, I came crashing down on it, landing squarely on the left side of my ribcage. (Ouch.) No more “hotel workouts” to supplement the walking, no more smugness about not paying someone to carry my bag, no more coughing or blowing my nose without a constant reminder of my own frailty.

Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt, and while sleeping has been a pain (literally), I am happiest when I’m hiking, and the hiking has been glorious, especially after the second day when I engaged the baggage service.

The first day we walked north along the coast about four miles, then inland toward Cleator, our first overnight on the walk. Along the way we stopped in a pub for tea and met a delightful father and daughter making the walk, and walked with them the next few miles.  After the dramatic climb up the coast from the beach at St. Bee’s, this first day was mostly flat, walking through fields and woods along stone fences and creeks, passing the occasional farmhouse. I don’t have a lot of photos from this day because, well, it was pouring rain.

Day Two was the shortest day of the whole 18-day walk; about five miles, including a dramatic up-and-down hill. We arrived in the village of Ennerdale Bridge in time to enjoy a late lunch at one local pub and then, a few hours later, an amazing dinner at another. (This is when we began to realize that English food is not what it used to be. In London, we ate mostly Indian, Caribbean, or Thai food, but here in the country, it’s all local, and good. Not a mushy pea in sight.)

IMG_1718By the time we get to Day Three, we’re coming to know the written voice of the author of our ever-handy Coast-to-Coast guidebook, whose maps strike fear and trembling in the heart of most walkers. The Zen koan for this day’s map: “The steep path is the right path.” We walked fourteen miles from Ennerdale Bridge into the heart of the Lake District, including an amazing climb up a “Beck,” or creek, onto a high windy (like 55 mph) ridge. During the climb I was grateful for every single lunge and every minute of cardio over the past few years!

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Day Four: Sunshine! And scenery that defies description, three-hundred and sixty degrees of it.  The word for the day is “crag.” As in “we just go over one more of these and then we descend down into the town.” There were a whole lot of these crags, but each one rewarded us with fabulous views and ever-increasing anticipation of the descent into Grasmere, the epicenter of the Lake District and the town of Wordsworth.

To be continued….