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Blisters & Blessings Galore

By Alun Brookfield.

In recent years it has become common for Christian leaders of all sorts to go on retreats, to take time out from the busy-ness of day to day ministry to think, reflect and pray. Many have taken advantage of the explosion in the numbers of retreat houses available throughout the UK and overseas.

But I wonder how many have tried a pilgrimage? No, I don’t mean the kind of pilgrimage organised by a tour company where everything is planned in advance and every eventuality is catered for.

What I’m talking about is the kind of pilgrimage in which the journey itself is part of the process of encountering God afresh. Mary and I have just been on such a pilgrimage and we recommend it as a spiritual exercise. These are our reflections on the experience.

We set out to walk the 86 miles from our parish in the UpperSwanseaValley to St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. St David’s is our mother cathedral, for our parish was, until the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, part of St David’s Diocese. So our aim was to walk to our mother church, as was a common objective of pilgrimage in the distant past, hoping to encounter God on the way. A secondary objective was to raise money for major development of one of our churches, to equip it for the next 100 years of its life and ministry in the UpperSwanseaValley.

We decided that part of our pilgrimage would be to offer a Pilgrim’s Blessing to every church and chapel of every denomination we passed on our route. This we did, usually without the people of the church being aware of what we did, but God knew and that was what mattered.

Five of us walked the whole journey, joined by others for some parts of the route. Two were experienced walkers for whom our target of 13-16 miles per day was comfortable. For the other three of our group, that was a challenging, demanding schedule, especially as we took a nine-foot cross with us all the way, and much of the journey was across steep valleys.

Working out our route in advance was part of the process. With a heavy cross, we couldn’t use main roads (no pavements!) or rough tracks. Instead we had to use side roads and country lanes (still no pavements, but much less chance of a collision!), so the whole route had to be planned meticulously, which involved driving it twice - once to work it out, and the second time to make sure it worked.

Then there was the matter of where to stay. We wrote to churches and chapels along the route, hoping to be able to sleep in church halls or vestries, but it soon became clear that they were not in a position to offer such hospitality. We toyed with the idea of B&Bs, but that would have been too expensive, so we decided to use our caravan and a small VW campervan, which left the question of where to park them overnight on six nights.

One of our parishioners had friends at two convenient places along the route, and our own home was also just off the route for the first night away. So that left another three nights for which to find hard standing for the vans. The only option was to drive the route and identify suitable places. Our caravan and campervan were pretty much self-sufficient, so we just needed somewhere legal and safe to park, with access to clean water. We identified three places: a trout fishery, a bus garage and a woollen mill. I visited each place, knocked on the door, explained to the bemused occupants what we were planning to do and please could we park on their car park. “Er, yes, why not?” was the equally bemused response! This was our first, but far from our last, encounter with the sheer generosity of all sorts of ordinary people we met en route.

Easter Sunday start

We set off on Easter Sunday. After a full morning of Easter Holy Communions, we set off on a ten mile journey, all of it through built-up areas. Our congregations had got behind us by now, supporting us with their love, their enthusiasm and their prayers, but that didn’t alter the fact that this was hard going. But, being Sunday afternoon, we met other congregations going into their chapels for Easter worship and exchanged blessings as we did so. We blessed every church and chapel we passed and, being a South Wales valley, there were a lot of these! We wondered whether we would ever arrive at our first destination, but arrive we did, and took photos to prove it.

The next five days were, for some of us, feats of endurance. Blisters abounded (we ended up with twelve between three of us!), exhaustion took its toll and there were moments when simply putting one foot in front of the other was an act of will and faith. But as we reached each day’s destination, we had that sense of achievement which made it all worthwhile.

The final day was brief - just four miles - because we wanted to arrive in St David’s early enough to ensure all was well for the service of thanksgiving which would take place in the cathedral during the afternoon. Many of our parishioners came by coach and car to join us for that, so that about 60 of us all packed into the Lady Chapel to give thanks for an amazing week.

Encountering God along the way

OK, so it was an important personal achievement, but in what way was it a spiritual exercise?

No doubt it was different for each of us, whether we walked for the whole seven days, or less, but the reality for all of us was that we met God in all sorts of significant ways.

1. Endurance

We found strength in God when ours gave out. For two of our group, who had never done anything as physically demanding before, the sheer effort of putting one foot in front of the other was an act of faith.

2. Relationships

The five of us who did the whole pilgrimage found a new depth in our relationships as we walked. Sharing all the basic necessities of life (including sticking blister patches on each other’s feet!) reduces life and relationships to the things which are truly important.

Not only that, but we were sharply aware of the emotional and prayer support coming from friends, family and parishioners. Every day we received text messages and phone calls, asking after our well-being.

Then there were the people who made the effort to get themselves to St David’s to share with us the completion of the pilgrimage.

In other words, we found a new understanding of what we have always believed, that the Christian faith is all about relationships.

3. Kindness

The kindness of strangers delighted and astonished us every day. There were the people who gave us hospitality and asked nothing in return, and the stranger who stopped his car to encourage us and gave us a financial gift for the Appeal. Then there were the people who stopped us as we passed to ask what we were doing, giving us a chance to share something of the gospel with them. And we shouldn’t forget Roy Noble of BBC Wales, who featured our pilgrimage on two editions of his afternoon radio programme; and the pub landlord who opened early on the only wet day of the pilgrimage to provide a bedraggled bunch of pilgrims with hot drinks and the use of his loo!

4. Simplicity

For the whole week, we had few of the things which have become a necessity in everyday life. We had no TV, no computers, no diaries, no commitments. All we had to do was walk, eat and sleep, and we discovered a joy and pleasure which is so often absent in the sheer busy-ness and complexity of life.

5. Aloneness

Most of the time, I was the one with the cross. What I hadn’t anticipated was the noise made by the wheels. It was so loud and persistent that I was unable to enter into the conversations of the other pilgrims. At first, I resented this, feeling lonely and not quite part of the team, but, as time went on, I came to enjoy the aloneness of the experience, giving me time to think, reflect and pray.

Aloneness is a Christian discipline, hallowed by many centuries of hermits and pilgrims. To experience its value on this occasion was a surprise and a delight.

6. Surprised by joy

When you go on pilgrimage, you relinquish control over your life and ministry. For a few precious days, my parish was in God’s hands, without any help from me! While I was out of control, amazing and good things happened for which I could take no credit whatsoever, not least a wonderfully positive atmosphere among the congregations on our return. Once again, we were reminded that we worship a God who loves to surprise his people with joy.

I hold and I am held

This story would not be complete without telling why we held our thanksgiving service in the Lady Chapel at St David’s rather than in the main body of the cathedral. Partly it was because we wanted a slightly more private space for the service, but mainly it was because, for reasons which remain a mystery, there is a link between the Lady Chapel and Spurgeon’s College in South London, where I trained for ministry.

One of the roof bosses in the Lady Chapel has a motif of a hand holding a cross with the legend in Welsh, Daliaf ac ym delir. It means I hold and I am held and in Latin (Et teneo et teneor) it is the motto of Spurgeon’s College. Why it appears in both places, 300 miles apart, is unknown, but it seems to sum up both my ministry and our pilgrimage. On pilgrimage, we had a tremendous sense of being held in God’s strength. In my ministry, I have been held by God even in moments when I was on the brink of letting go.

I end with a prayer which came to mean a lot to us on our pilgrimage and since.

Pilgrim God, our shoes are filled with stones, our feet are blistered and bleeding, our faces are stained with tears. As we stumble and fall may we know your presence in the bleeding and in the tears and in the healing and the laughter of our pilgrimage.

We pray for all pilgrims and seekers and companions on the way; for all travellers. Christ, may I walk together with you, in solidarity with the poor and with all of God’s creation.


Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

Ministry Today

You are reading Blisters and Blessings Galore by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 46 of Ministry Today, published in July 2009.

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