Walking in the presence of God


Modern day pilgrims are a mixed bunch and the reasons for the journey are many and varied. Some regard it as no more than a walking holiday with a purpose; others journey in hope of a spiritual or physical cure. Interest is growing. Open House readers and contributors share some of their pilgrims’ tales.

Sr Margaret Anne Minards, who is a member of the religious community Helpers of the Holy Souls, has completed a number of pilgrimages. It is an experience close to her heart.

“Every so often I hear the call, ‘Leave your own people and your father’s house and go to a land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1) and ‘Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come’ (Song of Songs 2:10).

My first pilgrimage was about 15 years ago when I walked across Mull from Craignure to Fionnphort, and then on to Iona, with a group of eight fellow Helpers of the Holy Souls, staying in a campsite, and bussing to and fro to a new starting point each day.

Then we added a few friends and walked the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne, again staying in campsites but with car and driver in support, carrying our tents. This time we had a priest with us, and could have Eucharist at significant points along the way.

I have done two cycling pilgrimages – one from Burgos to Santiago de Compostella, about 400 miles of the Camino during Holy Week one year, cycling with another Sister with two others supporting us in a car. I did a solo pilgrimage with bike and tent from Nunraw Abbey to Iona Abbey.

At the end of May, 20 of us plan to walk the St Andrew’s Way from Leven in Fife to St Andrew’s, along the coastal route, about eight miles each day, for five days.

I love to set out on a pilgrimage. I love the planning and the preparation. I love the involvement of friends, family, members of my religious community, some from other countries, and priests. I love the setting out each day after a prayerful reflection on the Gospel of the day, read together, sitting on the shore or in a field, and then walking into the unknown. I love the people we meet on the way, sharing their stories, and their interest in who we are and what we are doing and I especially love the quiet reflective sharing and listening to each other at the end of each day, in awe and gratitude for the amazing journeys that are being made, outside and inside.

For me, pilgrimage is a very good metaphor for life, and a prayer that is physically spiritual, prayed together in the great outdoor cathedral.

Tim Rhead, a regular Open House contributor, walked the St Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose to the holy island of Lindisfarne.

My friend Kevin and I walked the St Cuthbert’s Way, 70 miles from Melrose, along the Tweed and over the Cheviot Hills into England. Finally, we waded barefoot along the traditional pilgrims’ path across the mud to Holy Island.

Holy Island has a permanent population of 160; the village is full of character, old cottages, winding streets, pubs, cafes and shops. They are full of people when the causeway is open, but the whole place becomes very quiet when the tide comes in and the day visitors have departed.

There are three churches on Holy Island, and the ruins of the medieval priory. The first Christian community was founded by St Aidan in the seventh century. He was sent by the monastery in Iona at the invitation of Oswald, the new Christian king of Northumbria. Cuthbert, who was born near Melrose, became abbot then bishop, and was greatly revered for his holiness. He was known to be fond of birds and the local eider ducks came to be called St.Cuthbert’s ducklings. After the terrible Viking raids which destroyed the community, the surviving monks carried St. Cuthbert’s body to the mainland in search of a place of safety, eventually ending up at Durham, where his body still lies in the great cathedral.

On Saturday evening, the United Reformed Church, which has been converted into a retreat centre, held a service of meditation. Talking to the Mennonites and other visitors reminded us that many people are on a spiritual journey, and that God speaks to us in many different place and ways. The Celtic saints had a great awareness of God through nature; the sea, rivers, hills and the birds and animals, which we experienced during our five day walk.

Walking the Camino
El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) is the name given to any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of St James in Santiago De Compostella in north east Spain. The Camino has been a pilgrimage route since mediaeval times and is marked with a scallop shell which has become its symbol. Quite why the shell has become so strongly associated with the Camino is a mixture of legend, myth and practical explanation but the evidence is that the association between the scallop shell and the Camino stretches back centuries. A recent excavation at the shrine of St Adrian (also known as Ethernan) on the Isle of May in the Forth uncovered a man’s body with half of a scallop shell wedged in his mouth.

Julian, Michael and Jim followed the Camino Francés (the French Way) from different starting points) while I followed the lesser known Via de La Plata route starting at Ourense. To be a recognised pilgrim and have your Credentiel (the certification that you have completed the journey) issued in Santiago you must complete at least 100kms by foot, bicycle or horse.

Br Julian Harris FMS walked the Camino in 2012.
“Two years ago I flew to Arles in the south of France to begin a thousand mile walk to Santiago. I was walking alone. It was an inner journey. As Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General wrote in 1950: “The longest Journey is the journey inwards.” “You are being led, and God will make sure you get what you need and when you need it” (Richard Rohr). On my 60 day journey on six occasions I got the last remaining
bed in the Albergue.

After only four days walking I was crippled with an ingrowing toenail. At the end of mass on Palm Sunday a doctor in the congregation did minor surgery in her house. Her quip was the following: “The road to Compostella is strewn with stars … and thorns”.

Three weeks walking in France at the end of April, through forest tracks, muddy fields or chalky paths was only possible using the CSJ guidebook. It was necessary to phone ahead, not to book a bed but to make sure the pilgrim hostel was open. I was often the only one there and we were at the most four.

I came over the Pyrenees at the Somport Pass. Three hours of heavy rain on the way up to the hostel and snowing in the morning on the way down into the valley of the Rio Aragon. Forty days of walking in Spain to Compostella, in May and June, will need another chapter.”

Michael Martin, with friends from his regular walking group, completed the Camino in 2013
“I am left with two major impressions after walking the final 100 kilometres of the Camino. The first is how reflective of humankind the pilgrims we encountered were. They ranged in age from a four month old baby who was pushed or carried by his parents, to those of more mature status and those of retirement age. The variety of nationalities was striking; the majority were Europeans, but there were many from North America and some from further afield, certainly from Australia and South Korea. You felt that the Camino had been taken over by humanity itself; it was not an activity which exclusively belonged to Catholic or Christian tradition. As Ian Fraser feels able to say, ‘I am a catholic of the reformed tradition’, so the pilgrims we met were asserting their identity as pilgrims by reason of their humanity.

My other impression was that there was what I called a ‘conspiracy of kindness’ operating, whereby pilgrims were supported and eased to their
destination. This was in evidence in the hospitality we found along the way, in the accommodation provided and in the wayside provision in cafes and bars. Equally, in the goodwill expressed by fellow pilgrims in their constant greeting of ‘Buen Camino’. There is a saying ‘Con pan y vino se anda camino’. But the bread and wine were an expression of the loving kindness which sustained us all the way to Santiago.”

Fr Jim Lawlor remembers his Camino.
“I have always liked the motto of John Geddes – the 18th century Scottish bishop. A true polymath, friend of Burns, contributor to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Geddes walked between Glasgow and Edinburgh to minister to people. Ambula Coram Deo, walking in the presence of God, captured how he lived and gave a name to the journal he kept. He had spent part of his life in Valladolid and must have known the Camino. Maybe that influenced his motto?

I walked the Camino Francés to mark my 40th birthday in 2003. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life; I long to do it again. Too many moments to highlight, but I was enthralled by Astorga. There’s an excellent refugio, but Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace (now a gallery) captivated me. The ‘Amigos’ of the Camino in Astorga invite pilgrims to submit their Camino journal to an international competition. When I returned home, I submitted the daily account of my Camino, but I had to choose a title. What better, with Geddes in mind, than to call it Ambula Coram Deo. The Camino is a great way to see – and taste – Spain and a way to carve time to walk in God’s presence. The E1500 prize will – eventually – fund the next trip!”

Lightening the load
I walked the final 110 kms of the Via de la Plata in 2012. In the five months between booking in March and starting my trip in August my mother’s health deteriorated significantly. Had I known that at the time I booked I probably would never have gone but knowing how things turned out I would not have missed it. Mine was the Camino for softies; luggage taken on the next stop and a knowledgeable guide to accompany us and chivvy us along when needed. I joined a party of twelve other strangers in Ourense, the capital of Gallicia. By the time we arrived in Santiago we had developed a wonderful sense of companionship and cohesion as a group.

Most pilgrims talk of inner journey of pilgrimage and I certainly experienced that as I reflected on events in my family in the previous
months. There is however something else, a sense of mentally unpacking with every step, a lightning of the load as our group shared life stories and worries. There were many highlights but seeing the empty square in Santiago fill up with people from across the world was for me a tangible manifestation of my membership of the universal church.

Thank you to all those who responded to our invitation to share their experience of pilgrimage, and good wishes to all those planning to travel a pilgrim route this summer.

Confraterinity of St James http://www.csj.org.uk/
Scottish Pilgrimage Routes Forum http://www.sprf.org.uk/index.html

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.