Jesse James and The Pony Express

I fly back home this afternoon, from St Joseph, Missouri, where I have been privileged to be part of the ‘Water to Wine’ gathering at Word of Life Church, led by Brian and Perry Zahnd. I have been listening to Brian’s weekly podcasts for some time now and when I heard that he was going to be hosting this gathering, I said to Jane, “I think I need to go to that”. 

Once again, it has been a very strategic time for me and, coming at the beginning of the last month of my sabbatical, it has given me an opportunity to review and reflect on all that has been going on…and what re-entry (my July ‘word’) might entail. The town of St Joseph has two particular claims to fame: it was where The Pony Express began and where the life of Jesse James ended (there are museums about both). You’ve guessed it – my thoughts have been very much around the extent to which this sabbatical has been about some things in my life coming to an end, but also about the kind of new challenges and adventures that the Divine might be inviting me to pick up and partner with him in. I came across this very interesting quote this morning in a book I was reading and it got me thinking…

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My natural inclination would be to allocate two pages in my  Moleskin journal to start ‘Pony’ and ‘Jesse’ lists, but I’ve decided against that. I do, however, have a few pages headed ‘Re-imagine’ in which I have started to jot a few words/thoughts, but I’ll need to let those jottings sit with me a bit longer yet before I share them. Bear with, bear with…

The gathering was made up of about 250 folk from the USA or Canada, in fact I was the only Brit! That was a bit funny, particularly when I opened my mouth and spoke to anyone 😂😂. I was pleased it was a smaller get together and not at all overwhelming or dominated by big personalities. There was an air of humility and it was more of a conversation than didactic presentations. 

The big questions that were being wrestled with were really about how our faith, which can often feel a bit dry, uneventful, consumerist, obsessed with certitude and lacking mystery…boring even (?!), can become like fine wine: rich, sought after, desirable…Life-changing? For many of us, it can almost seem like ‘the party’ (aka life!) is so tough and we wonder what it’s really all about – the ‘Wine’ seems to have run out. Yet the response of Jesus in John Chapter 2 is fascinating; as is his Mother’s, when she says to the disciples, “Do whatever he tells you”. 

I look forward to catching up with you all over the next couple of months, but in the meantime, I’ll pray that the sense of endings and beginnings, as well as that which is continuous, will captivate our hearts. And may we all remember that the party ain’t over yet!

Cheers, 

Paul. 

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Mooching

As the beginning of the fourth month of my six month sabbatical, I find myself once again reflecting on the richness of this time, but also starting to allow a few thoughts about ‘what next?’ to occupy my mind (though not too many!). During a recent visit to my Spiritual Director, he encouraged me to think about ‘active passivity’ as a posture at this time. He also quoted TS Elliot, who referred to ‘a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)…and all shall be well’. I like that. It does require me to be intentional though! I think I would like to to personalise the whole thing by using the term, ‘mooching’, which I have always enjoyed doing, though I must add minus the partial dictionary definition of hoping to get something for nothing! I often go into town for a mooch; I mooch around the shops, I can mooch in a bookshop for ages, I mooch into a coffee shop and the charity shops and junk shops. You get my drift. 

During half term last week, we were fortunate to be mooching in Perthshire, Scotland. Jane, Matt and I spent the time with Jane’s dad around the Aberfeldy and Loch Tay area. It has been glorious with many gratitude moments and opportunities for great walks and leisurely coffees and meals. Wonderful. The ‘complete simplicity’ of wandering along the river for about 10 miles on Tuesday morning watered my soul; the slightly more strenuous climb to see the spectacular ‘Falls at Moness’ and ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ on Wednesday was just incredible….

I have also done a fair bit of mooching in my reading, picking up one book and then another, but maybe the variety also makes a statement about me, generally. You can draw your own conclusions about that 😁…

So, we’re into June and my sabbatical ‘word’ of ‘Horizons’ has come into focus. I am excited to continue reading Justin Welby’s new book and particularly as I consider substituting the name of my own city, village, road for ‘Britain’. What are our foundations for hope? Mmmmm…

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PS If you are interested, my fellow pilgrim on the Camino, Paul Swann gave an outstanding talk on our experiences at All Saints last week. You can check it out here, its utterly brilliant: ‘Walking With God’ – http://www.allsaintsworcester.org.uk/talks/

Day 8: Santiago to Stansted…and home!

This is the last of my ‘Camino’ blogs. Thank you for your indulgence!

A few reflections:

  • The preparation was vital and really paid off. I have never done anything like this before, but I think I’ve caught the walking bug. My health will benefit from that too.
  • Having made my first reflection, I also think there is a sense in which you can’t plan ie for the inner journey that you go on; you have to just let it happen to you, rather than try and make it happen. But you do have to be open. 
  • As a largely introverted person, I was not sure how I’d cope with feeling the need to interact with numerous fellow pilgrims (seriously, this was a concern!), but the fellowship that existed ‘on the way’ around a common cause ie making it to Santiago de Compostela, somehow made it possible to engage as much or as little as you wanted to. In fact, I think the natural, unforced interactions we had made the pilgrimage richer and special. 
  • I took about six books with me and I didn’t open one. This was good, but a real lesson to me. I am concerned that I am reliant on, and my formation is dependent on, words, whether spoken or written. It was the EXPERIENCE of the Camino that counted far more than any amount of words, and as I was attentive to the incredibly beautiful scenery, cheery ‘Buen Camino’ from other pilgrims, paced myself on the hills, savoured the lovely food and wine and embraced the extravagant hospitality of everyone we met, my heart was warmed and my soul fed. 
  • I’m not sure how I would have got on totally on my own. The companionship of Paul Swann was such a blessing. Not only is he a great and long standing friend, but his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of so many things made our daily walks such fun and tremendously informative! We also share a love of fine coffee and red wine, so that helped to oil the wheels too : )

I could go on and doubtless will at some point in the future as I meet up with you, but for now and in closing, I quote the well known words of TS Eliot and in so doing I pray for me and for you that our perspectives on where we are and where we are going, our own individual pilgrimages, will be refreshed, renewed and re-enlivened constantly:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Love Paul. 

Quotes I didn’t use…

“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen” –  Benjamin Disraeli

“At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage through unforeseen sacred places that enlarge and enrich the soul” – John O’Donohue

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” – St. Augustine

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Day 7: Santiago de Compostela

It was great to have a day yesterday to decompress, rest my feet and savour the sights and sounds of the glorious city of Santiago. 

Our first task for the morning was to find the ‘passport office’ for ‘peregrinos’ and obtain the famous certificate of completion! We only had to queue for about 1.5hrs and did manage to make the mass at noon in the Cathedral and I’m so glad we did!! There was standing room only, but the atmosphere was electric. I’ll never forget the magnificent swinging of the huge ‘botafumiere’*  over the congregation. A real memory right there. 

I spent most of the afternoon mooching around the old part of the city (think Bill Bryson!), resting and reflecting on the last week. Felt privileged. 

It was brilliant to stay in the same hotel for two nights on the trot and I’ve been so impressed with the high levels of extravagant, generous hospitality wherever we’ve stayed, stopped for coffee, or had our evening meals. The 10€ ‘menu de del dia’ for peregrinos really has lived up to its reputation, with a three course tasty meal, plus a bottle of wine, bread and water on most occasions. The hotels have all been spotlessly clean, with working showers and crisp white bed sheets. Welcome luxury at the end of a day’s walking. The breakfasts provided have been ample; so ample as to provide a wee takeaway ‘sneister’ in a paper napkin to go with morning coffee!

(*67kgs of silver swinging through the air at 200ft with a dustpan full of incense. Apart from the religious purpose, one of the reasons historically was to keep the smell of pilgrims at bay!)

Day 6: Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

I was reminded yesterday that it is about 6 years since Paul Swann and I led a guys’ retreat together at Kemble House and on one of the evenings we watched The Way, the film starring Martin Sheen. A seed was sown and I nursed a dream that one day I might be able to do that pilgrimage. As we walked together into Santiago yesterday afternoon, passing Monte do Gozo* it was an emotional time. A goal was being reached/a vision fulfilled and you can’t beat it! (See note below). My great friend Joan Collier had made little crosses for Jane and I, plus Viv and Paul. I carried mine all the way and placed it at the base of the monument on Gozo as a symbolic act and it felt great. 

A great blessing of this trip has been that we have sent our luggage ahead of us to the next destination each morning (we’ve stayed in 7 different hotels!). This requires planning each morning what is required for the day ahead and being willing to trust that everything else will arrive where you need it at the end of the day. In a time of not talking yesterday, Paul and I pondered how this practice can impact the rest of our lives ie what is the essential ‘stuff’ for today and what is the burden/baggage that I do not need to carry? As men of faith we believe that one of the great promises of God is that he is our burden-bearer. I’ve been intentionally following ‘the way’ of Jesus for over 30 years now, but I’m still learning how to do this 😁😁.

(Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy) is a hill in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. It is known for being the place where Christian pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) get their first views of the three spires of their destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. At 370 metres (1,210 ft), it is the pilgrims’ last hill and last stop before reaching the cathedral, with about an hour’s walk still to go, and by tradition is where they cry out in rapture at finally seeing the end of their path.)

Day 5: Arzúa to Pedrouzo

We did it! After quite a challenging day walking yesterday and albeit on a pizza, we hobbled like two old men from our hotel, decided to get involved, embrace the culture and eat the local Gallician delicacy of octopus last night. As my Gran used to say, ‘It was nice, but I wouldn’t crave it!’ There have been many ‘firsts’ on this pilgrimage….

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To appreciate everything around us as well as listen carefully to what has been going on inside us, we have agreed to not talk for chunks of time and that has been a real blessing, as much as we both enjoy talking! 😉 I find that my default mindset during those times is one of thankfulness and great gratitude. I am so appreciative for starters of all those who have released, encouraged, sponsored and helped practically to make this possible. Honestly. I was thinking yesterday about Penny, my Diabetes Nurse (Hi Penny!) and my podiatrist, Philippa (Hi Philippa!), both of whom have taken a great interest in what I’m doing and have really spurred me on – I salute you! 

We can’t do this life on our own, can we? Nor are we meant to! I pray that I will return even more appreciative of the army of people around me who help me to do life and that I will always be on the lookout too for those to whom I can pay it forward. 

Day 3: Palas de Rei to Melide

‘Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising him.’ 

I love this passage from the Bible. It’s an episode that describes how two of Jesus’ disciples were walking along the road, chit-chatting about their lives and all that had been happening. They thought Jesus was dead and I think they would have been disappointed, disillusioned and depressed…then he shows up and starts walking with them and joins in the chit-chat. They didn’t recognise him though. Incredible. 

As Paul and I are walking along on ‘the road’ to Santiago there is a lot we can relate to here, except for the end bit! We are confident that Jesus IS walking with us: We are experiencing his spirit leading us into a depth of friendship and sharing of life, telling our stories, like we’ve never known before in our relationship and there have been tears and much laughter; we see Jesus in the extravagant welcome and hospitality that we are experiencing and enjoying constantly everywhere we go. 

There is a kind of fellowship among the pilgrims as they never fail to greet one another with ‘Buen Camino’. Jesus is in this too. 

The beauty of Creation around us, let’s face it, was the first Bible that ever existed and the voice of the Divine speaks loud and clear through it. Here’s an example of what I mean in this picture. It shows a small tree that has been broken off near the ground, obviously for quite some time, and yet there is fresh blossom springing colourfully from it…think about it!! 😁

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Oh and by the way, we passed the half way mark yesterday (57k) which was also personally significant as I have also just passed the half way mark on my sabbatical! More to come on my reflections about that one…

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Day 2: Portomarin to Palas de Rei

The encouragement on my fellow pilgrim Paul’s ‘Fitbit’ yesterday morning was ‘one foot in front of the other’ and we were spurred on by that during the 25k! It was quite a hilly route, but again with glorious views from the peaks and some spectacular little places of interest along the way. 

At one point we decided to walk in silence and ponder a question we had taken from the guidebook: What do you see as the primary purpose of your life? It was such a great opportunity to reflect and be honest with myself about where I’m at. My thoughts were really all about bringing all my vulnerabilities, weaknesses and failures, warts and all, and being the best version of me that I can be as a husband, dad, brother, son…and disciple.

In the afternoon we also stumbled across a little place with a sign outside that said, ‘Free hugs’ so I went up to a jolly looking bunch of young people standing outside, told them that I was a long way from home, and that I’d come to claim mine! It turned out that they were also offering free refreshments and a place of rest for pilgrims. It turned out that they were part of a Christian ministry called Agapé and so we spent a bit of time with them, prayed together and went on our way. It was special.