I am currently leading a Walking Retreat in upstate New York - near Lake Keuka, one of the Finger Lakes.
Here's why I find such days such amazing times.
Complete wholeness – of stillness and silence.
As in the absence of interruption or invasion by iphones or imaginations. We stand, gazing at the beauty spread before us, hardly daring to breathe.
This is what we came for, this is what we saved for and trained for. This is the vacation with a difference for which we had dreamed and yearned.
A long walk with a difference because it is a long walk with God. Intentionally wanting to find Him.
And find Him we did – in the glories of creation, in one another, in our uplifted hearts.
And we found the gift of TIME.
Time to be, time to be with God.
Isn’t that what so many of us crave? Time out, we call it.
Time to do something different, BE something different, in some place different.
Pilgrimage has been part of the Christian tradition for centuries. It’s not always been a part of mine, until some 10 years ago, when I was asked to lead one. I discovered that the daily walking, the lack of distraction, the determination to keep going, opens up opportunities for the still small Voice in ways I could not have found elsewhere. I’ve led many since then, and each one has had its ups and downs, literally and metaphorically. Each one has been special. Sometimes the sun has shone, sometimes it has almost snowed.
On one occasion, we plodded along, one foot then another, one foot and then another. It was hailing, cold wet hard hailing. “All hail King Jesus …” someone began to sing. There were giggles and groans. One foot in front of the next foot. Onwards and upwards. We had walked a mere 17 miles the previous day. 83 more to go to reach our destination. One foot then another. The hail turned to sleety rain and tried to invade the scarf wound around my neck. It was June, it was England, it was Pilgrimage at its worst. And maybe at its best too, for we spurred one another on, sang to God in spite of the cold, and appreciated even more the day when the sun finally emerged.
A mere 100 miles, each of the weeks of Pilgrimage in England, walking the ancient pilgrim paths and sheep-herding byways, from Chipping Campden to Bath Abbey. Some 60 miles in Tuscany, along the Via Francigena, from San Gimignano to Montalcino. (Those names, they roll romantically round the tongue, inviting and enticing!)
Sometimes in silence, sometimes in prayer; sometimes singing, often laughing; taking time out from daily lived busy-ness, purposely spending time waiting to hear God speak into the rhythm of walking.
Nothing else to do – suitcases moved by unseen angels, meals awaiting us at the next destination along the way. An evening time of devotions – a short thought; some worship; prayers. Maybe Compline. Sharing our journeys, helping each other along.
Pilgrimage is a time of challenge – physically and spiritually.
It is a leaving behind – of daily routine, of family and friends, of expectations.
It is a purpose filled week of deliberately stepping aside and stepping out, in faith, to find God in ways never previously experienced.
It can be a difficult time. No good to pretend it’s easy, however much one has tried to get fit, practice, walk the extra mile.
It’s not the usual walking.
And yet, into this challenge, this sacrifice of normality and time and effort, God speaks. Whether it’s the chill of an English summer or the heat of an Italian one, there is something unusual, something special, something incredible, about this intentionality. So often we don’t know God, don’t hear His voice, because we don’t take the time to stop – really stop, or step out of our comfort zone and wait.
Wait for Him to speak into our hearts.
The Pilgrims are always amazing people. On each Pilgrimage I’ve led there have been people in pain – pain from living, pain from past wounding, pain in this journey. But they keep walking.
And each time, God has stepped into people’s lives – sometimes right then and there, sometimes later when reflecting. But God always speaks – if we take time and trust Him to do so.
“It truly was a life changing experience for me; and I met with God in a way I’d never done before.”
The Via Frangicena is another ancient Pilgrim route – from Canterbury to Rome. I Pelligrini (the pilgrims) walked it as an act of devotion to God, as an act of contrition. They carried little other than the walking stick, the hat, the cloak and the backpack.
Sometimes they ‘walked’ on their knees. They had no idea when they set out as to whether they would ever return, after such a long and dangerous journey. But their contrition and devotion drove them out and on, dependent totally on God, their fellow pilgrims and the people they met along the way.
When we first walked a part of it (Tuscany in July) the sun beat down mercilessly, our skins scorched and our tongues stuck with thirst. Yet we gave up relatively little compared to I Pelligrini of old.
And what of us? You and me?
How far would you be prepared to walk in order to empty your life of its everyday busy-ness, its tests and trials, its screaming loud insistence?
What do we need to sacrifice in order to hear that still small Voice?
This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jer. 6:16
How much do you yearn for the rest, the silence, the stillness, in which to hear God?
What might you do in order to take time to hear that still small voice?
The Revd Penelope Swithinbank is an international speaker and leader for Christian conferences, Pilgrimages, Retreats, Quiet Days and women’s events. She loves hiking, reading and travelling. Author of ‘Women By Design,’ she is a Spiritual Director, blogger, wife, mother and grandmother, and is about to open a Retreat house – in an old Cotswold farmhouse, a place of spiritual sanctuary for those who need time away, especially those in Christian leadership.
Website and Retreat details: www.ministriesbydesign.org