Enjoy the journey
You may be wondering what pilgrimage and the end of lockdown have in common. Having recently walked from Winchester to Canterbury, Penelope Swithinbank offers up three Ps – possessions, purpose and people – to help us link the two
Walking 152 miles on the Pilgrims’ Way over the space of 14 days was both exhilarating and exhausting. There were days of sun and beauty, when I seemed to be wearing seven-league boots and felt I could walk the footpaths forever. There were days of torrential rain and high winds, when I was soaked through and could barely take another step, water sloshing in my boots. There were days of ripening wheatfields threaded with scarlet poppies, of amazing vistas and deep silences broken only by birdsong; and days of people offering a warm, dry bed or a helping hand over a too-high locked gate.
There were days when I didn’t ever want to stop walking, and days when each step wanted to be the last. This June was wet; twice I nearly gave up. There were long, steep inclines to be trudged with a heavy backpack; detours due to fallen trees; and glorious moments of elation at having achieved the miles more quickly than I expected.
Emerging from lockdown is perhaps like being on pilgrimage…
I carry as little as possible in my backpack: a change of clothes, nightwear, spare socks, one cream that does everything, a pen, the lightest journal, water and coffee. I’ve learned to live without half the stuff I normally consider essential, but it still weighed too much – nearly 20lb. I sent some things home at the halfway stage, when I had a day off and time to visit the post office. I’ve discovered the same thing during lockdown. My life, house and mind were cluttered. Both pilgrimage and lockdown made me reassess what’s essential. It’s helpful to think about the essentials for life’s journey and what needs to be jettisoned.
The obvious purpose of my pilgrimage was to reach Canterbury. But if my focus had always been on the destination, I would have missed out on noticing and being grateful for beauty, for miracles, for my relationship with God and his heart for me. The purpose was actually to help me reconnect with God and discover his plans for my future. My purpose was to rebuild that relationship, and I did…in the beauty of his creation, in the times of silence when he seemed very near, and in the moments of desperation when I almost gave up, but he did not.
Lockdown reminded us of the importance of the people we love and cherish. Although my recent pilgrimage was solo, a few times I was joined by a friend just for a day – soul friends to pray with and to encourage each other to draw nearer to the Lord. A good companion makes the long road shorter.
Would I do it all again? Yes, because it was all worth the effort. I’m fitter physically, spiritually and emotionally than I had been for a long time. I miss the open road and the places and people and prayer of the pilgrimage. But God is still God, and he still has a heart that yearns for relationship with me. I’m simply on a different daily pilgrimage now.
Penelope Swithinbank is the creator of Bumpsadaisy and chaplain at Bath Abbey. She has had three books published (the latest being Scent of Water), been a rector in South Carolina, opened the US Senate in prayer, led pilgrimages in the UK and Europe, and run a retreat house. She is grandmother to six almost-teenagers and claims the grandchildren are so great she should have had them first!
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