Three questions, then – but not all questions have the same dangerous forensic quality or indeed the same capacity to disturb a night’s sleep. When I formulated them it seemed likely that – at this distance in time – they’d be easy to answer but – well, it seems not. You’d think, wouldn’t you, why then? would be simple; I was due a sabbatical, so who wouldn’t?
The Church can be the devil, and when it thinks it can’t be it is!Canon Francis Palmer in an ordination sermon.
On the one hand, I was an enthusiastic walker and I’d become fascinated by the idea of pilgrimages. I’d even invented and done a two day, forty mile walk from Malmesbury Abbey to Littleton on Severn, following the most likely route to be taken by monks travelling to one of my churches. An old legend told the story of one of my predecessors being murdered on the way to take a communion service, and having the chalice he was carrying stolen by robbers. It was said that a nearby spring turned red every year to commemorate his death. An alternative legend claimed it was the Saxon anchorite St Arilda who was murdered by a Roman officer called Nuncius when she refused to submit to him. I designed the walk to pass both churches dedicated to her as well as my own, and also the spring named after her – which involved a bit of mild off-route trespass. It is thought that the occasional red colouration of the water is due to a micro-organism.
Much earlier in my life I’d managed to include St Ann’s well in Syston into a cross country run which I invented to keep a sadistic PE teacher off my back. It’s difficult for much younger people to understand that we boomers – apart from all the good things like education – also had to put up with a significant percentage of our teachers suffering from PTSD after war service.
Anyway, aside from my interest in pilgrimage and the availability of the sabbatical there was something else. As Francis Palmer warned on the day I was ordained, the church is a dangerous institution. Bullying is endemic. Both congregations and senior clergy are all too willing to destroy, or encourage the destruction – physically, psychologically and spiritually – of anyone who challenges their authority or orthodoxies. I had to cope with a group inside the church who constantly belittled and challenged me; but also a local head teacher who attempted to destroy my career by making false accusations against me. The accusations were easily disproved but the church legal authorities refused to intervene on the grounds that he was clearly mad. We had church members on the doorstep shouting abuse at me or whoever answered the door. We were about to begin a major refurbishment of the church which was overwhelmingly supported by all but a handful of vocal diehards. Yet I was very close to burning out after approaching twenty years of constant headwind in spite of which we increased the congregation, built up a vibrant music group and extended our outreach into the village. Francis Palmer was right, and so was Dom Edmund Wheat who once said to me “always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline”. I no longer knew what, if anything, I believed in any more – apart from believing in the congregation who had stuck with me. I may have thought, without ever articulating it to anyone, that I might, just possibly, find God again out there in the wilderness.
So I filled in an airily optimistic proposal for some funding without mentioning any of what I’ve just written, and it was approved. I was awarded a few hundred pounds most of which I spent on an amazing Hilleberg two person lightweight tent because I thought that was how everybody else conducted long pilgrimages. Then came the maps, the guidebooks and spreadsheets and time ticked on as I bought essential boots and equipment and carried out long training walks.
So why am I writing this after so many years? I can think of two possible answers. Firstly, and without any provocation from me, the thought that I might try and walk to St David’s Cathedral popped into my head last time we were in Pembrokeshire. To be clear, I would walk to St Non’s Well not the Cathedral which is 3/4 hour walk further on but far too noisy and full of tourists – and I would do it in short sections, over a period of time and preferably with Madame somewhere close.
The other reason is because I’ve been worrying that the wheels are increasingly wobbly and may fall off before I’ve accomplished a couple of goals. Nothing immediately life threatening is happening but I seem to be taking a lot of medication and visiting the hospital more and more. Bless them, they’ve done wonders, but it seems to me that it’s time – and this is a lovely euphemism – to get things straight; and the Camino is one of those life events that I need to straighten out while I can still put one foot reliably in front of the other. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I’m still post-Christian and I’m still hoping, still looking for an answer.
The second goal – and this is pure hubris – is to finish writing a million words in this blog, about being human, or being virtuous I’m 80% there now.
Well why not? However most of my life has felt as if I was being called to do or be something but I never found out what it was! Vocation is exactly that kind of thing which happens when you go for a job interview and protest that you haven’t seen a job description. At the risk of sounding psychotic, words sometimes land in my heart that are incapable of doubt. There’s a form of utterance in grammar that’s called performative. So these performative statements land without warning and because of their nature, what is spoken just happens. Mercifully they’re vanishingly rare in my experience, but it’s odd when the words “It’s alright” plop into your heart and immediately everything is alright and all melancholy and doubt fly away. There was another one – a bit cryptic but I knew instantly what “clear the decks” meant for me.
So moving on we’ll come to day one of the actual walk:
20th May 2010Journal.
Yesterday – bit of a slog (that’s an understatement). We seemed to be climbing all day – could only get a coffee in St Christophe because the (food) service was finished. Got to Montbonnet and decided to push on to St Privat d’Allier – which turned out to be all uphill. Arrived at the Camping Municipal (very good) at 6.30pm. Feasted on the weirdest and thinnest cheese omelette ever + chips and lettuce leaves. Bed at 8.30pm. Up at 6.00 and faffed about until 8.00 so we could stock up on pain au chocolat at the boulangerie.