As I left for our pilgrimage on St Cuthbert’s Way through Scotland and England, many folks wished me rest and relaxation. I’m not sure they knew we were walking sixty miles. Nor did they realize that pilgrimage is not about yelping coffee shops and creating manicured experiences that can be caught in a picture, packaged up, and taken home as a souvenir. There would be no margaritas on the beach—only foamy, room temperature ales at night to forget about aching feet. Our intention was to walk, inwardly and outwardly, to see and be seen.
The best way I know to describe the difference between vacations and pilgrimages is this: vacations are about consumption and comfort. Pilgrimages are about wandering and encounter. There is a cost to walking a pilgrimage. My spirit found rest, but my hips and hamstrings paid the price. But if I can learn to discern the peace of Christ while ascending a couple thousand feet up rolling hills, then I might learn to find peace in whatever pains and frustrations await me in the future.
When we boarded our flight out of Philadelphia toward Edinburgh, it wasn’t long until some of us felt drops of water trickling from the ceiling panel and landing on our heads. For many Christians, a few drops of water can be a reminder of baptism and God’s spirit who dwells within us and around us and blows us where it will. I use water to remind myself of my baptism most mornings, but I’ve never wanted a reminder from a cylinder of metal that would lift me thousands of feet in the air over tens of thousands of miles. Thanks a lot, American Airlines.
The pilot clicked on the intercom to tell us that there was an air conditioning issue. Maybe that was true. Or, maybe there was a gaping hole somewhere in the ceiling of the plane. Maintenance worked diligently (we were told) but the pilots timed out.
We deplaned and waited in the terminal for a new aircraft that would transport us to Edinburgh. Our optimistic airline officials told us that we were going to depart at one a.m. Then, two a.m and two-thirty a.m. Finally, they told us that we had a 50/50 chance of taking off before the three o’clock a.m window closed and the flight would be cancelled. I couldn’t help but to wonder when airline flights became a Vegas betting game .
Realistically, the odds were closer to 30/70, but the bars had already closed and there was a palpable sense of uprising as a result of cancelled tee times at St. Andrews, which is the home of golf. The new aircraft arrived, but the flight was cancelled despite the “valiant” effort by the heroic airline staff. The issue wasn’t the engine or other mechanical problems, but a flat tire—on an airplane.
There was no air.
The air, wherever it was blowing, was not blowing us to our intended destination.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, he was driven by the air of the Spirit into the wilderness. Likewise, we were blown into Philadelphia, with its desert-like heat, national monuments, and airline meal vouchers that wouldn’t work. The evil one was near. We didn’t choose to walk a leg of Cuthbert’s Way in Philadelphia and yet, there we were walking around national museums and monuments. It's possible we were on the right path, though, especially when we landed on a street named Cuthbert while walking downtown. I still wonder whether this was serendipity or a sadistic joke. Either way, we proceeded to create holy meals of cheesesteaks and ascend the Rocky steps, a shrine for bad 80s movies. Then, we kept walking. And waiting. Then, walking.
One fellow pilgrim reminded me that Celtic monks believed that, ‘It is always better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Once we think we have 'arrived,' our souls have died.’ It’s a nice sentiment when you’re not sleeping in an airport. And yet, like it or not, it’s true.
I felt a strong tie to the early Scottish missionaries who put themselves in small, round boats called coracles and set off to sea praying that the Lord would blow them in the right direction. In other words, they cast lots with wind and water with their lives hanging in the balance. Hopefully, they would arrive somewhere and start their ministries—even if it happened to be a gaming convention in Philadelphia’s Clarion Hotel.
Today’s church lacks that kind of courage. It’s much easier to pray, “Send us, O Lord” and then crank the motor and put your hands on the wheel. We are a people who long for control.
But Christians, and especially Christian pilgrims, know that life’s journey can’t be controlled. We’re all one cancelled flight, one virus, one mutated cell away from purgatories spent in airports or hospital rooms. Most of us have a sense we’re walking in the right direction, but then the trail name suddenly changes and we realize that a u-turn is in order. Christians have aptly named this repentance, which is only the name we use to describe our need to stay on the trail.
I often wonder about the path I’m walking. Is there a more successful one? A more faithful one? One where I'd be happier? It’s easy to get anxious that that I’m not walking in the right direction or worse, that I’m lost completely. Like the labyrinth walked by Christians as a condensed form of pilgrimage, we’re reminded that life is a maze of twists and turns. At some point, the trail will become overgrown and unmarked. That’s ok. The goal is to pay attention to the place where each foot lands, always making sure that our toes are always pointed toward the heart of God.
We finally arrived in Scotland to walk Cuthbert’s Way, though two days later than planned. And we walked—we trudged by sheep in fields, then up rolling hills, through gates, and over walls. We had time to start and stop. Feast and fast. Make wrong turns. Find the trail. Begin again. It wasn't always restful, but it was always grace. And there was no other way to arrive at our destination. This is what it means to be a Christian.
As we reached the shoreline of Northumberland, I took off my shoes and stepped on to the ocean floor to begin the walk to Holy Island, which can be reached by foot during low tide. The soft, ocean mud massaged my blistered feet and thanked us for our walk. I sensed the millions of feet who have crossed the sea before me, and who will walk after me, through the water that joins us as Christ’s body.
St. Cuthbert’s priory on Holy Island is unique because it’s not always accessible. The tides fall and rise, creating access and prohibition to the island. Cuthbert couldn’t change the rhythms of the sea, but he shaped a balanced life of solitude and community around its waxing and waning. The tides pulled him inward and then, pushed him outward into the world.
Cuthbert reminds me that we’ll never control the tides, but we can pay attention to their movements and discern when and where to walk. The tide rolls in and you may very well get stuck in Philadelphia, but when the tide rolls out, God has been known to lead people into freedom.
I continue to walk the Christian way because Holy Island is always on the horizon. One day, I’ll arrive. Until then, I pay attention to the tides and put one foot ahead of the other and continue walking into freedom. I rarely know where I'm going, but I know of no other way to walk.