More photos can be found on Sam's blog - sanandjoehike.blogspot.com
In mid- August I set out to a 300km sponsored hike for 5 Bradford based charities on the part of the ancient Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route which crosses the Swiss Alps. Numerous people through the centuries have travelled this route which goes from Southern Germany, across Switzerland and France, then on to Spain and Santiago.
A guide on the 'Way of St James' suggests that the ‘way’ is the real goal of the journey. It is both a physical ‘exterior’ path and a spiritual interior journey. Any physical journey can help us in our journey of self-awareness; to prayerfully process experiences. Enzo Bianchi, the founder of the Bose community, has written that without an inner life, without the effort of learning to know ourselves, Christian spiritual life is impossible.
On my journey walking through the Alps, I was conscious of my imminent departure from the diocese and my role as Bishop’s Officer. Leaving is about letting go, of surrendering and any experience of loss is akin to bereavement. ‘When a person wants to understand himself, he must question himself about death’ (E. Jüngel). I thought of the things and people that I will be leaving in Bradford but there were also more obvious reminders of mortality. The reminder of death came through the graves I visited in Ringgenberg and the funeral I walked into in Interlaken; in conversations of loss and bereavement and in the solitude and silence of much of the journey. The physical challenge of difficult and uncertain paths and of painful knees was another reminder of my own limits. The last time I undertook such a long walking journey was across Northern Spain just before I came to the diocese more than 10 years ago. I noticed a difference.
There is much in society that attempts to repress anything that can remind us of our limits. A consciousness of finitude and mortality is an aid to humility. Mary Margaret Funk suggests that humility is not only the essence of being human, she suggests that for a disciple of Jesus, humility is what ‘enlightenment’ is for a Buddhist, or ‘surrender’ for a Muslim. Humility is not an option but essential.
All Christian traditions agree about the need for each of us to have a relationship with Christ but that this needs to be nurtured and developed. I recognise the danger that experiences of faith can become dependent upon social action and religious practices. As someone given to activism there is the constant need to nurture the interior life with a rhythm of regular prayer and also periods in silence. During the past few years I have felt myself becoming increasingly challenged about the ‘balance’ of my spiritual life. I am aware that the Christian life isn’t about distances covered or the realization of new experiences but of going deeper, the real pilgrimage is an inner journey.
Commenting upon John 5:13, Augustine reminds us that the crippled man Jesus had healed did not know who it was who had healed him, because Jesus had disappeared into the crowd. Augustine writes, ‘It is difficult to see Christ in the midst of a crowd; we need solitude. In solitude, if the soul is attentive, God lets himself be seen. Crowds are chaotic; to see God, you need silence.’ When we are silent it can allow us to hear the voice of God which can come from surprising sources. Augustine began his journey when he heard a child cry out, “Tolle, lege’ – take up and read and he had the wisdom to recognise in the child the voice of God, and the humility to respond. On the journey through the Alps the gentle voice of God called out to me in the kindness of strangers, in the provision of accommodation; in challenging paths and confusing sign posts; in damp clothes and bruised shoulders; and in extraordinary encounters with Nuns and other ‘pilgrims’.
My physical journey led me from St Peterzell and hilly Eastern Switzerland, via the monastery at Einsiedeln, to the Lake of Lucerne, from there to Flüeli-Ranft and the home of the national Swiss saint Niklaus von Flüe (Bruder Klaus); then on to the mountainous Bernese Oberland, then through the gentler Gantrisch reigion to my final destination and the city of Fribourg. I was reminded that in life, it's not the distance we cover but the obstacles we encounter that make the real difference; of the importance and gift of hospitality and that genuine holiness is often hidden, but that we should look out for Christ and be prepared to be surprised. I was challenged about the importance of compassion and my need for religious symbols and shrines (and aversion to gnomes!).
Given that I am moving to Cambridge to do a PhD in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer will have a significant part I will end with a paraphrase of Bonhoeffer from The Cost of Discipleship: ‘The Way of Discipleship is unutterably hard and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it… but if we believe that Jesus is going before us and we follow Him, we shall not go astray. He is the narrow way and the straight path and His, the journey’s end.’ Amen
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