Liminal places

So it’s now three weeks since I’ve been back from my pilgrimage / epic prayer walk around the country, and I’m still somewhere fragmented, somewhere in between. Out on the road but also living back in London at the same time. I’m writing the journey up in more detail for a Housing Justice publication, hopefully ready in time for Advent, but here are some reflections on the themes I’m working on.

For people coming new to this blog, it is in reverse chronological order, so a good place to start is probably back at the beginning here, or with the map of the journey here

It is tough on the road!

This is obviously a function of how one lives everyday life but the journey was a tough challenge, both physically and emotionally. While the tasks each day were fairly straightforward they were physically demanding and I do think of myself as quite fit: cycling to work each day, walking regularly, having a reasonably good diet, staying active. But walking 12 miles a day (on average) with a heavy back pack was hard work for this 56 year old! Being on a tight budget and finding food and water and a safe place to sleep each night was also not always easy.

This is in no sense a complaint. I entered into this pilgrimage fully expecting and accepting the hardships. It was the point, after all, to walk and live – to an extent at least – in solidarity with people suffering poverty and homelessness.

Being on my own much of the time, particularly in July, also presented challenges. This was a motivation to pray more, which was good. But I did sometimes feel acutely alone and on the margins – particularly in busy places with large groups of friends or families. Again, I had anticipated this, but the reality of being 2 months away from my wife, family and friends, work colleagues and the comforts of home was sometimes challenging.

God IS an ever present help – see Psalm 46!

While in human terms I often felt on my own, I also felt the presence of God each day. Yes I know this directly contrasts with what I’ve just said in the previous section, so go ahead and shoot me! Life is paradox! I found myself waking and walking and praying with joy, thankfulness and anticipation each day, knowing that God was present, and that I could rely on His promises to protect and provide for my needs. I think this is what is meant by faith. I genuinely approached each day as a gift. In each encounter, each conversation, each step of the way God was present and so it was blessed.

The hitch hiking element of the journey is the perfect metaphor. The task was really about letting go. To trust that, in spite of my powerlessness in the situation, and that I had almost nothing to offer, somehow someone would stop for me. And they did! Each time somebody stopped for me it felt like an answer to prayer, particularly the first time, on the way from Oxford to Chippenham. The first person who stopped for me, after I’d been standing with my thumb out for less than three minutes, had spotted the pilgrim’s scallop shell on my pack. As I got into the car he told me that his mother in law was the Oxford Diocesan Pilgrimage Advisor!

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Jeremy, who I met on the way to Iona, sketched this lovely scallop shell for me on his I-pad!

Family and Home

As I write and explore further the stories and experiences of this journey I know I will discover more of its meaning myself. It is not all planned out in detail.

One theme that has emerged through conversations with people along the way, and since I’ve been back, and to an extent in this blog, is my own story, which I’ve somehow never been very good at articulating. Having opened up a little about my own family, and how we have been affected by mental illness and depression, I’ve had some very kind and supportive responses from many people that know me in the context of my work. I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of writing as therapy, and feel I should reassure everyone that this is not going to be in the sensationalist or breast beating end of the literary or tabloid journalism spectrum! But you probably knew that already.

I’m holding on to some of that sense of the heart breaking beauty which is often seemingly just outside the scope of our vision in everyday life. The idea of the “thin place” or the liminal, in between places, which I am very drawn to. This is a more precarious and uncomfortable place which I believe God calls us towards. It is also more truly where we find ourselves in inter-dependence, and therefore pushed in solidarity towards one other and with those who live in poverty.

That we are all, in some sense, “aliens and strangers” in this world seems obvious to me. We cannot truly be “at home” in this world because we have an eternal home. By the way I can’t even begin to understand the view held by some Christians that this gives human kind licence to allow this beautiful planet on which we live to be despoiled. Exactly the opposite actually.

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Here’s a good quote about the liminal from the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr:

…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 

As quoted on the website called Liminal Space

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Pilgrim Blues / R.I.P. Dugald

This is a difficult post to write, but here it is before life moves on.

Coming to an end of two months of forward motion. Each day, each stage of the journey had its momentum and its goals, including all the mundane but necessary tasks of daily living: how and where to wash, eat, where I was going to sleep and so on. The basic stuff of survival. Also the rich flow of people, conversations, places. The real  and wonderful sense of God’s closeness, provision and protection. It’s not that these things stop when you get home again, but a shift of gear is inevitable.

What I needed more than anything when I got back to London early last Saturday morning was rest. It had only been four days since I had climbed Ben Nevis, after all! But that initial pause for breath became a few days of torpor, and a bout of the blues. I had things in the diary: the anti bedroom tax sleep out at Islington Town Hall; Church on the Sunday; Folk in the Cellar at the Constitution in Camden on the Monday. People to call and catch up with. All of this went west and I mostly vegged out. I also rediscovered the simple ease of being in a “machine for living in”, as Corbusier called the home, where to make a cup of tea you need only put the kettle on.

In a previous post I referred briefly to my own experiences of poor mental health, and I continue occasionally to be vulnerable to the undertow of depression. I even found myself questioning if and how I would manage to re-engage with family and domestic life, and the world of work. Knowing that Françoise was due back from Brittany yesterday was a help.

In that same post I spoke of Betty and Dugald and their kind hospitality to me at their home in Wetherby, and of his struggle with clinical depression. Well it is with great sadness that I have to report that Dugald died on 8th August.

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So this post goes out with love and prayers to Betty and Dugald, their family and friends. And it also goes out in solidarity with all who experience or have experienced this most debilitating and frequently life threatening illness.

Stephen Fry has courageously opened up about his own struggles with mental ill-health. So it seems right to end with his lovely sign off from QI, “Be extremely kind to one other”