A guest posting by Dean Reynolds - Pilgrimage for the 21st century, still a valid form of spiritual practice?

This morning, Dean Reynolds, a member of the Memorial (Unitarian) Church gave the address during the service and I'm pleased to publish that below.

I was particularly grateful to Dean for giving the address this morning because I had to an early morning interview for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire's "Sunday Breakfast with Suzy Roberts". The topic was same-sex marriage, which we as a church have just registered to perform. If you missed the programme you can listen (for the next 7 days only - until Sunday 18th May) on 'catch-up' at the following link:


The interview starts about 2 hours 8 minutes into the programme and runs for about 6 minutes.

So, now to the main event, Dean Reynold's address, "Pilgrimage for the 21st century, still a valid form of spiritual practice?"

I’m here to talk to you today about pilgrimage it might be a strange word and one that no doubt immediately conjures up other words like catholic or ritual or perhaps it makes us think of Islam and the Hajj. I wonder if many of us can Identify this word with ourselves having either been on a pilgrimage or perhaps we are intending to go on one. Unfortunately like many great ideas pilgrimage has also been nabbed by our neo-liberal culture so that people talk of going on a pilgrimage to the shops or such like. I will admit that in out multifaceted society there are indeed many kinds of pilgrimage but I intend to focus on one form of this ancient practice and one that I have had the privilege of experiencing twice in the last two years.  Namely the Camino de Santiago or in English the Way of St James. The Camino has many routes winding all across Europe and |Spain leading to the Spanish city of Santiago in the north western corner of the Iberian Peninsula the most commonly walked way is the Camino Frances which is the main way to Santiago from France. most modern pilgrims start somewhere along this route with a traditional starting point being a French town called St Jean pied de port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

The first days walk then is an arduous climb over the mountain range from about 200m in town to the summit around 1500m, this is possibly the hardest day of the whole walk and you soon see the things pilgrims had left by the roadside unable to carry their heavy possessions up the mountain. A pilgrims bag should be as light as possible and this first day is a cruel lesson in that.  For me and for Emily my wife we began the climb in the afternoon summer’s heat after a mad day of travelling from Paris beginning at 4am. We were definitely in no fit state to tackle the blazing sun and the endless ascent, but we set off in a most naïve fashion hoping to stay half way up at around 800m. Our walk was initially enjoyable but became steeper and hotter and we didn’t really know if we were on the right path, we were just following a road up the mountain and there was very little shade it was midsummer and very hot Emily was exhausted and I wasn’t far off either. We found a tree and sat under it we prayed for some aid. A car stopped offering a lift, but how could we accept it on the first day, they assured us it wasn’t too far and then we saw an eagle hovering close by a sure sign that things would be OK. It lifted both our moods and we continued on it was hard but the thought of a warm supper was a good motivator and we arrived around sunset to eat with a group of 10 or 12 pilgrims around a long table. Our adventure had begun.

That was our first day already we had faced some danger already we had learnt a lesson about respecting the sun about travelling in the afternoon this was to be no gentle stroll this was going to be a challenge. The ensuing days and weeks were just as eventful but there were far too many things worth talking about to share in twenty minutes, it was only 3 days in, that we had to walk 40km in one day in order to arrive in Pamplona in time for San Fermin the legendary Basque festival involving the infamous 'Running of The Bulls'. It was very hectic like the whole Glastonbury in a town centre but going on for 7 days and nights complete madness really.

Along the way we met several of our friends who joined us two from Emily’s training college and one close friend of ours it felt sometimes like the Canterbury tales we also made new friends en route. When we were Just outside of Pamplona we were tired and hungry had been walking for a long time it was the stranger, a policeman named Santiago, that offered us food and drink. Accepting it was a lesson in humility and receiving, there was no time for British reserve here, we were all pilgrims together epitomized by the phrase “buen camino” uttered instinctively upon passing or departing from another pilgrim. This translates as good way but it seemed to mean a whole lot more and at times felt more like a prayer of the heart resonating with the shared experience of the way but also that of life. Tributes to people who had passed through and then passed on were there by the wayside, a reminder that this journey had an end, that we could not walk forever. This reality became even more real to us when we received news of the death of a friend who we had lived with in community before coming to Cambridge.

Walking is really an amazing thing, there was so much space, times of quiet, times to reflect, no escape from yourself or those around you, forced to confront your body hungry and weary and your mind full of ideas and fantasy. The heat was relentless and it made some days gruelling especially around halfway in the Meseta an area of dry upland plains that rolled on and on between the historic cities of Burgos an Leon. Wheat fields were everywhere and there was no natural stone so the houses were made from mud bricks.

One day we were in the heat all day with no shade and then we saw off the path a place with trees, we knew from the guidebook this was a rest stop and it was full Of lush green grass and tall trees a real oasis, with a sacred spring supposed to cure blisters. I had acquired several of these on the journey and it became commonplace for first introductions to include the question how are your feet. Our friend John became our foot doctor and I was extremely humbled when he tended to my smelly blistered feet one morning reducing my pain and discomfort significantly, it was in this context that I was up for any cure God or nature could provide. They had made a great stone bath of the ice cold spring water and I gave myself an impromptu full submersion baptism, I then left my foot in the icy water for at least 15 minutes hoping that the healing powers of the pool would have maximum efficacy however when I jumped out my foot was so cold and numb that I couldn’t walk properly and rolled my ankle, proving that you can always have too much of a good thing.

Later that day I was well behind the group they thought I wanted some space but it was my ankle that had slowed me. I was tired and the sun was still hot the farmers were harvesting and there was yellow dust everywhere. Our target was Hontanos a small village in a little valley on the Meseta it was impossible to see until very close by and I had lost sight of everyone. The path just seemed to roll on and on. I was worried then but my fear turned to relief after seeing just one house and knowing I was nearly home for the night.

After the Meseta our group changed we met our friend Lauren in Leon which had the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen. I actually wept seeing the light streaming through the glass, reflecting thousands of colours dancing on the stone floor it was mesmerizing. The Camino can be such a strange journey, full of joy and sadness. It wasn’t long before me were due to meet up with one of my best friends Mark but 2 days before he was due to come, he rang to tell me his dad had died very suddenly and that he wouldn’t be able to join us. This was a real turning point of the trip for me, the weight of my friends grief my inability to comfort and support him it was a real struggle. A day later was St James day and we were at the highest point of the walk, there was a festival up at the Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross) where traditionally walkers have placed a stone they have carried with them as a burden to be set down. About 3 miles on there is a semi abandoned village called Manjarin which was where we intended to stay the night. while the group set down for the afternoon I went on up to a highpoint lookout about 2 miles further. There on the top I sat and meditated for a couple of hours eventually constructing 3 stone crosses for the people who had died or fallen seriously ill during our trip. Meanwhile the group were all ready to leave Manjarin, The only Albergue is run by a guy who is in some way convinced he is the last Templar knight and he Carries a sword and wears a tabard. The others made me a sandwich so when I got back id agree to leave, but as it turned out I was in a very agreeable mood and we trekked the 7km to the next village in failing light arriving around 9pm just in time to get some dinner and then sleep.

Because Mark couldn’t come I ended up doing the Camino again with him the next year in October 2013. We started in Leon and walked for 2 weeks to Santiago following the same route, or so I thought. One of the main aims was for us to visit the memorial on the mountain and pay tribute to his dad who was a great lover of Spain. However it was on the 5th day of our walk which had a more rustic feel than my first pilgrimage that we arrived at Rabanal one night away from the cross. we had already camped outside a village and also stayed at the Casa del Dios (House of the Gods) an old farm building on a hill in the middle of nowhere! With David a man who has dedicated his life to the dream of a Camino where friendship and our shared humanity inspire free hospitality and generosity. It was a different economics and was powerfully witnessed by his giving of food drink and shelter to the passing pilgrims. Things seemed to be going to plan and that night in Rabanal I invited two fellow pilgrims to a late supper with us they were Harve and Elisia.

Harve was a kind of Spanish new-age wanderer he had a very complex and piercing gaze wrapped in a kind of towel thing he always wore and he was almost always smoking something. Elisia was Italian and very energetic she seemed to be brimming over with a kind of youthful optimism and joy. Harve was insistent in his broken English that we should all go together to a rainbow movement village on the next day. Well we weren’t so sure. We knew we had to get to the cross and Mark’s dads monument, but we were intrigued by this detour and Harve kept saying “solo tres kilometres” so we took a gamble and went. About 10km later we arrived first to the scene of a work party in ragged shirts dripping with sweat in the sweltering sun trying to fix a cratered track that served them as a road. It felt very strange like stepping into another world in a different age then after rounding the bend we saw the rainbow village Matavenero. Nestled into the hillside it was very beautiful with a kind of Rivendell like backdrop. It was also very alternative not much electric natural water all rebuilt from ruins by different families. There was a school and a food hall a proper community there was no religious cult I could spot, something I was assuming would pop up and ruin the utopian vision. In stark terms one of the residents said to me “its lovely in the summer but if you really want to live here try surviving the winter”. The house in the middle of the village was like a guest house anyone could stay for free. The stoves were ancient it was like a surreal dream. We had lunch from a huge mushroom Elisia had found on the walk but we didn’t stay long after. Harve had a new plan that got us even further from 'the way' and we were well and truly off our maps and off the grid. At this point the question what is the Camino became stark, is it about following a meticulous route to the letter without a lift on schedule. It felt like wed been led astray, but had we?

It was both frustrating and exciting, Harve’s English was pretty poor as was our Spanish it was only Elisia that had a reasonable grip on both languages so naturally she became the mediator in our discussions, we ended up rather than turning back pushing on along a river track that led past an impressive waterfall and eventually led to a village where Harve knew someone. It was dusk and we were shattered, knocking on doors eventually one opened to us and we came in and shared a meal, our hosts were generous and we stayed the night. Harve’s friend Sanan who we suspected might be some kind of coke-dealer came over for a while promising to return in the morning to give us a lift in his car.

We were really in the thick of it now no real idea where. The next day was a frustrating mix of emotions, we danced in the lounge in the morning listening to rock and roll on the radio and drinking coffee while Harve and the others smoked in the kitchen. Sanan took us to the next town and he went off swimming. We had a bit of a falling out with Harve and pushed on by bus to the large town of Ponferrada he decided to come too and we all checked into the hostel and he started to cook. We had bought food for our hosts from the previous night but had no way to give it to them so we cooked a big dinner. We had now passed the monument and I was doubtful that we’d be able to get up there, the bus service were very ropey through the mountains wed probably have to walk all the way back! We were back on the Camino but the jump had cost us something important. Harve had promised that Sanan would take us up there, I doubted it!

Then around 6 he showed up ready to move out, Mark was in the shower it all seemed crazy, after a while we all piled into the car, much to the disdain of other ‘Pure and proper pilgrims’ and burnt off up the road at great speed into the mountains. We managed to park nearby and climbed up the last few meters to the summit. The sun was nearly down and the view was breath-taking. Mark was able to reflect and grieve for his dad and we all sat for a good half an hour on the quiet ridge listening to the wind before driving back. It felt like we were on a wild super Camino where friendship and trust were all we had to go on to keep us safe. When we arrived back another pilgrim Jesus was there looking after the dinner stirring the pots. It was 10pm and we all ate together in a kind of last supper. It had been a wild ride but we knew if we had any chance of reaching Santiago on time we’d have to leave Harve behind. It felt like wed learnt something about trust about the Camino and about ourselves, it reminded me of the Apostles going out without much on them just on some kind of mission, we thought we’d go on in a conventional fashion. but then we started walking with Jesus who was now on the Camino for the third time with no money just a backpack and his clothes. He seemed to be even more like those Apostles. He knew about herbs and mushrooms, where to get some food from the woods. He knew how to sneak into a hostel when the hospitalero had left at 10PM and he knew how to wake up to an espresso with a shot in it. He was an ex lorry driver and an excellent chef he taught us Spanish and had a wonderful sense of humour. A real gentle spirit he didn’t seem crazy or unhinged not some kind of mad beggar he was a relaxed and reflective a man with friends on the way, someone to be trusted. he was our new guide and chef for us it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Unfortunately that's all we’ve got time for today I'd like to wrap it up with some reflections:

So what’s the point of pilgrimage in the 21st century is it just another adventure holiday? Why is it important? Arriving in Santiago gave me some clue neither time completing the walk was particularly mind blowing. Its true that the first time I wept on the cathedral steps only to be overcome the next day by a numbness and a dissatisfaction with my life at home. I hadn’t received the answer to life the universe and everything I was flat and disappointed. The second time I felt even less enlightenment from actually reaching the goal but it became clearer that it was the journey that mattered, the being in it. Attentive to the present, alive to the concerns of fellow pilgrims in the moment. Faith was alive there in way it need not be here at home. Trust was paramount as was cooperation. Some people seemed to view the Camino as a race to be won but I’m not sure if they might have missed the point. It felt to me like some of the times when I was most out on a limb on a detour or dealing with something unexpected, those were in the end the times when I felt most on 'The Way'.

The grand metaphor it provided allowed me to reflect on my life, my friendships, my marriage, the journey I was on. It helped me change some things and perhaps showed me what I was good at it as well as where I struggle. It also revealed another way to live guided by friendship, donations and charity, without transactional relationships if only for a time. All of this stuff seems to me to be relevant now perhaps more than ever as our busy technological world leaves less and less time for space and reflection. Maybe that’s why more people are travelling the Camino every year. Not just religious people but atheists and agnostics, old and young, from so many places,  new-agers and maths teachers, police officers, trainee vicars and falafel sellers, all passing each other and proclaiming.

Buen Camino
Dean Reynolds