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Balance in all things

In one of the guidebooks, written for the pilgrimage route. I quoted E.F. Schumacher, “I am not at all contemptuous of comforts, but they have their place and it’s not first.”

Traditionally pilgrims often sought greater spiritual merit by embracing and even exaggerating suffering and hardship by practices such as scourging, walking barefoot and fasting or travelling without money, creating a reliance on the charity and hospitality of people along the way. We are not in the business of masochism, but there is something about being willing to give up a degree of comfort and control that is relevant to the pilgrim journey. In so doing we are less insulated and cut off from the direct experience of life. In giving up some familiar comforts, we are brought to an edge, a place perhaps of greater vulnerability, but also opportunity. As a friend of mine reminded me it, is largely through the challenges of life that we learn most about ourselves.

The format we create on the group pilgrimages is intended to prepare the ground, making the possibility of opening to a deeper level of being more likely. The simplicity; slowing down to walking pace for which our bodies and senses are so finely evolved; the periods of silence as we walk which helps cultivate a greater degree of presence; setting and voicing our intentions at the start of the pilgrimage; the reading of poetry or stories to touch and inspire; physical exertion; camping so that we maintain a closer connection with the earth even as we sleep; the journeying to and between places that have been constructed and valued for the quality of the sacred that has been sought there, walking immersed in the beauty of nature, at the mercy of the elements; the community and support of shared endeavour and participation. Put all together these make for a potent mix.

Such qualities may seem anachronistic when contrasted with accepted norms within our culture which markets comfort and distraction, consumption and excitement, as the routes to happiness and success. In this climate pilgrimage and its values are niche and in many ways rather perverse. For others, who resonate with some of the principles we are following, the whole package may seem just a step too far. For example at this time of extreme weather, storms and floods, choosing to spend a week camping may seem unnecessarily austere and slightly mad.

Thinking of the Archangel Michael, one of the characteristic portrayals is of him holding a set of scales. Balance in all things could be one interpretation drawn from this symbolism. Finding ways to bridge the gap with the mainstream, thus responding more flexibly to different needs, is perhaps worthy of greater focus, encouraging and enabling more people to dip their toe into the experience of pilgrimage, rather than fearing they are being thrown in at the deep end.

On a couple of our group pilgrimages this year it may be possible to combine a few nights camping with a night or two B and B. If this is an option that could suit you, get in touch.

Archangel Michael, Brentor

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