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God in all Places
Monday 8th March 2021
I wonder how many of you can remember Pilgrim Adventure. That's how Journeying started (it was about 10 years ago that the name was changed). There's quite a bit of overlap between what is meant by 'journeying' and what is meant by 'pilgrimage'. And these days they can almost describe the same thing.
We can think about the journey of life as being a pilgrimage with the ultimate destination being God; the paradox is that God is also on the journey with us - and was there encouraging us when we set off at the start.....God being at our beginnings, accompanying us through life and waiting for us at the gate to new life. It's the journey and the destination.
As Christians we believe that our life and our very existence is in God - we are immersed in God's presence all the time.
This thought came to mind as I recalled recent travels and I am sure that an attitude of expectancy in terms of how God reveals himself can have a great impact on how we live our lives.
Seeking and finding....
What God is asking us to do is to be aware of his presence in whatever we are doing, wherever we are. It was Brother Lawrence who wrote the classic booklet many years ago - 'The practice of the presence of God'. These days the word Mindfulness has come into the public consciousness and in effect does the same thing - living in the present moment and being aware of God in all we do and in all we see, even (and maybe especially) in the unexpected places and people and circumstances.
That's why a phrase which could be used to describe Journeying's ministry, as it does the work of other groups, is Finding God in Creation - words that align very closely with Ignatian and Celtic spirituality.
There is another helpful phrase : To the edges to find the Centre, first linked to Journeying/PA publicity about 15 years ago. The edges are the remote places to which Journeying takes people and there, if one is sufficiently aware, is God - waiting patiently for us.
John Muir, the father of modern approaches to conservation in wild country wrote this: "Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul". For 'forest' we can of course use the word 'wilderness'.
Similarly Gerard Hughes writes in his book about walking to Jerusalem "I had walked to Jerusalem to find Christ's peace. I left Jerusalem knowing that his peace is offered to us in every place and at every time. For his dwelling place is in our hearts". So the challenge for us is to make ourselves open to meeting God wherever we are. Being in wonderful surroundings on holiday with others who have the same approach to the 'spirituality of place' is what makes these times special and allows God to reveal himself to us in all sorts of ways and people.
A Journeying holiday, just like a Pilgrim Adventure holiday (I led ca.35 trips over 16 years) is one where we enjoy being together, worshipping together, enjoying walking together in areas of unique and often stunning surroundings. But there is that 'other' dimension...and I've had several experiences in life (and in Journeying holidays) where God has revealed him/her self very clearly and often in surprising circumstances.
The first Pilgrim Adventure (PA) holiday that I led was to St Kilda. On Hirta we were walking one summer's day up over the bealach towards the Great Glen - Gleann Mhor - when suddenly a thick fog descended on the isle. On our return from down the Gleann we guessed we were quite near a cliff edge. I felt we needed to deal with it (St Kilda has the highest cliffs in Britain!), to stop, be calm and gather a peace around us and so I deliberately stopped and we prayed together, asking God to be in our thinking. By using our common sense and a compass and map we gingerly moved five metres at a time in what we believed to be the right direction. And so it was, for half an hour later the mist did lift and revealed that we were out of the danger zone. So my learning curve was strengthened by understanding that by trusting the Master, being still and without panic, we would be led to safety - whatever that might be in life. We had used our gift of reasoning and intelligence, the whole group sharing in what was in effect joint leadership at that moment.
Another example of God at work was in the Derbyshire Dales, when one of our group (in her words) "tripped over her own foot" and fell on the country lane down which we were walking. She hit her head on the tarmac of the lane and, though conscious all the time with no bleeding, lay perfectly still as was the advice I remembered to give her. She was 72. Well, a few minutes later, when we were wondering about a 999 call, God walked round the corner in the guise of a consultant orthopaedic doctor from Derby hospital. George Macleod, the founder of the Iona Community, said "if you believe in coincidences may you have a very dull life". And of course many of us now use the word 'God-incidence' to describe that feeling; maybe we're beginning to get the message.
On Fair Isle lives a remarkable community of about 60 people and I've taken two Journeying groups there. I've known the isle since my teens and every time I go there's something tangible about 'belonging'. Those five dozen folk form the island community and are some of the most welcoming people I have ever met; I believe that their wonderful hospitality (Celtic?) comes from understanding that they cannot live alone. They know, as we all need to learn, that we are all interdependent, one on another, community on community. I've known community by living on islands and also as an ecologist; I know too the essence of the web of life, the need that all segments of the biosphere have of the others. Sadly we humans are making rather a mess of things just now and we need to step back and stop and re-assess where we are, check our place in the world and our relationships with each other.
"The same feeling comes on Iona where I've spent much time. There is the official Iona Community, with HQ in Glasgow and it's the abbey occupied by that Community that draws huge numbers of people to the isle each year. But it is so important to understand that there is another 'Iona Community' viz. the people living there, the crofters, the shopkeepers, hotel staff, boatmen, fishermen. So it's all about relationship again, the interdependence in life that God calls us to understand for our very survival. On small islands, where Journeying often goes, one can feel God truly at work amongst the human population. Wild places with no-one near are wonderful. Communities with lots of people near - they're wonderful too. God can be seen in all things and in all situations....but only if we search with the right glasses on.
In Orkney I was involved in a long-term study of Fulmar Petrels and I also spent an earlier three years studying Scottish Oystercatchers. In both studies there was a need to colour-ring the birds e.g. Blue/Black/Orange. That has a purpose ecologically, but spiritually it speaks to me of God's relationship with us; for I knew each bird as an individual, marked out for ever as a having identity. Of course we can debate whether or not God had a real relationship with those birds (but he did talk of sparrows didn't he?). What was significant was that I too am marked out, just as you who read this are marked out as an individual belonging to God, for it was he who made us (Ps 139) so wonderfully, with intention and with loving care.
The rhythm of the days
On the Royal Road (path, sheep-track, boat) God is longing to engage with us and that can happen to any of us, in ways that are just right for each of us. I'm reminded of Journeying walks I have led - and walks I have done alone - where I try to link with God through my senses, through the landscape and the immediate surroundings. I've found seven ways that help me to do this, some of which may be helpful to you too.
1. Dangling my hand in a stream - feeling the movement of the water caressing my skin, rather like what God longs to do to us.
2. Deliberately lying on the grass (hopefully dry!) and pressing my hands into the solidity of the ground, trying to really engage with this planet of ours, this gift from God that we, to be truthful, are not caring for as we should.
3. Facing the wind and feeling it brushing past my head, sensing it as the Holy Spirit coming very close.
4. Facing the sun (yes, I know!) and understanding that it brings me God's warmth and protection.
5. Even when it's raining, trying to interpret the rain on my face as Christ's forgiveness and healing power through the presence of water.
6. (Deliberately) changing my walk course ever so slightly to enable some tree leaves to touch my face. Of course this can happen naturally without 'planning', but I always treat it as God touching me, coming very close as if a butterfly landed on my arm.
7. Finally - when I am by a shore I stand and listen and watch. It might be gentle whispers of the tide lapping on sand; yes that can mean something special. Or it could be when thundering breakers crashing onto rocks that I feel the vibration of the Power of God going right through me.
We usually face forwards as we travel. But maybe there is something to be said for stopping now and then and looking backwards to see from where we have come. You get totally different views don't you? And it helps if we can review our life journeying too. Ignatian spirituality believes this to be helpful - a time at the end of the day when we can gently recall the day's events and see where we were moving towards God and where we moved away.
Like Gerard Hughes we can realise that we have discovered more about ourselves after the journeying, but maybe the last word goes to TS Eliot who wrote in the 'Four Quartets' a powerful sentence that speaks to us of our own life and purpose and journeying....
"we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Gleann Mhor, Hirta
On Fair Isle