Pilgrim without map or boots: New lifeskills for the middle years

I aim to have a retreat time of 3 – 4 days every quarter: it’s a good way to rest, renew, and review my direction.  This time, I’m doing a self-guided retreat at the Northumbria Community, a centre in rural mid-Northumberland, inspired by the Celtic Christian monasteries which once flourished in this area.

A spiritual practice they encourage here is pilgrimage: the journey itself is a chance for prayer and contemplation, as well as the place you travel to.  So I decide to do a day-long pilgrimage to the coast, a few miles away.  Glancing at a map, I can see there’s no simple route, but there’s an interesting, tangled network of lanes and footpaths.

I’m just fifteen minutes into my hike when I need to check my route, and find I’ve left the map behind.  I find this hilarious, a good cosmic joke.  My book for Men Beyond 50 is eloquent about the way men love maps and knowing where their route options lie.  I conclude I am meant to be a pilgrim without a map for the day, so I press on.

Lacking a map forces me to use other methods: observation, intuition, and asking strangers.  All of these help, and at length I reach the goal I was aiming for, the delightful, small seaside town of Amble.  When I get back later and review the map, I can see that my route was more long and wiggly than it could have been, but it was my own original creation, and I’m proud of it.

Well before I reach the coast, I am suffering from my other oversight: footwear.  Travelling light on a 2-week tour of the North, I don’t have room for walking boots.  So I have borrowed a pair of over-sized, thin-soled wellies.  Their effect on my soles is like those meat tenderisers.  And I still have to walk back!  Is there a lesson in my suffering?  I haven’t found it yet.

Spiritual communities are so varied, and this is an interesting new one for my collection.  It’s diverse in age, gender and nationality, but aims for a monastic quality.  You can see this in the simplicity of this lifestyle, and the rhythm of four services which guide you through the day.  These services are led by different members of the community, and much of it is participatory.  At Compline, the 9.30pm service for the end of the day, there is a prayer which everyone says in turn: My dear ones, O God, bless Thou and Keep, in every place where they are.  Everyone is asked to sit in silent meditation for a few minutes before and after the services, and I felt this deepened them.

You may wonder, what did I get from my four days on retreat.  Firstly, a sense of catching up with myself, and integrating a hectic and exciting period since New Year.  Secondly, a sense of relaxing and expanding which I always find in the wise, empty, beautiful landscapes of Northumbria.  Thirdly, deep gratitude for the resources, health and freedom to be here.  And lastly, a sense of being loved and nurtured by life, by divine unity, by Nature, by those close to me, and a calling to give out love and nurturance to everyone around me.

Whilst I lacked a map for my hike, I had a good one for my retreat: my favourite book, Desert Wisdom, by my spiritual mentor, Neil Douglas-Klotz.  I can’t sum it up in a paragraph, but see my website www.living-organically.com for more about this.

Days later, my feet are still sore, but that’s a useful reminder: you don’t have to be dependent on maps and boots, you can get by without them – but life’s easier with them!

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