Monday, 2 June 2014

To be a pilgrim

As the end of the Easter season fast approaches, Holy Week already feels quite a long time ago and writing about it perhaps a little out of place. But Student Cross was and is a sufficiently significant part of my year that I feel it merits some reflection.

Setting off on this year's pilgrimage I already felt utterly exhausted. I am aware this was probably not the best start to a week of long walks interspersed with considerable sleep deprivation: that's how you are supposed to feel at the end, right, not before even beginning? For brief moments, I even questioned the wisdom of adding yet another layer of tiredness to that which had already accumulated over the preceding weeks and months.

But only for fleeting moments. Because most of the time I knew that walking 120 miles across England, carrying a wooden cross, talking sense, talking nonsense, listening, singing, staying up too late, sleeping on hard church floors, eating, drinking, praying, belonging ... this was exactly what I wanted to be doing during Holy Week.

When it comes to encouraging others to join, Student Cross is a hard sell. We walk most of the day, carrying heavy wooden crosses. In between we stay up late and sleep on hard church floors. Showers are rare; blisters frequent. And yet it successfully encapsulates something of the community I crave and, I suspect, holds important lessons for the wider church.

We have chosen a challenge which no individual can complete alone, forcing us to become a mutually-interdependent community, united by what we do together, not by what we say, think or believe. We find strength in the willingness to push ourselves because we care enough for the rest of the group to do so, and in the knowledge that when we think we can’t continue, others are carrying us who affirm that we can. There is also a paradoxical importance in walking towards a shared destination while knowing that we are here for the pilgrimage, not the arrival.

The sun shone. There were warm and friendly welcomes waiting for us all along the way. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of fun. Anyone who shared the week with me, though, will know there were also some tough, emotional moments. There were a few tears (actually, quite a lot of tears). But that was OK. In fact, more than that, it served as a reminder of what I think this is all about.


This was the fourth time I had walked Northern Leg since first walking in 2004. At least some of those I walked with this year weren't present on any or all of the previous occasions. On one level, then, these are people I hardly know. And yet these are people I know well enough to cry with as well as laugh with. To share hopes and dreams and fears and frustrations with. To be silent with as well as to talk with. To be real with. To be me.

On Student Cross a combination of physical exertion and sleep deprivation quickly leaves everyone exhausted to the point where we do not have the energy to put on the masks we so carefully construct to protect our vulnerable true identities. We become a community that is too tired to pretend its emotions aren’t real, its faults can be hidden, its uglier sides concealed. We become a community that sees each other in our moments of weakness and vulnerability: and quickly discovers that we are able to love and be loved anyway.

This is, I believe, what we, as church, are called to. To walk towards a shared vision, not of belief but of action for which we are all equally responsible. To be mutually supportive communities where we depend on each other and dare to be vulnerable to one another. To be spaces where we can be who we really are and be loved regardless. This is where we discover glimpses of the Christ-like love we are called to offer to one another, in order to be able to offer it to the world around us.

But perhaps the church has become too easy, too comfortable, too safe. Because too often, in my experience, churches, like society, are places where we neither need to, nor dare to take off the masks behind which we hide. They are places where we continue to conceal our precious true identities from one another. Places where we present to God the ‘me’ we would like to be.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is, I acknowledge, a scary prospect. Society has taught us to hide our true selves from the fear of ridicule and rejection, to shy away from admissions of weakness or guilt. And I am not going to deny that vulnerability almost inevitably invites pain. I felt some of that during Holy Week. 

But I suspect that if we dared to be who we really are a little bit more, to acknowledge our vulnerability to one another; then yes, we will find pain, but that in its midst the love we would discover just might empower us to create something truly beautiful as the co-creators with God we are called to be. I felt some of that during Hoy Week too.

This, perhaps, is the cross that allows the new life of resurrection. 

This, for me, is Easter.