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Holy Land       The need, and inability to journey’   September 1st-14th

Our two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian Authority gave us the opportunity to explore the constraints imposed by the Israeli security wall. We did this by travelling along the wall, and through various checkpoints on several occasions. We undertook a walking tour of Bethlehem which focussed on the ways in which the wall has divided communities and had an opportunity to meet and talk with a number of residents whose lives are affected on a daily basis by the constraints placed on travel, the length of time they have to wait at checkpoints and the frequent instances of violence which are sparked by fear and frustration. We also met with a representative of ICAHD (The Israeli Collective against Housing Developments), a non-violent pressure group organised and based in Israel which campaigns and takes direct action against illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. Key moments for me included listening to the often devastating experience of our Palestinian hosts in trying to live a normal life under the pressure and constraints of the Wall; the experience of seeing for the first time the way the wall divides the ancient Jericho Road, scene of the parable of the Good Samaritan; and an encounter with our ICAHD representative and an armed Settler in one of the settlements we visited!

Camino de Santiago     The need and ability to journey  September 22nd-November 3rd

In hindsight, walking the Camino, something I have longer to do for many years, comes in four stages: a pilgrimage of the body, a pilgrimage through landscape, a pilgrimage of encounter, and a pilgrimage inwards, and each stage is marked also by  physical and chronological transitions.

The pilgrimage of the body is marked by preparation: practice walks to harden up feet and simply get used to walking 25-30 kilometres a day. The sense of panic that such long distances feel unachievable had to be faced down, along with the consoling thought that we could take the bus if we felt we needed to, although as it transpired, we walked every step of the way! We had to admit to our limitations: not trying to do too many kilometres each day, pacing oneself: taking hills at a reasonable pace, learning to slow down, shorten one’s steps, pause, look around, breathe. The awareness that one’s body could spring a surprise: blisters, tendonitis, one had to listen to one’s body.

A Pilgrimage through landscape. After the body had habituated to the distances, we had the sense of being able to enjoy the landscape. On a clear day, our breath could be taken away at the top of a hill, by the exertion, but also by the views. Highlights for me included ‘The Meseta’; the bleak high plateau which bisects Northern Spain; beautiful towns: Burgos, Leon, Astorga, Santiago, the Leonese Mountains. Awareness of landscape meant also keeping one’s eyes open: directions could suddenly change; there were slippery rocks, steep downhill paths and busy roads. We became aware of walking through the seasons: starting at the end of Summer, when it could be 34° during the day, and, by the time we arrived in Santiago, the nights had drawn in & you could see your breath in the mornings. We became aware of how pilgrims impact the landscape; not only through worn paths, the evident lack of infrastructure on an increasingly popular route but also in the proliferation of impromptu wayside shrines: crosses woven into wire, stones piled up beneath the ‘Cruz de Ferro’, messages scrawled on road signs, prayers on paper folded into stone walls, stone cairns, photos of loved ones left, memorials to pilgrims who had died en route.

A Pilgrimage of Encounter. The next stage, after the body is toughened and one is habituated to the continual change in landscape is that one can begin to notice and engage with fellow pilgrims. The Camino can feel like ‘Quarantine’, not that one is diseased, but that it is time out of normal life, a chance to be quarantined from the world, with the space to reflect, think, listen to others. When you are walking in the same direction as another, not looking at each other, it makes confiding easier. Everyone walked for a reason, the end of relationships, to mark particular life stages, following bereavement, celebrating recovery from illness. Stories were quickly and easily shared, with a lack of judgment, a sense of common purpose seemed to help people be kinder to each other.

A Pilgrimage inwards. Most obviously pilgrimage gives you a sense of space to think, reflect, talk (to God…self…each other). We had to come to terms with a sense of disappointment with the institutional failure of the Spanish Church to respond creatively to the presence of 150,000 international pilgrims each year, whose spiritual hunger was not creatively addressed. Evening Pilgrim Masses took no account of the young & multinational profile of the majority of the usually large congregation in each town for whom a 15 minute sermon is Spanish may not have been the most inspiring way to collect oneself at the end of the day. There were many stories of how a large number of pilgrims had endured bad experiences of organised religion, and what they might be seeking alternatively. However, an experience of the eternal came often through encounters with these people, their kindness, stories, silence, the rhythm of walking. A sense of not quite knowing what we had set out to resolve, nor even that specific questions had been answered, but that, somehow, perhaps imperceptibly, perhaps gradually, something had shifted.


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