Minister’s Reflection: ‘Everyday Pilgrimage – on Wandering, Getting Lost and Finding your Way’ – extract from Sunday service – 11th July 2021

I’ve been thinking about journeys recently – maybe because July is ‘that time of year’ when husband Rob and I, in more ‘normal’ times, take holiday – usually in the Celtic landscapes of Wales – which brings out my inner ‘pilgrim’. We might still go away in August, but our plans are not certain.  Like many people, I haven’t travelled anywhere of late – unless trips to Cranleigh to see the dentist count! I’m a stay-at-home kind of gal, so lockdown restrictions on travel haven’t hit me as hard as some. I’m not given to wander-lust – but even I’m beginning to feel a bit confined. And with pilgrimage in mind, sifting through old services looking for inspiration, I came across (I think) the 1st service I gave at this Chapel – 20 years ago – as a new member; a service on serendipity, which included these words by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell: “Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter in? The beginning of the adventure of finding yourself is to lose your way!” As someone who likes to have at least some idea of where I’m going, I don’t like getting lost. Those of you who are intrepid walkers or travellers may have exciting tales to tell of wandering off the beaten track.  Because I don’t wander far from home, and even on holidays tend to stick to well-worn ‘safe’ paths, I’ve never really gotten lost when walking, and only a few times when driving. But there are certainly times when I’ve felt lost on my journey through life:  After I left the path of my child-hood faith, heading off through unfamiliar terrain to an unknown destination, I wandered in the wilderness for years, until the winding path led me to the door of this Chapel…. After much heart-ache  I left my marriage which was every bit as terrifying as being lost in an alien landscape. And there have been other times I’ve lost my way – moving on from jobs, navigating illness, during dark nights of the soul. But in times of lostness, I have found those words of Campbell to be true – at least in retrospect; “The beginning of the adventure of finding yourself is to lose your way!”

winding path

Some famous pilgrim trails offer guided routes where there is less chance of getting lost, but pilgrims still need to prepare for the rigours of the journey. How much more, those who wander off the beaten track. Only the fool-hardy set off to walk on moors or hills, without food, protection from the elements – and in moderns times a mobile phone! Stories abound of people getting lost when mist suddenly descends. So too, as inner pilgrims, we are wise to prepare for whatever life’s journey brings – nourishing ourselves with spiritual food, consulting our ‘maps’ (i.e. sacred scriptures, experiences of others) and honing our spiritual muscles for steep inclines. But sometimes despite our best preparations, we still find ourselves lost. The poet Dante in his famous work the Divine Comedy, describes such a moment:  In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was… It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there. I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way. (From Inferno Canto I: The Dark Wood and the Hill – translated by A. S. Kline)

The weary Dante tries to move towards the light on a distant hilltop but is confronted in turn by 3 beasts which block his way and drive him back. Just as Dante begins to lose hope, a figure approaches – the poet Virgil – who leads him forward on his journey. Sometimes, when we are lost – despite our best efforts – like Dante, all we can do is wait to be found. Joyce Rupp in her book ‘Dear Heart, Come Home: The path of Midlife Spirituality’ (1996) talks of getting lost as a common feature of mid-life. She recalls a wilderness retreat in British Columbia where a forest Ranger named Ferguson gave the hikers this advice; “If you get lost… don’t try to keep finding the way out. Go a short way off the trail by a tree. Wait for someone to come and show you the way home. Whatever you do, don’t panic.” Joyce Rupp describes how uncomfortable his words made her – but years later realised how wise this advice was, not just for hikers, but midlife journeyers, “I have gotten lost in the mystery of who I am. I have needed a wise companion to help me find the way home to my true self. I had to learn how to trust another with my lostness. Sometimes this wise companion was a close friend, sometimes a skilled therapist or spiritual director. Always it has been a turning to my wise companion, God, the One who says to me when you get lost, stop, wait, trust. I know the way and I will find you and lead you out.” ‘Whatever you do, don’t panic’ – despite fear being a natural emotion when we are literally or figuratively lost. Stand still and wait – because to blindly keep moving – may lead us further into lostness.

Dante - dark wood

I recently saw a film based on Bill Bryson’s book ‘A Walk in the Woods.  It tells of Bryson’s adventures when in his 60’s, bored of his predictable life, he decides to hike the length of the Appalachian trail, which runs near his home in New Hampshire. His wife objects – citing calamities that have befallen others – but she finally concedes, on condition he finds a travelling companion. All Bryson’s friends decline – except one – Stephen Katz – an unfit, recovering alcoholic. There is a lesson here in our journeys through life – don’t try to do it alone; find travelling companions – even if they are as imperfect and out of condition as we are! Three months in, not yet halfway along the trail – the unlikely pilgrims wander into a restricted area for “experienced hikers only”. Bill trips and pulls his companion with him down a steep, rocky cliff. On a ledge with no way up and no way down, all they can do is spend the night there and hope to be found. As they wait, they reflect on their lives and their mortality. Getting lost can propel us to ask the big questions and reassess what’s most important in life. In the morning, thankfully – they are rescued by more experienced hikers. Just so, after our dark nights – if we are fortunate, help will come – whether in the form of other humans, or from a source deep within or beyond us, that shows us the way.

Sometimes being lost takes us off predictable paths to new discoveries. Episcopalian priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes compellingly in her book: ‘An Altar in the World’: Finding the Sacred Beneath our Feet’ about ‘The Practice of Getting Lost’ (2009). She describes allowing herself to get intentionally lost by taking unfamiliar routes when driving and walking, as preparation for getting lost in life – and there are many ways this can happen: we get married and end up divorced, we set out to be healthy and find ourselves sick, we start in one career and end up in another, we lose a loved one and find ourselves in a dark wood, we are made redundant or retire and lose our sense of purpose, we search for God and find only silence, we battle mental illness and fear we are losing our sanity. As a society, a nation – thrown off course by Covid 19 – we have lost our sense of security and complacency.  As a human species many feel lost as we navigate a brave new world of pandemics and global warming.  Sometimes when we’re lost, it’s not enough to sit and wait to be rescued. We may need to take decisive action to find a way through our predicament – but we should not be afraid to ask for directions. I don’t know how true it is – it seems a gender stereotype – but an article a few years back suggested only 6% of men surveyed, said they would ask for directions or check a map when driving. Satnavs make it easier – but just this week someone told me their car was trashed taking a route down a bumpy lane as directed by their satnav! Sometimes we have to update our inner ‘maps’ – as old landmarks and routes are demolished. I had to leave the map (bible) of my childhood faith and find new maps to navigate by (though I now find that old ‘map’ more useful, as I approach it with new eyes and decipher its cryptic codes.)  When we are lost, we also need to keep an eye for ‘signs’ along the way – even if the signs seem confusing – even contradictory!

confusing sign

 We may sometimes feel as though we’re going rounds in circles – but this too can be a necessary part of the journey. When we are lost, we are in good company.  Barbara Taylor Brown (in the above mentioned book) reminds us of stories from Hebrew-Christian scripture where “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly seriously lost.” Abraham and Sarah – the first parents of the Jewish people – who in old age set off for a strange land with nothing but a promise”…. Their descendants, rescued from slavery in Egypt “needed 40 years in the wilderness to learn the holy art of being lost”… The prophet Elijah lost in the desert after fleeing queen Jezebel, heard the ‘still small voice of God’… Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the wilderness as preparation for his ministry ….  As one Desert Father said: ‘Now I know I am on the right road, because I don’t know where I am going.’  The art of getting lost was encouraged in ancient Celtic Christian tradition. ‘Perigrinatio’ was the call to wander for the love of Christ. Less a pilgrimage with a specific destination, the wandering saints set forth – often in small boats called coracles without oars or rudders – trusting the ‘currents of divine love’, the wind and ocean, to take them where they needed to be. In France, the ‘Flâneur’ refers to someone who wanders without purpose – strolling round urban streets – a keen observer of their surroundings. I can hardly be described as a ‘Flâneur’. Usually short of time I take brief walks close to home along familar routes. Yet during lockdown I’ve tried to inject novelty; taking a short cut down an alley, walking the same route in reverse – slowing down – noticing what’s in front of me. We can make the shortest walk a mini-pilgrimage by engaging with our environment – like a ‘shamanic walk’ – where the flight of birds, a particular tree, or street sign, might just offer clues about our lives.

There’s a venture called ‘Street-Wisdom’ which offers a secular equivalent based on the premise that; “The street is an invisible university, if you know how to look.” At FUSE (Festival of Unitarians in the South-East) 2020 in Worthing (our last proper trip before lockdown) Rob and I led a session based on guidelines from ‘Street Wisdom’. We sent people out alone to wander the streets and sea-front for 1 hour, asking them to set an intention or question, and to walk mindfully – engaging with their environment. Having just read a book about ‘heart centred’ wisdom and pondering how I could move from ‘head knowledge’ to a more intuitive ‘heart knowing’, I went for a walk myself. After a quick stroll on a windy beach, I instinctively headed for the shelter of a park – where a woman came up out of the blue and offered me – a knitted heart! She was from a local church group – ‘spreading the love’. Her gift felt compellingly serendipitous. On our return to the hotel, we shared our stories. One participant, a teacher, had pondered if his vocation had been worth-while. Questioning whether to leave teaching, he ambled into a coffee shop – only for a woman to come up and say hello. She turned out to be the mother of a former pupil – and told the teacher what a positive influence he’d been on her son who years later still mentioned him. These instances remind me of the power of serendipity – when we allow ourselves to ‘wander’ and let intuition guide us.

So in the coming days and weeks – in those times when you feel lost, without clear direction; remember the advice of Ferguson the Ranger; don’t panic, stand still – trust that help will come. Remember Bill Bryson – find yourself travelling companions – you don’t have to do it alone. Remember the Celtic saints – let yourself be guided by the currents of Love. Remember the words of Joseph Campbell: “Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter in? The beginning of the adventure of finding yourself is to lose your way!” And we can prepare ourselves for times of lostness in life – by taking small risks in daily life; a different route to the shops, a less worn path through a field – allowing ourselves to wander for the joy of it… open to discover treasures at every turn.  As the poet Walt Whitman writes:

“I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name”,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.”   

In faith and hope, Sheena