For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Pilgrim's Way (1): Reflection, Penitence, Glory


It’s Easter Sunday, and it's raining, and my thoughts turn to the Camino. I haven’t consciously thought about the Camino for some time, but today my mind is full of it. In many ways pilgrimages are intense microcosmic distillations of our general macrocosmic lives, rich in the symbolism of birth, death and renewal.

In the autumn of 2007 I walked the ancient pilgrim route from le Puy-en-Velay in south-central France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. This 1000-mile journey lasted 60 days. 

Almost a year later I walked my second Camino from Arles in the French Camargue to Puente la Reina in northern Spain. This time I went more slowly, and the 550-mile walk took me 46 days to complete.

In January and February 2010 I walked four-fifths of the Spanish Via de la Plata from Seville to La Gudiña, a total of 500 miles. And during the last two weeks of September 2011 I walked the Via Gebennensis from Geneva in Switzerland to Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, a distance of 225 miles.

In May the following year I retraced part of the original route I’d taken in 2007 from le Puy, finishing in Limogne; and then, last July, walked a very short stretch of the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Guînes just south of Calais. I’d like to rejoin this route, and do the full trek all the way to Rome one day.

Of course, the distances travelled and the number of days taken are among the least important facts about the Camino.

As well as these long and grand European pilgrimages, I’ve walked trails in England, such as the Dales Way, the Pennine Way, the South West Coast Path and the Hadrian’s Wall Path, and local routes such as the Trent Valley Way, the Viking Way, and the towpath along the Grantham Canal.

I walk whenever and wherever I can in the UK, and particularly like the Peak District, the Lake District, Scotland and Wales.

But what does it all add up to, this walking, and what does it mean? I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with the significance of my longer pilgrimages, how they affect me in the context of my whole life, how they fit into my personal human journey. Perhaps I feel more ready to do that now, more able to see their allegorical and spiritual value.

There's a saying on the Camino Francés that the Way is divided into three parts: the Way of Reflection, the Way of Penitence and the Way of Glory. All serious walks contain something of these three aspects, I believe . . .

To be continued . . . 

14 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Friends of mine set off to walk Land's End to John o'Groats in three week's time Robert. I can no longer walk far but I do think these walks, particularly if they are done on one's own, serve to make one sure what life (and death) is really about. I can still walk in our fields and I get the same kind of feeling from that.

Nick said...

What does it all add up to? A step or two along the way of liberation at the very least, I think. Satisfying too.

The Solitary Walker said...

I envy those friends of yours, Pat.

Yes, on a long solo walk you do have the opportunity to confront life simply and directly; to experience extremes of sociability and loneliness, of elation and depression; to discover the real things that matter to you. And whether you're walking long distances or walking in the fields on your doorstep, in many ways the path is the same.

The Solitary Walker said...

I like the idea of pilgrimage being 'a step or two along the way of liberation', Nick. And a long walk can certainly be satisfying, although it doesn't always seem completely so when you're doing it.

am said...

Yes. The heart has its reasons. Part of the sky is cloudy here, and the other part of the sky is blue, and the moon is up there. Yesterday I saw a tiny child holding her father's hand and walking across the street in that tentative wobbly way children walk at first. She was smiling in delight. I saw the joyful expressions on the babies' faces as they were taking their first steps in the daycare where I have been volunteering. Thank you for this post today. Reflection, Penitence, Glory.

The Solitary Walker said...

Cloudy, clear, the moon, the sun — the earth has its reasons!

Thanks, Am, for your most beautiful comment.

George said...

I'm looking forward to learning more about how your long pilgrimage walks have impacted your life, Robert. I'm also interested in your sense of what it means to be a pilgrim. Does one become a pilgrim before making a walking pilgrimage, and does the walker continue to be a pilgrim long after the physical challenge is completed? Can one be a pilgrim without ever setting forth on a physical journey? And what is the significance of it all? Needless to say, I'm looking forward to reading more of your reflections.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, George. I'm not sure where these reflections are going to lead me, whether to penitence or glory. We'll see.

One thing I'm sure of is that we are all pilgrims and our lives are pilgrimages. Pilgrimage is not the limited property of those few who are fortunate or crazy enough to tread the actual, physical pathways; after all, many of us are unable to do this, for a variety of reasons. Pilgrimage can be in the mind and an attitude of mind; pilgrimage is the path we take daily from dawn till dusk, and then in our dreams at night; pilgrimage is questioning, abandoning, discovering, accepting. Pilgrimage is life. Pilgrimage is love.

George said...

Beautifully and wisely stated, Robert. I agree entirely, and it seems to me that you are are well on your way to answering the questions you raise in this post.

Your statement that pilgrimage is "questioning, abandoning, discovering, accepting" reminds me of Rilke's counsel to live the questions. At a minimum, pilgrimage seems to be a continuous movement into the questions, rather than away from them.

Ruth Mowry said...

It seems right that it is not the actual walks themselves that change you, but your ability to reflect upon them. These walks are symbolic for you, and for me, your reader, and I learn from you beyond the pleasure of seeing lovely vistas of stone walls and cottages, sheep in pastures or churches on hillsides. Penitence or glory? Aren't these the truth of human existence, braided together in constant, moment-by-moment wonder?

Amanda said...

Walking, done correctly, can be a most intense and satisfying form of meditation (so can running for that matter.) But you already know this.

And yes, I do believe that the heart has its own reasons which reason cannot know.

The Solitary Walker said...

'At a minimum, pilgrimage seems to be a continuous movement into the questions, rather than away from them.' Yes, I think so, George.

The Solitary Walker said...

That's a subtle and interesting comment, Ruth. I think you're right — the post-walk reflection is important, though I wouldn't want to be too cerebral about it. The visceral, immediate experience of the walk, of the experience, itself can't be bettered, or even explained intellectually. Symbolic, mythological, mental — afterwards, yes, but at the time, perhaps shambolic, perhaps lonely, perhaps clueless — but real. I know you understand that anyway.

Yes, the things beyond the picturesque pleasures, beyond landscape (as I wrote in my poem 'A Prayer'.)

'Penitence or glory? Aren't these the truth of human existence, braided together in constant, moment-by-moment wonder?' Beautifully observed and written.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Amanda — walking and running as forms of meditation... yes!