Some years ago, a dear friend introduced me to the New Year tradition of choosing words to live by for the year to come. In January 2019, I settled on “compassion,” “courage,” “grace” and “resilience.” Who would have known how those words would linger and sustain me over the coming years, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.
Heading into 2019, I also knew that I needed a “recharge” of sorts; to refuel myself so I could live out those words. Could I possibly combine my love of walking with Celtic landscapes? If one were to look at my browser history, it would be abundantly clear that I have been noodling this idea for some time. That said, time and time again I kept returning to one site in particular.
Over New Year’s Eve dinner with another close friend, I disclosed my desire to dip my toe into a wee pilgrimage called the “Way of St. David” in southwest Wales in June. It would mean walking approximately 100km over 5 days; ending up at St. Davids Cathedral. To which her response was, “Can I come too?” The next day, when clearer heads prevailed (the discussion the evening before did take place on New Year’s Eve, after all), we started working the plan.
Way of St. David
The Way of St. David is steeped in history and had long been abandoned (as a result of the Reformation) but was being revived by Journeying, a U.K.-based non-profit Christian travel organization. We would be on the inaugural pilgrimage. The cathedral, begun in 1181, was the fourth church to be built on the site where it is believed St. David founded a monastic community (one of 12) in the 6th century. For nearly 14 centuries it was an important place of pilgrimage. In 1124, Pope Calixtus II declared that two pilgrimages to St. Davids were equal to one to Rome and three were equal to one to Jerusalem. Having spent time in both Rome and Jerusalem, the Way of St. David seemed like a pretty good place to start exploring this idea of pilgrimage. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, St. David’s monastic communities were extremely strict, and St. David was known as “the Waterman,” so there is speculation he and his monks were teetotallers. Full confession here, I likely would have some difficulty being a member of the community even if I could. But St. David, whose feast day is celebrated on March 1 as the Patron Saint of Wales, has as his motto “Do the little things.” Now that is something I could get behind.
Compassion, courage, grace and resilience
After months training on the walking paths of Brampton, we arrived in the small Welsh village of Llangwm in Pembrokeshire not at all knowing what to expect. Recognizing that this was also meant to be a vacation and perhaps a little daunted by the physical challenge ahead of us, we had given ourselves permission to take a day off. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Walking 20km in one day didn’t seem too bad but five days in a row was another matter.
Our first afternoon set the tone for what was to unfold. Our retreat leader was ever the gracious host and gently took the lead of our little band of five. For the next several days we would be journeying together. As I look back on this experience, I can see how my chosen words played out and how they would be foundational throughout the pandemic that was to follow, mere months after our return.
Much like a liturgy, our days settled into a gentle rhythm — beginning and ending with morning and evening prayer. Time had a way of slowing down, and you simply focussed on the task at hand even if it was putting one foot in front of the other. At intentional locations, Iain (our retreat leader) had us stop for moments of reflection, prayer or singing of hymns, and at other times we would meditate on a particular word or scripture. For me, the rhythm of walking cultivates moments of clarity and peace. So let me tell you how my words turned up on the Way of St. David and how they have helped me these last several months during the pandemic. Remember that St. David’s motto is “Do the little things.”
When you bring five strangers together, albeit Lynne and I were not strangers to each other, it’s hard to predict how things will turn out. In our case, there is no question (and maybe there never is) that God’s timing was perfect. Each of us had stories that were revealed over the week, sometimes to the group and sometimes only to one another. That was the lovely mystery: you simply never knew nor needed to know if you were going to be the storyteller or the listener. The timing was not of our choosing but it was a time of deep listening and simply walking alongside. St. David was on to something with his little things.
Forward to the pandemic and haven’t we found that satisfying that deep human desire to be the storyteller to a good listener a big part of what we have been missing? Those long phone calls, walks with friends, delivery of meals, the cards and notes popped in the mail and small gatherings all speak to that. Being a good listener is not one of my strengths but in the pandemic, I have tried to cultivate it. Even with all the silence, I still have a long way to go. But the pandemic has gifted me more intentional time in silence and prayer that inevitably has me praying for others.
I do not like heights, and I like them even less when I am on a narrow footpath precariously close to the edge of a 200-foot rocky cliff but that is where I found myself on the Way of St. David. I made the journey but not without literally walking through my fear.
Aren’t there days during the pandemic where we have a courage deficit? Days when we give into the fear even if just for a short time, when frustration or anger seeps in. I am not so sure that we have given ourselves enough credit for the courage that has gotten us this far. We shouldn’t overlook those little things like learning new technology, adapting to endless changes, refocussing our outlook and asking for or accepting help. All these things take courage.
Some of you may recall the U2 song Grace from their 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. In it, we hear grace makes beauty out of ugly things and finds beauty and goodness in everything. The first day of our walk was anything but beautiful.
We started the day with worship at St. Jerome (a lovely medieval church built circa 1185-1215 and subsequently restored) and a pilgrim blessing for our journey. We then set off walking westward along the Milford Haven waterway. It drizzled all day, and we were surrounded by enormous petrochemical companies. I had seen too many British crime dramas (thinking specifically of Hinterland) to be daunted by a day of drizzle, but the prospect of five days was a bit ugly, and certainly the refineries stood in stark contrast to the beautiful landscape.
The next day dawned bright and we continued our westward journey, leaving the refineries behind us and eventually turning north to spend the balance of our walk along St. Bride’s Bay. In fact, the weather became so wonderful that we were scrambling for sunscreen. The portion of the Wales Coastal Path that we were on was simply stunning. Our little band of sojourners did not need much grace on our pilgrimage, however, the journey did much to restore it for the months to come.
God’s grace is central to me and without it living through the pandemic would have been quite ugly. ”What once was hurt, what once was friction, what left a mark no longer stings,” sings Bono, and that cannot be done without God’s grace. Throughout the pandemic, with all its messiness, there have been true moments of grace, and many of them have been the result of the little things. Small gestures have resulted in reconciliation. Kind words have healed wounds or provided comfort. Friends have reached out to support each other. God’s love bats last.
I can clearly hear Iain say “just beyond the next headland” in response to us (it might have been just me) asking how much longer. The headlands came and went. The ascents and descents kept coming; they seemed relentless. We had trained on the mainly flat and well-maintained trails in Brampton and this was completely different. Sometimes the Way of St. David was easy and comfortable while at other times it could be wearisome and gruelling. I can clearly remember repeating my words over and over again during yet another climb just to keep me focussed, just to get to the top. But steady-on and we would eventually land in a quiet safe harbour to end the day. Isn’t this what it has been like during the pandemic? One pivot after another, grief and losses, joy and celebrations but for me it is the steady-on that will land us in that safe harbour.
With the rhythm of the days, the wonderful companionship and the beauty of creation to energize us, we never did take that day off. When the pandemic is behind us and it is safe to do so, it will be another pilgrimage for me.
Walking the Way
May you find a new rhythm
Watching the waves,
Listening to the birds,
By walking the Way.
May you find a new rhythm,
Engaging with thoughts,
Conversing with strangers,
By walking the Way.
May you find a new rhythm,
In opening your heart,
And freeing your soul
By walking the Way.
The Little Book of Celtic Blessing by Iain Tweedale, 2021. Printed with permission from the author.