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Monday, November 27, 2017

Your Pilgrimage?

     I've received some wonderful feedback and affirming and life-giving comments from so many of you who have shared in my pilgrimage to Chartres. To really round out this narrative, I wanted to offer some thoughts to those of you who may be considering doing something like this one day. And include a few more photos from the trip that are quite memorable! Many were taken by my buddy Emily and I am appreciative of her allowing me to use her photos here.
     My husband asked me shortly after I came home if there was a big difference in calling this journey a pilgrimage or just a long walk. It's a fair question as everyone's motive for doing something like this will vary. I don't have a deep answer to that except to say that when you follow a road that pilgrims have for hundreds of years, it does connect you to something bigger. Every time we saw a sign or a symbol of the Chemin, it was thrilling and inspiring. A pilgrimage is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place, as an act of religious devotion. So I think the first thing to consider are your expectations.
     For me, I'm not sure I was super dialed into this experience as an act of religious devotion as much as I was just curious about what something like this looks like, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I was pretty unprepared in many ways but that wasn't all bad in my mind. I came in with even expectations, basically just curious. I wasn't expecting to have a Paul on the road to Damascus spiritual encounter, although I was open. I also didn't think it would be utterly void of learning. So I think the expectations you bring into the experience are important. But keeping your expectations open but even is also important because there is so much uncertainty in what you will encounter.
     My good friend who walked the camino de Santiago for her 60th birthday remarked that most say the camino is one third physical, one third emotional, and one third spiritual. And while the thirds are intermixed, in some ways the longer you are on your journey, more space emerges for the spiritual and emotional to rise above the physical. A short journey like the one I did, definitely keeps you in the physical place because the first week is all about adjusting to the physical demands.
     Secondly, you will need to decide if you want to go alone, with one other person, or in a group like I did. I think a group experience for much longer than we did would be pretty demanding. I don't think I could a month with a group. Pace would become an issue. And taking the time to debrief each day and night would also be hard to do. Perhaps if you did a group, after the first week, you could decide to meet up every other day, or every third day to enter into an examen with one another, but over the long haul, sharing that much would probably become pretty exhausting. While rich in many ways, also constantly listening and interacting with others takes quite a bit of energy and can distract you from your own thoughts and feelings. If you do it alone, there will likely be loneliness combined with the serendipitous encounters with strangers who become friends. If you do it with just one other person, that person should be someone with whom you desire a greater intimacy. You cannot do this without going deeper with the person you are with. This is both a gift and a little nerve-wracking!
Friends of my heart forever. Thankful beyond measure for these two.
     Third, obviously you have to decide length. We were extremely lucky to have a driver who took our stuff to our end point every day. That meant we didn't have to worry about what to pack or how to keep things clean along the way. On a longer journey when you are carrying everything with you, you have to make careful choices about what you want on your back all day and the evening is filled with getting things clean for the next day. Also, we had the great luxury of rooms with only 2 people and most of the time, just our group staying at a place. On longer journeys and perhaps even this one at certain times of the year, you are in dormitory type of sleeping arrangements, with snorers and other assorted sleeping hazards like bedbugs. Can you handle this?
     Fourth, there will be pain. I love this photo of the bread box from our first morning. Pain in French is, of course, bread and pronounced pahn, but the double meaning is not lost on me. We need bread for the journey but there will also be pain on the journey. Do not be naive about the foot issues you will have. Bring moleskin and tape and bandaids. I was woefully unprepared and had to borrow stuff from others. Thankfully there were open pharmacies in some of the towns we stopped so I could stock up but it's important to accept that you will have some issues, no matter how well you trained. You feet in particular take a beating when you are walking that much day after day. There will also be discouragement, potential illness, frustration, and grumpiness. The goal is not to be rid of all these things but learn to manage them as you journey on. Because of course there is laughter and joy and encouragement as well.
     Fifth, invest in the right gear. BOOTS that work are the most important thing. Get advice, spend some money, get the right fit, wear them for awhile before you set off. Walking sticks were super helpful. I fully recommend them, especially if there are hilly parts. A backpack that is well fitted and has the correct frame for your body is essential. And the right clothing. I had a quick drying towel that was very useful. I had good socks made for hiking so I could put my best foot forward in reducing hot spots. And best of all I had this flat water bottle that fit nicely in my backpack with the drinking tube affixed near my shoulder so that taking a drink was easy and effortless.
This was really important for staying hydrated. The more water you drank, the flatter the bag became so it was also just a very easy way to carry water. Water is heavy but you have to carry it.
     Sixth, nourish yourself along the way. Do not go into a walk like this thinking you will lose weight. It doesn't really work that way and you don't want to be limiting food or drink along the way. You might lose some weight but don't make it a goal. Enjoy the food and drink as you journey. Make sure you stay hydrated and ingest the calories you need to sustain the day. Eat some treats. Enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the end of the day. Indulge once in awhile. Of course, making this journey in France was especially tantalizing!
Combining a physical journey with restricting food is not a good idea. It will mostly just make you hangry (hungry and angry) and won't enhance the overall experience.
     Finally, enjoy the trip, even when it's hard. Remember, it's about the journey not the destination. It's very easy to focus on the destination, especially when your dogs are barking at you and you think you can't muster another step. But stop to smell the roses along the way. To admire a beautiful sight. To take in the view. To share a good laugh. The end point will come. It's what unfolds along the way that will be most memorable. 
     There is no formula for doing a pilgrimage. Whether you see it as a long walk or an act of religious devotion, unexpected encounters with yourself, with others and with God will occur. But it does behoove you to do some serious thinking ahead of time about why you want to do this, where you want to do this, when you want to do this (time of year matters tremendously and you need to know what kind of weather you can endure) and with whom you want to do this. I was thrust into a pre-conceived situation which my dear friend Kim spent hours working on. I signed up knowing it was a group of women, mostly who I did not know well. I knew it was 5 days. I knew I would be providing some pastoral leadership for the group times. I knew it would be a physical challenge and I was intrigued by the challenge. I learned a lot. I am still not ready to say that I would do another one or a longer one. But I am open. And that perhaps is what is needed more than anything. Openness. 
     So bon Chemin, buen camino, or good journey to you...whenever and wherever the road may take you. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

My Pilgrimage to Chartres: Aftermath

     Unfortunately, the headache that I went to bed with on our final day of walking continued through the night and by morning was a full-blown migraine. I get migraines only occasionally but wow, this one was killer. My head felt like it was being pinched in a vice and like there was a jackhammer just hammering away behind my left eye. It was such a discouragement as I had so wanted to enter into this new day with joy and enthusiasm. We were scheduled to have breakfast and then pray while walking the labyrinth at the hotel where we were staying and share in a short worship service where we would celebrate communion together as fellow pilgrims. I tried to get up and go to breakfast, thinking that the caffeine from a cup of coffee might help ease the pain but upon seeing my other travelers, I just burst into tears, feeling so weak and and in pain. One of the women quickly embraced me and prayed for me. I realized then that I had to go back to bed. I was so disappointed. I was also trying to get back to Paris in time for our 1.30 worship service so that I could ensure that the slide projection program was working properly, and hear Doug preach on All Saints Sunday. Then we had youth group at 3.00. So there were so many things going on with me that morning when I didn't feel good.
     On the one hand, I was so happy and relieved that I had made it Chartres on my own two feet and I wanted to enjoy the aftermath of that accomplishment and finish the time well. But the reality was that I my body was somehow holding me back. I was so frustrated that once again, it was physical issues that were creating an issue for me. Why couldn't I just get through one phase of this journey without physical obstacles? Of course, what kept coming to me over and over again was that I am weak, but God is strong. While true, it is not fun for me to think of myself as a weak person. I am strong. I am bold. I get things done. I am a mover and a shaker, says my core identity. I value competency and can be impatient when people are incompetent. But this trip had really not been about my strengths at all. It had been about facing weakness, facing limitations and then seeking to overcome them, with God's help, with the help of the community, with the help of moleskin and other kinds of aid. I knew that this message of not relying on my own strength was powerful but I was so frustrated that God felt the need to continue to hammer this home, especially because the hammer in my head was killing me. Somewhat surprisingly, after laying back down for half an hour, the pain behind my eye had at least abated and I was able to join the group for the labyrinth walk. 
That's me, with the black hoodie on, trying to keep warm, face to sun
     Now, I am not overly familiar with praying the labyrinth, never fully having understood what it means to walk the labyrinth. If you are interested in this ancient form of prayer, I suggest you do some more reading on it because I'm still trying to sift through it all for my own understanding. It is a very physical experience (I suppose a very appropriate way for me to finish this walk!) where a series of twists and turns takes you to the center, and another series of twists and turns takes you out. It is an intentional way of meeting God and I found it to be a very good experience. A labyrinth isn't a maze. You can't get lost. But what happens along the way is unique and insightful. We had hoped to walk the labyrinth in the cathedral but it is now closed and covered with chairs until lent 2018. But fortunately, the hotel where we were staying had one. 
     The morning was very beautiful with the sun breaking over the horizon but it was very, very cold. I shivered as I stood there waiting for my turn to enter. I was happy to be on the side where certain turns allowed me to face the sun full-on. It was hard to leave the sunny side and enter the side of the shadow, where it was darker and colder. Getting to the center felt good. I stood there for awhile, allowing the sun to drip over my face and body. I felt the healing quality of solitary quiet, a place of little or no demand, to be in God's presence and ponder what the continuing road would look like for me. 
     Soon, it was time for me to exit and I found as I neared the exit point, it was kind of hard. I suppose in some ways it truly marked the end of our pilgrimage. The loud voice in my now calming head was to ponder and consider the truth that life is not best lived on our own strength but in God's strength. What does it mean to truly live by the power of God in us and not on our own accord? The verses from Ephesians continued to ring in my ears...now to him who is able to do more than we could ever ask or think...II Corinthians 12:9 remains: Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. How can I continue to understand what this means in practical terms? The other very loud message that came to me as I exited the labyrinth was to look back before I looked forward. In that moment, 2 Sundays ago, I knew that I needed more time to reflect on this experience and that is what I've been trying to do. Subsequently, when people have asked if I would do it again or try the whole camino in Spain, I would say, "I'm trying to look back before I look forward." I've really tried to stick with that. Sharing all of this with you, has been great. Thank you readers, for your role in encouraging me to keep reflecting. 
     From the crisp cold of the garden, we entered the chapel and prepared to share in communion. I was disappointed that I couldn't lead the service but my dear friend Emily graciously took the whole thing. I realized too that I need those spaces in my life where I am not leading, where I am yielding to another's leadership and I am truly just a participant. It was a joyous occasion. When we had finished, I ate the left over bread and drank the remains of the cup and felt it nourish both body and spirit. In a brief conversation with the woman who had led us through the labyrinth, someone who has written extensively on the Chartres labyrinth, I mentioned that I didn't love being as publicly vulnerable as I had been that day. I am much more happy for people to see me in my strength than in my weakness. But I also recognized that these women had embraced me not just a pastor but fellow companion on the road and that meant a great deal to me. Pastors often cannot be as open and vulnerable with people and that is a pity because we are human first and pastor second and we are weak and imperfect. It's very hard to show that side however because at least for me, I fear that if I show the cracks in my armour that people will judge me to unfit to pastor. I suppose deep in soul is the fear that I am unfit to pastor and therefore this fear manifests at times. 
     By the time the communion service ended, I was feeling much better. I had a quick moment to return to the cathedral and take one more look around. Then it was time to catch the first train back to Paris. I was torn about getting back and re-entering the world of my responsibilities right away. While I was feeling better, I was still very tender and tears were just below surface. I would've enjoyed tooling around a Chartres a bit, taking in the town and spending a bit more time with Kim and Emily. But I also felt good about getting back and ended up on the early train with 2 others with whom I enjoyed a mixture of quiet and conversation. 
     It was a strange and wonderful experience to be comfortably seated on the train, with comfy socks, whizzing through all of the towns that we had previously walked through. Wow. I was excited that I had completed this challenge. I knew there so much to learn and graft into my life. I was excited to get back, see Doug and begin to sift through the myriad of emotions that filled my heart and soul. 
     There was gratitude. There were tears. At that moment I didn't know what it was all about. I still don't fully know but I am getting closer to more fully understanding. I continue to learn about ways to allow God's strength to drive me and not just be driven on my own strength and competency. In doing so, I think I will be able to be less frustrated by situations that don't go as planned or as well as I had hoped. And perhaps my own identity as a pastor won't be as rooted in doing all things well as a measure of whether or not I'm a good pastor. I am a beloved child of God. Perhaps that's just enough.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Pilgrimage to Chartres: Day 5: Part 2

Post-lunch, socks changed, insoles adjusted, laces tied differently, I was ready to get this done. We walked out of the forest and onto pathways that begin to indicate that we were getting closer and closer to an more populous area. The main pathway into Chartres was this lovely waterside walk with gorgeous views of these towering bridges. The shell our ever present companion on the path now.Ducks frolicked in the water and all in all, it was just so refreshing. We took a break along the way to catch our breath and rest our feet. The caption to this photo reads a very corny My Sole Longs for You. We were pretty giddy about arriving and just totally focused on managing whatever pain we were experiencing. 
Kim's excitement grew with every step. She was pumped that we were doing this! I love this photo of her checking route and distance. She kind of looks like Quasimodo, appropriate I guess since we were on our way to Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres!
Soon enough actual views of the cathedral came into view. Then we had to cross a really busy street filled with the traffic sounds of an urban environment. The noise was actually a bit comforting at this point. I was pretty unsure of what exactly was going on with my emotions at this point. I was pretty darn thrilled to realize that I was going to complete this walk and the anticipation of reaching the Cathedral filled my heart with incredible joy and thanksgiving. I absolutely loved this sign of the pilgrim's path surrounded by the autumn leaves that were reminders of the time of year that we did this walk.
Because all cathedrals are on a hill, we had to climb a pretty good staircase in order to get up to the grounds where the cathedral majestically sits over Chartres. It was funny. It wasn't even hard to climb the stairs. It wasn't tiring, my legs didn't feel heavy. My feet didn't even hurt that much. It was amazing.
We had to walk through this beautiful, peaceful garden on our way to the entrance to the cathedral and it proved a perfect prelude for the main event. Once we reached the square where the cathedral sat, there was hugging and cheers and high fives and a few tears. A couple of folks in our group had never been to Chartres before so their excitement in standing outside of the cathedral was filled with the even greater anticipation of seeing something for the first time. 
After gathering outside of the cathedral, around the sign of Saint Jacques and took another picture of our feet surrounding our destination point, much as we had done with our departure spot at Notre Dame in Paris. We bugged some innocent tourist, asking him to take our photo and then made our way into the church.
I had been to Chartres Cathedral on 4 previous occasions, twice that included great guided tours and an detailed explanation of the incredible stained glass windows, twice more just as a tourist passing through. Even so, I had forgotten how BIG this cathedral is. It just soars with its high flying gothic arches, and that gorgeous glass make the space so inviting. We quickly found our way the priest who would give us our final stamp in our Chemin credentials and realized that our pilgrimage was largely over.
I had walked from Paris to Chartres! And I was still standing! We took a quick walk around the Cathedral and then headed outside to find Saint Jacques himself, standing in a row of saints, holding his bag with the shells affixed to it. In all of the times I had been to Chartres, I was completely unaware of this being a pilgrim site, of the statute of Saint Jacques, of the plaques indicating the Chemin. We had been told to pick up a stone somewhere along the way and lay it at the feet of Saint Jacques as a symbol of the way we join the throngs of other pilgrims who have done the same and as a small promise to go now, a changed person, ready to be a living stone in the world to which we will return. It was kind of a cool moment.
From there, we wandered just a few more steps over to our hotel and had some time to relax before we headed out for our celebration dinner. The sun was coming down over Chartres in a perfect sunset.
Showers were welcome! I was happy that I didn't have to wear my hiking shoes for a few more days! In fact, yesterday, was the first day that I had put them on since the walk ended. I unwrapped my feet to check the damage. Everything was mostly in tact!
Dinner that night was lovely. We went to a classic crêperie that stood in the shadow of the now beautifully lit looming cathedral. There was toasting and joking and warmth shared around the table of celebration. Candace, the oldest and most elegant of us all, gave out some gifts. She had done part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and had picked up some things there that she had somehow saved to give out. Kim received some beautiful sterling silver shell earrings. Emily and I received these beautiful bracelets for providing spiritual guidance and the driver of our goods received a little car key chain with the shell on it. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture and I will treasure this bracelet forever, in part because Candace was a wonderful gift on this trip.
We finished dinner and gathered for one final examen. At the end of this time, we were asked to bless the person sitting next to us, so we all received a blessing and gave a blessing. It was a sweet time together. Candace ended up being the one who blessed me and she could not have said more perfect things to me. What joy.
The pilgrimage was largely over. We had plans to gather in the morning to walk the labyrinth (more on this tomorrow) and share in communion together. After a week long trek that proved to be considerably demanding on the ol' bod, and the toasting around the table with both cider and wine, my head was aching and sleep was needed. We were in Chartres! I would get to take the train back to Paris! Admittedly, I was glad that it was over but super glad that I had done it. I also knew it would take awhile to sort through everything that I was feeling, experiencing, learning, etc. But one thing was for sure...I was grateful. Oh so grateful for so many wonderful things.

(PS: I have more to write so my pilgrimage blogs will continue...in case you feel like this story isn't finished yet! It isn't...)