Walking the Pilgrim’s Way

I am now over halfway through my pilgrimage from the eastern corner of North Wales to the far western tip of its peninsula. This is the medieval Pilgrim’s Way, from Basingwerk Abbey to Bardsey Island. I have experienced so much in the 80 miles I have walked – two cathedrals (St Asaph and Bangor), Neolithic stone circles and menhirs, Bronze Age mounds, beautiful scenery, fascinating nature, and lots of uplifting conversations (from an enthusiastic metal detectorist to a daring escapologist). In these experiences, I have, in the beautiful words of the late Bishop Saunders Davies, experienced creation at its most translucent, glimpsing the grandeur and glory of its creator.

Alongside these uplifting and inspiring moments, though, I have also been struggling with excruciating pain in my right knee. Hoping for relief, I have washed it in the ancient wells of St Winefride’s (Holywell) and St Celynnin (above Conwy) and prayed at the famous healing cross of Tremeirchion. Eventually I was inspired to speak to a physiotherapist for advice! It seems my patella tendon is inflamed, a condition that will require physiotherapy when I get back. He strongly advised a rest day or two, so I am lying in bed at the moment, frustrated and sore, with a pack of frozen peas on my knee. Tomorrow I will rejoin the Pilgrim’s Way at Clynnog Fawr, where St Beuno founded his monastery in the early 7th century. From there, I will walk over 30 miles in three days and, all being well with crossing, sail for Bardsey Island on Saturday.

Andrew Jones, in his book Pilgrimage [BRF 2011], suggests pilgrimages often echo Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Jacob wrestles all night and he emerges from the battle with his hip dislocated. Jones maintains that, from then on, “Jacob’s strength was actually in some way in that limp”. His extraordinary encounter had left him scarred but stronger. As I know from situations in my pastoral work, suffering is often senseless and tragic, but, when we emerge from difficult times, our scars can help strengthen us and our wounds can help us reach out to others in compassion. Christians believe that God does not cause or delight in our suffering, but, when we do suffer, he can redeem our times of trial and bring us to new life. It makes little sense that Jacob Epstein’s huge statue of the resurrected Christ above the nave at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales has no wounds on his hands and feet. Jesus’s body was scarred by sin and violence, but rose again and lived. Likewise, the difficulties we go through cannot be erased entirely. The fact they leave us hurt and scarred, though, does not rule out resurrection.

Pilgrimage very much echoes this process of renewal. After all, through pilgrimages we are led, in both our joy and pain, to new purposes and different perspectives – our eyes are opened to a connection with the eternal (through places, people, and objects) and we are helped to move forward with hope, joy, and compassion in our hearts. Yet we cannot avoid the fact that the glory of the resurrection involved the darkness of the cross and the tomb. As such, despite frustration and pain, I know that my inflamed knee, as well as my aching back and my sore blisters, will teach me, feed me, and inspire me as much as the numerous uplifting moments of grace when God’s hope and joy have broken through on each stage of my journey.

On Saturday, I will, God willing, step onto Bardsey Island, my destination. This beautiful, remote, and tranquil island was known in the Middle Ages as the “Rome of Britain” and was such an important place for medieval Christians that three visits there was considered the equivalent of a pilgrimage to the Holy See. It is said that the island became the graveyard of 20,000 Celtic saints. It might, therefore, seem paradoxical that it was, and continues to be, a place that holds the promise of new life and new beginnings. Perhaps there is significance in the fact that the head of the island points eastward, as if to Jerusalem and to the risen Christ. As such, I journey on, embracing both the pleasures and pains of this pilgrimage, with the hope, and indeed expectation, that I will be blessed with restoration, renewal, and resurrection.

NB to read some reasons why I am undertaking this pilgrimage, please take a look at my last post: Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Follow your Blisters: Embarking on Pilgrimage

Today I begin to walk the 135-mile pilgrimage across the top of North Wales known as “The Pilgrim’s Way“. This ancient route is the trail that mediaeval pilgrims took from Basingwerk Abbey on the Dee Estuary, near to the Wales-England border, to Bardsey Island at the very westernmost tip of North Wales. Why I am I putting myself through this long walk? Why embrace the blisters and sore joints? I think there are three reasons:

1) Challenge: Twelve years ago, I underwent major back surgery and, later, wrote a book (‘Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering’ [SPCK 2010]) reflecting on the challenge of pain and suffering for people of faith. I continue to be surprised by the impact that book has had, and continues to have, on people facing various trials and tribulations. Only earlier this week, I replied to a wonderfully uplifting email from a person who had been given my book while serving a sentence in prison. I was moved to discover that he regarded my book as one of the cogs in the wheel that had helped him turn his life around. The positive impact that my book has had on people helps lift me when I feel frustration in reflecting on the fact that chronic pain is still very much part of my daily life. However, I have now built up my strength so as to be able to walk for long distances, and this walk is one way for me to once again face down, and hopefully overcome, these struggles.

2) Charity: I am now vicar of a church in Cardiff, Wales, UK. I have seen some amazing transformation in the church, and in our local community, over the past few years. Not only has the church grown considerably over the past five years and is now a thriving mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, but our church hall, which we see as a gift to our local community, is being used by many different community groups. It is bringing hope, learning, company, compassion, and joy to people of all ages – from babies and toddlers to the infirm and elderly. Unfortunately, that hall is now not fit for purpose, and is having to be demolished. We are, therefore, building a new hall. Everything raised from the sponsorship of this walk will be going towards this new community church hall which will hugely benefit our local community. If you are able to give something, however small, I’d be hugely grateful Thank you! Diolch!


3) Change: “To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often”. The journey of a pilgrimage moulds and changes us, as the places we visit break through and transform us from the inside. As preparation for this pilgrimage, I have read some wonderful books about the nature of spiritual journeying (by Andrew Jones, Sally Welch, Peter Owen Jones, Charles Foster, and more) and about the history and makeup of the Welsh countryside. I am, therefore, ready to embrace the change that will come through my experience of the beautiful churches and medieval shrines I will visit, the inspiring ancient forests I will walk through, the Roman road I will tread, and the breathtaking prehistoric monuments I will pass (menhirs, stone circles, round barrows, cairns, and so on). However, I start this walk with my knees already sore and my back aching as usual, and so I am reminded that our transformation in pilgrimage is, more than often, through the adversities we face and the pain we feel, rather than simply in the fun and fulfilment. After all, we grow and learn as much by our following our blisters as we do by following our bliss.