16 Nov Day 4 – The Laughter of Owls
Yesterday evening, at about 6pm, when sensible people were in the warmth of their living rooms or (perhaps) in church, I was threading my way between a fence and a ditch on a foot-wide muddy path in rural Sussex. Rain dripped down my neck. Little glimmering torches barely pierced the dark. Forty other people squelched along the path: we had walked 15 miles so far and had another three to go. My feet hurt and I wanted, more than anything else, a nice cup of tea. Owls laughed at us from nearby trees.
Around 30 of the 40 are walking all the way from St Martin-in-the-Fields to Paris – 200 miles. I’m leaving the pilgrimage at Newhaven, having walked 75 miles. It’s been amazing, so far. We’ve received tremendous hospitality along the way, from churches of all descriptions and shapes, proving the truth of the idea that pilgrimage is a thread of spirituality which touches many points.
My fellow pilgrims are a motley crew, in its original sense – a group of people of all ages from all over the country – Catholics, Quakers, Baptists and Anglicans of all descriptions, and a Buddhist from Inverness. We’re united in our possession of good boots, good waterproofs, stronger legs than we had three days ago and a profound desire to make the world a better place.
The youngest, Josh, is 23 and recently returned from a Tearfund deployment to Bangladesh. It would be impolite to speculate on the eldest’s age but I’m guessing she’s in her 70’s, and she hasn’t done a walk anything like as far as this before.
You get to know people quite quickly when you’re all sleeping on the floor of a church hall, and there are two toilets between all of you. And walking ten hours a day gives a lot of time for conversations. I’ve chatted to theologians, journalists, retired accountants and an ex-army officer. They all have their stories, and they all want to make a difference.
We started in high spirits, walking down through Kennington where Archbishop Sumner Primary School sang us on our way, through Merton and north Surrey to Banstead. But when we woke on Saturday morning we were greeted with the news of the atrocities in Paris. Like everyone else, we were shocked and horrified. Immediate texts sought reassurance from people not aware of our itinerary and fearing we were in Paris already. The deaths and injuries gave our pilgrimage a completely unexpected and heartbreaking focus. There were questions about whether we should continue. I think the consensus is that, security permitting, of course we should, not least to be in solidarity. We’re praying for all those affected as we walk – and it’s a horrible reminder of the range of complex issues and frightening challenges which face the world.
Today, we climbed the South Downs and reached the highest point in the pilgrimage. I looked back and saw that we had walked, since the start of our journey, from beyond the horizon. I turned round and saw the sea in the distance, and imagined Paris beyond the sea. Why are we walking there? For a better world; to bring in the Reign of God; because together we can achieve exponentially more than we can apart; and for the love of creation.
Vicar of St John’s Church, Waterloo