Prayer for the week
My life is an instant, an hour which passes by; my life is a moment which I have no power to stay. You know, O my God, that to love you here on earth, I have only today.
Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)
FOR the vast majority of people living in early-medieval times, the landscape was something to be battled with, as part of an unending struggle to wrest enough food from the countryside to prevent starvation.
It is probably for this reason — despite the comparative richness of the material that can be found about medieval pilgrim routes, written by those who had made the journey themselves — that little seems to have been written on the countryside as a feature in its own right, or the beauty of the landscape that the route might lead the pilgrim through.
Much more attention is focused on the threats and dangers posed to the traveller by the harsh conditions of the journey. A 12th-century guide for pilgrims to Santiago takes great delight in detailing all the disasters that could befall the unlucky traveller: “In Galicia there are thick forests and few towns; mosquitoes infest the marshy plain south of Bordeaux where the traveller who strays from the road can sink up to his knees in mud.”
There were those who argued that humankind and its environment should not be in constant strife with each other, but instead live in harmony together. St Francis’s vision of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all created things was taken one step further by the 13th-century philosopher Duns Scotus.
Scotus provided a more holistic way of viewing humankind’s position within creation, suggesting that objects in nature, rather than being a symbol of God, did in fact participate in the life of God, and each individual object was an expression of the whole.
For many modern pilgrims, the opportunity to travel slowly through strange and often unoccupied landscapes is one of the main drivers behind the decision to undertake such a journey. Diaries and blogs are filled with descriptions of the beauty of the landscape and the pilgrims’ relationship with the countryside, which is unfolding as they travel on.
From this, it is but a single step to a relationship with the creator of such beauty. Studies of a visitors’ book in a small rural church illustrate this point, as the writers experience beauty, and then feel impelled to thank the creator of such beauty: “Beautiful place — God is here;” “Beautiful and peaceful place;” “May God and his holy Mother bless all who enter this place;” “Beautiful place all for the greater glory of God.”
Walking at a pace moderated by the pack on their back, with no further responsibilities other than the care of themselves and possibly their travelling companions, and no urgent tasks beyond finding adequate food and water and a lodging for that night, pilgrims can immerse themselves in the reality of the “now”. Each moment offers new experiences, new sights: the small details of a hedgerow flower; the breathtaking beauty of a distant mountain.
It is this way of living, of cherishing every moment and absorbing it into your own self, which is often cited as the gift that travellers would most like to hold on to on their return home. The sacred and inexplicable nature of time — its cyclical seasons relentlessly flowing on and never returning the earth to the same place — calls us to immerse ourselves in all that is unfolding for us right now.
St Thérèse of Lisieux captures this beautifully in her prayer, with its emphasis on the present moment.
It is, of course, important to allow time to reflect on the past and to integrate the lessons learnt into a vision for the future, but that is only part of our task. To heal, to nurture, and to grow fully, we must learn to live totally in the moment.
It is our task to look for the sacred in the ordinary; to relish every moment; to savour every meeting, every encounter, every experience.
Only when we have gone deeply into the experience of the moment, of the precise instant in which we are alive, day by day, hour by hour, second by second, will we be able to experience the infinite. True freedom lies in learning to pay attention to the infinite detail that makes up each moment of our lives, allowing us to experience them in a new way.
Then we may be able to live each day, each hour, as a new beginning, and to continue to face the future with an open heart and mind.
The Revd Sally Welch is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, and Area Dean of Chipping Norton.
She edits New Daylight Bible-reading notes for BRF, and is the author of several books, including Every Place is Holy Ground (Canterbury Press, 2011).