PILGRIMAGE is the new big thing. But how do you go on pilgrimage when you cannot reliably walk more than two to four kilometres a day?
The decision to set off on pilgrimage is often marked by a triggering event or impulse. On 12 May 2018, having campaigned for the ordination of women, and for women’s ministry in the diocese of London, I should have been on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (where I was ordained deacon in 2000), listening to the bells ring out joyfully in celebration of the installation of the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally as the 133rd Bishop of London.
Instead, I was on the rain-lashed, windswept steps of All Souls’, Langham Place, in front of closed doors, with 300 cold and bone-weary people with ME, exchanging our stories and calling for recognition and biomedical research as part of the global #MillionsMissing awareness campaign.
Why was I there? Struck down by a viral illness in July 2015, while working as a chaplain for a charity that supported people at risk of homelessness, I never recovered. I had had a previous episode in 1990, but was fortunate to recover to working fitness. Persistent flu-like symptoms, cognitive impairment, unrelenting fatigue, and a profound intolerance to exercise led to a diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). It is a severely disabling illness that affects 250,000 or more people in the UK: 25 per cent are severely ill, bedridden, and housebound.
I am among the more fortunate: I am able to manage three to four hours of gentle activity, and walk two to four kilometres a day. When I get a cold, or flu, I am bedbound for three to four weeks. My activity levels fluctuate, and I cannot reliably be active on any particular day; so occasional formal ministry is not an option for me — yet. And I thought pilgrimage was out.
In front of the crowd, I led a chant, a song, and an act of remembrance for the many people who could not leave home to be there, and for those who had died directly from, or while living with, ME. Like many others, I had brought a pair of shoes to mark what I missed most in life — in my case, walking boots. Others brought (or posted) ballet shoes, high heels, trainers, or work shoes.
DAYS later, inspired by these words in a Guardian article by Jay Griffiths about the Camino de Santiago, I simply decided to set off and walk it: “You walk the Way, and the way you walk matters. It has an ethic. Be curious; be kind; be generous; trust that the Way will provide.”
I decided, like the best advice for prayer, to walk the way I could, not the way I couldn’t; so that meant virtually. My “Virtual Camino” had a simple plan: I used my daily step counter to track my steps against the map of the Camino. Every day, rather than just walking around the house or neighbourhood, my steps were mapped against the hills and great plains of northern Spain.
But my Camino was virtual in another sense. Twitter, because of its very short character limit, is an accessible lifeline for me and many people with chronic illness and disability. Living hidden lives, we are able to meet, chat, and share life companionably when able: the kind of mix of light and deep levels of interaction that most people get by going to work, the shops, church, and community events.
I posted messages daily about my Virtual Camino: a bit about the day, how far I’d walked, where I was on the Camino; and, by searching blogs and YouTube, I was able to expand my horizons beyond my four walls and explore virtually, and share stories, pictures, and the history of that part of the Camino.
I would also share conversations with people I’d fallen into company with on Twitter. Just as pilgrims fall into company with people, and exchange a bit about life and faith, and then move on to meet again later, so it was, too, in the virtual world. Occasionally, when appropriate, I’d share insights and prayers.
Like many, I’m in company on Twitter with people from diverse backgrounds: some with faith, some not, and some with ME; but also with local people, artists, writers, and some who have walked the Camino. I am always aware that I am in company with extraordinary women and men of courage and strength: many have been creatively living for decades with ME that is much worse than mine, with very limited time, energy, and money. Many are struggling — or unable — to access any medical care and welfare benefits.
MY VIRTUAL Camino has shone light on life lived within limits: I walked simply, as a pilgrim. Many of the messages that I posted were humdrum — about getting through a mountain of chores; the sheer tedium of vast plains of time resting; and the despair of getting a cold, and knowing that days recovering lay ahead while the to-do list grew and plans were abandoned. I know that I’m in good company with many who share great joy in achieving what, to others, will seem like small daily tasks. As for any pilgrim, practicalities of food, health, money, and sleep loom large.
Like many people, I find that contact with nature and wildlife is life-giving; on days when I could get out, I’d take photos or short videos and share them. We know that company, walking, and contact with nature is good for well-being: experiencing this virtually is better than not at all. On housebound days, I’d share the words and images of people I follow: the fighting chaffinches of Carl Bovis, the daily seascape of SeaWindowCraster, or the wild seas and mountains of Wester Ross by Annie O’Garra Worsley.
I have just begun to be able to read more than light fiction, and John Swinton’s work, most notably on memory, has been vital. He has written in the context of dementia, but for me — as one of many who have faded from family, friends, church ministry, and life — knowing that my life is hid with Christ in God, who knows, remembers, and loves me, is literally life-giving.
In the company I keep on Twitter, we are also pastors to one another — and prophets too, calling out in the wilderness for justice, for funding for biomedical research, and for care.
MY VIRTUAL Camino took 275 days. I reached “Santiago” on 28 February this year. I had hoped to end my pilgrimage by going to Southwark Cathedral to pray at the shrine of Lancelot Andrewes, but — struck by my sixth cold of the winter (the low-lights of the year were shingles and a broken cooker at Christmas) — made my final steps somewhere in the small triangle between my bed, the sofa, and the kitchen. It felt like an anti-climax, but also apt: arriving isn’t the thing. One of my Twitter companions wrote: “This has made my day! I love your honest description, especially the triangle, which is proof that God uses us regardless of our circumstances.”
This year, on Sunday, 12 May, I hope (if able) to be standing with many of the #MillionsMissing on the steps of St John’s, Waterloo, which has opened its doors in welcome and support to us. I will be raising my voice, along with hundreds of people at events worldwide. Please stop, wait a while, and listen to us and to so many who live with chronic illness or disability.
I have no doubt that Christ is with us. We are pilgrims on a journey; we live hidden lives near by — walk with us, too. As for pilgrimage: the meaning is in the walking.
The Revd Ruth Lampard can be found on Twitter @ruth_lampard. She is now walking the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand, somewhere just beyond Ninety Mile Beach. She is licensed as a non-stipendiary priest of St John’s, Waterloo, on long-term leave of absence. She will present a paper on her Virtual Camino at Borders and Crossings, an interdisciplinary conference on travel writing, in Leicester, 4-6 July.
For details of #MillionsMissing events on 5-12 May, visit www.millionsmissing.org.