GENERALLY, pilgrims setting off for the day’s walk fall into two camps: there are those who take ages to prepare, carefully arranging their packs, sorting out their clothes, tying and retying their boots to find the comfiest fit. Then there are those who scoop everything into their backpack, fill their drinking bottles with water, and step out, eager to get moving as soon as possible.
I suspect that Jill Baker is one of the latter type of pilgrims: there is no gentle drift into the main theme of this book. Instead, she sets out her stall in the first two paragraphs, describing how her practice of pilgrimage has its origins in the death of her son, Peter, who took his own life at the age of 18. From this sprang her need to find a “bigger, wilder God”, and the resulting “gift of grace” which is her experience of pilgrimage.
Baker is not afraid to be vulnerable, and the book is powerful and elegiac at times, as she describes the impact of Peter’s death on her spirituality, and her “rescue” through pilgrimage. This willingness to share her experiences of grief encourages the reader to approach the contents of the book in a similar spirit — prepared to learn from the wisdom that she shares with more willingness, perhaps, than might be the case from a more confident or assertive writer.
Drawing on the familiar pilgrimage theme that the lessons learnt on the road can be usefully applied in everyday life, Baker none the less finds much to write about that is original and helpful, not least the apologetic on Methodism and pilgrimage which forms a turning point in the book, moving from an exploration of the history and theology of pilgrimage to its practice. In this, she is gentle and wise, offering a pilgrimage version of the fruits of the Spirit, which includes a sense of restlessness, a desire to experience more of God and more of life — to “move out of the rut and discover a bigger wilder God”.
She draws on her own experiences both as a Methodist and a pilgrim leader to offer helpful insights to others who might not only make pilgrimages but lead them. She offers practical tips, but also some powerful prayers and ways in which those who cannot walk in far-away countries experience pilgrimage spirituality for themselves.
“Pilgrimage should never be a kind of bear hunt to track God down,” she asserts, but also argues powerfully that “there is something about a journey that feeds renewal.” There is something about this book which encourages the search for a “bigger, wilder God” and a hope for success in this.
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.
Bigger and Wilder: Life, loss and learning to be a pilgrim
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49