Pilgrimage - a gift of an opportunity!
Have you been on pilgrimage recently? If so, where did you begin, where did you end? How did you prepare for the journey? What did you do on the way? Why did you go? What then?
Questions, questions. Some people’s pilgrimage may have taken several days, perhaps with nights on uncomfortable floors, taking them to one of Britain’s ‘home-grown’ sites - Canterbury, Lindisfarne, St Albans, or have led them overseas to one of the traditional destinations - the Holy Land, Compostela, Croagh Patrick, perhaps, these days, to Taizé.
But pilgrimages, made alone or in company, come in many guises, sometimes bringing a surprising blessing, an unexpected encounter with God. My own pilgrimage this summer took me just three miles across Oxford, hundreds of others coming all or part of the way, some who have difficulty walking joining us by way of a ride in a rickshaw! Oxford might not strike you as an obvious place for a pilgrimage (although we do have St Frideswide’s shrine in our cathedral), but then this Walk was very much a pilgrimage with a difference.
Oxford Council of Faiths (OxCoF)’s 12th Annual Interfaith Friendship Walk found not only Baha’i’s, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Jews, joining it but also Mormons, Muslims, Pagans, Sikhs, and people with no particular faith, drawn into this holy walk of ours. We value it greatly, this annual pilgrimage across our city, for it briefly makes us a part of each other’s lives as we meet and talk with those of other faiths. This might be a rare chance to meet people who are not part of our own religious community. We may be ‘regulars’ or ‘first-timers’, perhaps coming because of seeing a poster, curious, never having encountered anything like it before, impressed with the many people and different faith communities, all getting on peaceably together. But for me the Walk’s equal worth is the witness it provides: that here in the city where we live and work, people of faith want to show those we walk among that our peaceful, chattering, straggly, balloon-bearing procession of different faiths, with our different and disparate beliefs, need find in them no cause for ugly conflict.
Wherever we stopped we were warmly welcomed by the faith community’s leader, prayers were said - often by someone of a different faith, and there was singing. At our Jewish Synagogue OxCoF’s Chair introduced the Walk, the synagogue’s president welcomed us, a rabbi prayed with us and the Jewish choir sang for us. We were ‘summoned by bells’ to St Giles Church to be welcomed by its vicar, and given us a word for the way to reflect on for the next stage of our journey by the acting bishop of Oxford. Prayed with by a local priest, we were sung on our way by the church choir. As we gathered in the cobbled square outside another church its vicar greeted us before prayers were said by members of the Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh, and URC Christian communities. Our journey’s end, still bathed in the sunshine of a beautiful summer evening, led us to stand or sit at the doors of one our city’s mosques, with welcoming words from its president, singing by its children, a recitation from the Q’ran by the mosque’s imam and his thanks to God for the food we were all offered - plentiful vegetarian curry and rice from the mosque, desserts and fruit given by the Jewish community. Generous, and delicious!
I seemed to spend my time chasing the Walk’s tail, as I kept stopping to talk with bystanders about what we were doing, offering them an information / service sheet. Their enthusiasm on hearing about the Walk was part of the pilgrimage’s gift to me, making me think about the Walk’s deeper significance (rather than just the city streets’ effects on my feet). As we walked our talk was not just ‘agreement on everything’ - sometimes far from it, but rather mirrored for each of us the acceptance and trust that our beliefs affect and form our lives, minds, and hearts as we make our pilgrimage through life. Three hours after the Walk’s start I was rather footsore but as I started to make my way home, God brought me another surprise, a further unexpected gift - one of our imams went out of his own way to give me a lift all the way to our flat.
But, let me return to my reflection’s beginning: ‘Have you been on pilgrimage recently?’ If not, go soon if you can, however long or short the journey you make; you never know quite where it will really lead, what blessing God will surprise you with on your way.
OxCoF’s website http://oxcof.org.uk/ is in the process of reconstruction.
Walk photo © Katy Jenison (used with permission)