Pilgrimage: The Experience of a Three-Day Walk
"Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage" Psalm 84:5 Why walk from Vancouver to Mission in the rain? If you take the time to read, I'll do my best to answer.
I am still learning to love the Lord with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my strength (Dt 6:5; Josh 22:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27). This means learning FROM God and walking WITH Him in obedience. Since learning involves discipline, and both learning and discipline are essential for discipleship, my journey of following Jesus has gradually included more and more spiritual disciplines. Cam Roxburgh, Anthony Brown, Scott Hagley and others at FORGE Canada have been an inspiration for me in this.
Two years ago I was privileged to be asked to preach a sermon series on the Feasts in Leviticus 23. That opened my eyes to many things including Paul's metaphor of the wild olive shoot being grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Ro 11). Taking what students at Regent call "suicide Hebrew" that summer moved me a step closer to a greater appreciation for our Jewish heritage in the Old Testament, and at some point thereafter, the thought of Jesus walking to Jerusalem three times a year from Nazareth began to stir a desire in my heart to discover what that may have been like.
Although I have never seen the film about the Camino de Santiago, "The Way," I had known about that traditional pilgrimage for a long time already. But this was not really what my heart was interested in. I wanted to experience what it would have been like for Jesus, His family, and many others, to walk the approximately 80km from Nazareth to Jerusalem.
December 2014 I was asked to serve as TA (Teacher's Assistant) for a course offered by Dr. R. Paul Stevens and Dr. James Houston through Regent College at the Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. Once it became clear that my assignment not only included assisting with all the preparations, but also being at the Abbey for the weekend of March 20-22, I couldn't help but sense that this was the Lord's invitation for my pilgrimage. When I checked the walking distance from where we live in Vancouver to the Abbey and saw that it was about 80km, it was as clear a confirmation as could be!
I grew up in the city, I love living in the city, and I don't do sports. Early this year, I decided that I should do more walking. Since I didn't know much about walking, either, I also had to calculate the pace at which I walk in order to figure out how long the trip would take me. Since I also wanted to avoid major roads and highways as much as possible, I would need to find a route that was not as direct and therefore also a bit longer. In the end, I felt that it would be best to walk the distance on three days, finding a place to stay the night in Surrey on Wednesday and in Maple Ridge on Thursday before arriving in Mission on Friday for the course.
While walking the same distance as Jesus did seemed like a good thing in itself, and arriving at a monastery seemed to bring me closer to Zion, there still seemed to be something lacking in order to make it a real pilgrimage for me. That's when I remembered that the Songs of Ascent were traditionally sung by the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem as well as by the Levites on the 15 steps in the Temple. This was indeed the ingredient I had been missing, and so I resolved to write out one of the Songs of Ascent each time I would make a stop. Since Psalms 120-134 naturally divide into three groups of five Psalms each, I also committed to writing out whatever Psalms were left for that day after arriving in the evening, should I not have taken five breaks in my walking before getting there. Since my daily devotions and times of prayer also include other readings and Scripture passages, I made sure to take them along as well.
Then came the challenge of packing. I soon realized that I wanted to carry as little as possible in my knapsack, while taking along all that was necessary as well as items for possible emergencies. Since I didn't want to micromanage the trip right down to places to stop and eat, I thought it would be wise to assume that I wouldn't be arriving at restaurants along the somewhat less-traveled roads I had chosen to walk along. This meant taking along water, bread and fruit, as well as a bit of money, should other possibilities present themselves.
Ten days before leaving, I scouted out the first leg of my journey by bike. It was a pleasant surprise to see that there were excellent walking and biking paths along the North shore of the Fraser River for most of my trip to New Westminster before crossing the Patullo Bridge. I didn't have the time to scout the rest of the trip, but researched maps and felt confident that things would work out.
Tue, Mar 17. St Patrick's Day. In response to my sending out an excerpt from the Lorica of St Patrick, I received the familiar Irish blessing, "May the road rise to meet you…" from a friend. She couldn't have known what I was about to embark on, but I truly felt blessed!!!
Wed, Mar 18. The Feastday of St Joseph of Nazareth. Joseph would have known what pilgrimage was all about! Even before taking his family to Jerusalem every year (Lk 2:41), he had taken his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, and all the way back to Nazareth! Our Daily Bread also spoke very directly to me that morning: "[Jesus] knew that shortcuts were dangerous enemies. They may offer a road free from suffering, but in the end the pain they carry is much worse than anything we can imagine" (Keila Ochoa). I was reminded of 1 Kings 13. With a large wooden umbrella in hand, I departed from home at 1:20pm. My 3pm stop was on a log by the river in Burnaby. Before having something to eat, I wrote out Psalm 120 and prayed through my Wednesday Book of Hours. Ps 120:5 mentions "burning coals of the broom bush." Didn't Elijah lie down to die under a broom bush, only to be awakened by an angel who had baked fresh bread for him [on broom bush coals?] in order to give him the nourishment he would need for 40 days of walking? (1 Kgs 19:3-8). Thank You, Lord, for the motivation!!! Another stop at 6pm was in Surrey, shortly after crossing the river. Psalm 121 has always been a favorite of mine, but this time I noticed how often ‘shomer’ is used. In my context I felt that the Lord was not only ‘watching’ over me, but actually ‘keeping’ me safe as I began to feel more tired than I had anticipated. It was climbing up Old Yale Road that made me think, "perhaps having the road ‘rise to meet me’ wasn't such a wonderful blessing after all"! I could certainly understand Mary being very upset at Jesus for having to go "up to Jerusalem" again after not finding Him on the road home! What I hadn't included in my calculation of the time I would need to walk the distance was the added weight of my knapsack, and the exhaustion of several hours of walking. Safe arrival at 8pm, delicious meal, sharing and prayer together before writing out and meditating on Psalms 122-124.
Thu, Mar 19. Morning devotions included 4 Maccabees 15, a sermon about the strong faith of a mother watching and even encouraging her seven sons to be tortured and die for their faith in Almighty God. I may have difficulty putting one foot ahead of the other because my feet are so sore, but what is that compared to "the flesh of her children being consumed by fire, their toes and fingers scattered on the ground, and the flesh of the head to the chin exposed like masks" (4 Macc 15:15)? Breakfast, sharing and prayer was uplifting, and leaving at 8:30pm instilled hope that I would arrive in Maple Ridge before nightfall. On the recommendation of my hosts, I changed my route to walk 96th Avenue, which proved to be just right. When I arrived at 152nd Street, I recognized Johnston Heights Church and decided to see if Pastor Phil was there at 10am. He was still on a missions trip in the Philippines, but I was allowed to sit in the entrance to write out Ps 125, get a bite to eat, and use the washroom. "Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken…" (v. 1) both reminded me of the story I read in the morning and encouraged me to ‘trust in the LORD,’ and nothing else! 96th leads directly onto a connector to the Golden Ears Bridge with a nicely paved foot and bicycle path somewhat to the side of the street, but upon arriving at the bridge on-ramp, the pedestrian path takes a detour! I had so much hoped to be on the bridge by now and take a break on the other side, but it was already 1pm in non-stop rain, and I felt I should make another stop. With nothing much there except industry, I entered the office of SMS Equipment and asked if I could sit and rest for a while. The friendly receptionist said that would be quite all right, and so I was able to write out Psalm 126. It seems that the writer of this Psalm experienced the joy of returning from exile, but writes out of a needy and possibly pain-filled situation, asking God to "restore our fortunes, LORD, like streams in the Negev" (v. 4). I could identify with that! The detour was much longer than anticipated and the signage either unclear or non-existent, so I got an orange juice from a fast-food place and asked for directions to the bridge, hoping to be on the other side for my 3pm time of prayer. I was happy to have a relatively wide bicycle path on the bridge, except that the drainage was so poor in places that wading through huge puddles completely soaked my feet. With nothing but industry again on the other side, I thanked the Lord for the Best Gourmet Coffee Company, whose clerk not only allowed me to have a seat, but also gave me a coffee, some cookies, and spent some time interested in hearing my story! I did manage to write out Psalm 127, read my Book of Hours for Thursday, and move on through a residential area, past the hospital, to River Road, arriving at St John the Divine Church at 5:30pm. There was a choir practice in the sanctuary, and I was allowed to sit in the lounge to write out Psalm 128. Blessed are all…who walk in obedience to the Lord (v. 1)! The central Song of Ascents, in the middle of all 15 and the middle of day two tells pilgrims to ‘walk in obedience to the LORD’! By this time not only my feet, but also my right knee started to hurt. I still had a long way to go, but was determined to ‘walk in obedience,’ trusting that He would get me to my destination. It was dark again by the time I arrived at 8:45pm, greeted by wonderful friends from church and treated to a delicious meal. With much to talk about it got quite late. I took a shower, had my evening devotions and wrote out Psalm 129 before retiring when there was sudden action in the house to leave for the hospital at 12:30am in order to deliver a child, born later that morning!
Fri, Mar 20. I had breakfast and devotions alone before packing and heading off through wooded area with few houses at 8:30am. By now my left foot and right knee were giving me more trouble than yesterday, so that I had to pause along the side of the road for brief breaks and use the umbrella as a cane when going up hills. At 10am I hit Dewdney Trunk Road, at which corner there was a small convenience store. I asked to sit down a while, but this time was not given a chair, so I stood at the Lotto desk to write out Psalm 130. I thought I would buy a cup of coffee or tea, but realized that I had left my wallet at the place I stayed over night! "Out of the depths I cry to You, LORD" (v. 1), were words that resonated with my whole being! "I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His Word I put my trust" (v. 5) reminded me of Isaiah 40:31, which became my theme song for the next ‘leg’ of the journey: "They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength…" Dewdney Trunk is a very straight road, but that also means that there are plenty of hills and valleys. Now I was leaning on my umbrella asking it to be the ‘staff’ of my Good Shepherd taking me through the dark valley and up the next hill. With nothing but farms and private houses along the road, the next stop I could make was at the Iron Mountain Restaurant at 12:45pm. Now I was glad that I had stored a few bills in my travelling belt, and ordered a veggie samosa, veggie wrap and a coffee, finally being able to sit on a chair and also write out Psalm 131. The thoughts I noted were: v. 1 humility; v. 2 contentment; v. 3 hope. I had a hard time feeling ‘like a weaned child’ (v. 2), but I did ‘put my hope in the LORD’ (v. 3). The waitress turned out to be a Buddhist nun, and I was also able to share my faith with her. I was hoping to hit Wilson Road soon, but when I got there, I read that the Ruskin Dam was blocked 24 hours/day, so I had to stay on Dewdney instead of taking the shortcut to Mission. By now there were almost no houses along the road, and so I stopped at the Stave Lake Power House Museum at 3:50pm only to find out that they close at 4pm! Still, I asked if I could stay until they locked, and was able to write out at least part of Psalm 132, the longest of the Songs of Ascent, before having to go back out into the rain! "LORD, remember David and all his self-denial" (v. 1). Although I had read through the Bible a number of times, I could not remember having ever read that verse! Now it became my pilgrim cry! I thought I had made it through the worst of ups and downs, but now I found myself walking up serpentines! My short stops became more frequent, and on this last stretch of the journey there was absolutely nowhere that I could find a place to sit inside. I texted a student who had taken a bag for me along to Westminster Abbey in his car, to let him know where I was and give him an estimated time of arrival. Part of me hoped he would get the hint to come and pick me up, but another part of me wanted to walk to the finish, and yet another part of me wished that someone would at least meet me part way to carry my knapsack, which seemed to keep getting heavier rather than lighter. At one point along Richards a Palm Sunday hymn entered my mind. Singing hymns in 4/4 time is great for walking, but I was surprised to be singing "Hosannas to the King" during the fourth Friday of Lent. Then I realized, that in order to get to Jerusalem we need to ‘climb’ the Mount of Olives first! That's where I was on my pilgrimage! I still needed to go down Doyle and Stave Lake into the Kidron Valley and up again to Mount Zion, but it was good to know I was getting closer! Going down the steep hill was not any less painful than climbing the previous hills, but getting past the locked Abbey gate and climbing the last hill seemed more like climbing Calvary than going up to Mount Zion. Arriving at 8:45pm on the Eve of St Benedict was exhausting but also a relief that triggered prayers of thankfulness! Alas, getting up the three flights of stairs to my room proved even more painful than walking up hills! It was nice to be able to get in the last part of the evening session of the course before my evening devotions, writing out the rest of Psalm 132 along with 133 and 134 and setting the alarm for 4:45am in order to participate at Lauds the next morning!
Now that I've written my experience, I still want to share some reflections, but that may take a while.
May the Lord inspire you to ever-greater faithfulness no matter how rough the going gets! After three days the pain is all gone and I'm walking normal again! I give all Glory to God, Who gives strength to the weary, and Whose Power is made perfect in our weakness! Heartfelt thanks go to everyone who supported me in prayer, especially my most loving wife, Riad.