What journeys can teach us about the Spiritual Exercises

Published on 11 Sep 2017

When I said I would be going on pilgrimage to Lourdes some friends assumed I would be walking. That set my brain cells working on the theme of pilgrimage. The journey to Lourdes can be arduous, especially for the sick pilgrims, but it’s what happens in Lourdes that really matters. Taize (a favourite with my son) is also a longish journey but again, it’s the place and what happens there that matters. Gerry Hughes SJ made two long walking pilgrimages and learned much from the journey, as does my friend from church who regularly walks all or part of the various Camino routes to Santiago. For walking pilgrims, the destination can even be a disappointment. My recent adventures in St Beuno’s and on the way there gave me the benefit of both.

A touch of heaven

A pilgrimage has a holy, sacramental character. We take time out from doing the usual things to have an experience of something that has a touch of heaven about it. In Lourdes, people who are often ignored and forgotten at home find themselves the centre of attention. Those who care for them get a chance to help in a way that they can, and want to, freed from the constraints of their usual role in life. In Taize the differences between Christians disappear, and young adults enjoy living in a peaceful, morally wholesome environment. Walking pilgrims renew their relationship with the physical and social environment and learn valuable survival skills. They make themselves vulnerable to find truth. Such experiences can be healing whatever your situation in life but also ‘set you up’ for the next chapter.

To St Beuno’s

The first time I looked, Google maps told me the distance from Aberdeen to St. Beuno’s is 395 miles and six hours driving. I felt that this was too much for me and tried the train. After two struggles with that complex (three trains and a taxi), lengthy (10 hours) and expensive journey I decided to go by car to the thirty-day retreat, reasoning that I would have plenty of time to recover from the drive. The journey down went without a hitch. The only problem was that I had mentally rounded the distance down to ‘three hundred and a bit’ when it was actually very little less than 400. I spent rather a long time thinking ‘nearly there’. The journey home became an image of the experiences of the retreat…

Consolation and Desolation

The rather dismal start in pouring rain and heavy traffic reflected my position at the start of the 30 Day retreat. Short episodes of sunshine as I travelled over the Pennines reminded me of the rules about consolation and desolation. A stop at a lakeside service station provided a rest before a more relaxed cross country run to Edinburgh made me think of second week. After another rest there, I struggled to find my away through the road works at the Forth Bridge remembering my directors comment ‘nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing in third week’. Having safely negotiated that I found my way relatively easily to St Andrews where I could re-unite with my sons before a speedy, sunny, confident run up to Aberdeen. I remember particularly the view of snow on the mountains as I left Dundee and the realisation that I live in a very beautiful country. I re-entered my daily life refreshed and renewed.

A new set of lessons via the M8 motorway

Headed for a weekend course in summer I didn’t think twice. Of course I would go by car, and I knew the way so there was no need to consult Google. Little did I know that a new set of lessons beckoned.

All went well until I got to the outskirts of Glasgow. The new extension to the M8 took it all the way into Glasgow but the overhead gantries telling me which lane to get into for the roads I needed had not been re-instated. I entered the middle lane to overtake lorries and saw two lanes of cars peeling off to the left too late to join them. The only sign on my road read ‘crematorium’. I had a laugh about being on the road to hell, while getting off the motorway, finding my way back on to it further north and scrupulously keeping to the nearside lane which decanted me safely onto the road to Carlisle. Having duly reflected on contrition, confession and a firm purpose of amendment, I continued in first week mode beetling down the motorway; a speedy but rather relentless experience. I thought about people who ‘only’ do the First Week [of the Exercises] learning to stick firmly to the rules, eyes only for the road ahead not daring to admire the view lest I cause a terrible high-speed accident. I took a break and drove on at good speed until roadworks brought my journey to a sudden halt (I think Google would have warned me). I sat contentedly in the car eating some strawberries I had with me but by now I had been well over two hours behind the wheel and was also seriously behind schedule.

A ‘wrong turning’?

I thought the rest of my journey would be easy but my sense of judgement had suffered. Seeing a sign that read ‘alternative route to North Wales’ I took it instead of sticking to the main road. Confused by a sign that offered Chester or Liverpool (I didn’t want either) I chose Liverpool. Liverpool is in the right direction but on the wrong side of the estuary. As I passed more signs for Liverpool, and none for North Wales I decided to rethink. I tried turning around, as at Glasgow, but after three visits to the same roundabout I pulled up on the grass verge (no convenient lay by) and pulled out my road map. All this put me strongly in mind of what we can learn in the Second Week about knowing when you are on the wrong road and when you need to stop and think; knowing a bit about the geography, and how to read a map.

Safe Arrival

Once safely on the A55 I saw the sign for Tremeirchion. Heeding the advice given; that this is a narrow winding road which I might not travel safely in my weary state; I ignored it and took the turnoff for Rhuallt as recommended. Arrived at Rhuallt I found the road to Tremeirchion blocked by a burst water main! I followed the diversion for what seemed like many miles of uninhabited countryside before finding an occupied house and a friend who pointed to St Beuno’s, clearly visible across the valley. I arrived just in time to attend the first session of what turned out to be a very good, and useful course. Interestingly it had been offered to lay people because there were not enough clerical takers. I was very happy to be called in from the highways and byways.

Keeping in the correct lane

I applied lessons learned for the journey home. I left the M6 and took a long break at Kendal, continuing on the A6 for a while before rejoining the M6. Outside Glasgow my best efforts to keep to the correct lane were defeated and I found myself once more headed for the crematorium. Taking the same action as before I was offered a choice of Edinburgh or Carlisle. I wanted Stirling but decided Edinburgh would have to do. This proved to be a good choice as the M8 flowed easily into the approach road to the Forth bridges, the new one nearly complete. I admired the planning skill which meant that the road layout would make it easy to use old and new bridges in tandem. The road up to Perth was excellent and I decided that the Edinburgh route might be a better choice in future.

For me the transport arrangements provided valuable extra insight into what I had learned spiritually; journey and destination were equally important. This is, of course, true of life, and our journey to a retreat starts long before we catch the train or step into the car. How can we help all life’s pilgrims to find their spiritual home with maps, advice and training?

Teresa McCaffery


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