President Alistair Macrae is encouraging Uniting Church people to get their boots on and adopt the ancient practice of pilgrimage in their local, Australian context.
In late February, Uniting Church minister Andrew Prior pre-paid his bills and left his family, parish and home in Adelaide with little more than a bicycle.
He aimed to take around 3,000 kilometres to get to Broken Hill and back via Coonabarabran and Dubbo.
His destination was dependent on the elements but his intentions were very clear: he was preparing to enter a new phase in his life, find answers to questions and get closer to God. And he could do all that by getting in tune with the physical rhythms of his body at work.
“I just finished a three year contract in a parish and need to make decisions about how to make a living,” he said before the trip.
“There are some fairly exciting but risky enterprises I could get involved in. I want to be clear about my motivations and to gain wisdom without distraction — this is a wisdom seeking exercise.”
The journey of endurance riding, he said, was a discipline that “allows things to happen”.
Blood pumps, the body is in tune with the elemental, away from screens, calls and distractions. The brain and body enter a different gear and, often, things appear clearer.
“It recharges batteries,” Mr Prior explained.
“You become an elemental person who isn’t sitting in cars or drinking coffee all day. Endurance riding is going back to a fairly physical way of being.
“Sitting in an office and going to late-night meetings isn’t always prayerful. Scripture reading and praying can be pushing water uphill with a stick, pushing away an artificial environment. Here it’s a downhill run because already the body is doing what it’s designed for.”
You become an elemental person who isn’t sitting in cars or drinking coffee all day
Andrew’s ride is an example of a prayerful journey — a modern Australian pilgrimage — that President the Rev. Alistair Macrae is encouraging church members to embark on.
The Uniting Church’s most important document, its Basis of Union, describes the church as a “pilgrim people” that is “always on the way towards a promised goal”.
But Mr Macrae wants the church to reconnect with the practice of physical, prayerful journeying.
“I think one of the things we need to recover in churches like ours is the classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian Church: things like prayer of the contemplative variety, fasting, and pilgrimage.
“Those ancient practices seem to be re-emerging in the life of the church. People are saying, ‘We want to really experience God and know God — not just know about God.’
“Basic spiritual practices are tried and tested ways that people can create vulnerability to the presence of God.”
Ian Bradley, Church of Scotland minister and UK theologian at the University of St Andrew’s and author of Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey, gets a similar sense from modern Christians.
“I think people are much more interested now in connecting with roots and traditions,” he told ABC radio’s religion and life program, Encounter.
“There is an increasing sense, I think, that people feel the church, and the kind of wordy, rational approach to religions that we’ve tended to have particularly in Western Christianity, is not speaking to many people now. They want to walk the faith more than just talk it.
“It’s undoubtedly becoming more popular because of our interest in the natural world, an awareness of the fragility of the environment; and people are wanting to commune with nature and they’re wanting to express their oneness with nature.
“Pilgrimages are obviously a great way to do that.”
Inherent in all
Pilgrimages are present in all the major religious traditions of the world. Hindus walk to the Ganges, Buddhists follow the steps of the buffalo and Muslims go on the Haj to Mecca.
Pilgrims go on long and short journeys seeking solitary and communal enlightenment. They walk between churches, relics and the burial sites of saints. Or, like Celtic monks, go to “desert places” of resurrection that allow people to be alone with God.
People go looking for a reminder of their mortality, a reminder of suffering and to grow resilience, to be nourished and get back in touch with the natural rhythms of their bodies and the reasons for their life.
According to Ian Bradley, pilgrimages reached a peak in popularity during the end of the Middle Ages and dropped off following the Reformation.
“Reformers wanted to get back, of course, to a simpler Christianity,” he said.
“They emphasised the metaphorical aspects of pilgrimage, the idea of a pilgrim of faith, the idea of the Christian life as a pilgrimage … It’s not involving going to actual places like Rome of Santiago or Jerusalem in order to become more holy, it’s about going through experiences.”
Whatever their form or purpose, today’s pilgrimages always involve leaving habitual life to make a journey.
Like Andrew Prior, pilgrim’s can cycle or, if less fit and able, ride a bus. But most people, like the wandering Jesus, go by foot.
Australian pilgrims are forging new paths and creating holy traditions in their own spiritual context. They journey in the desert and venture in to the bush.
The Christus Rex Pilgrimage Route is growing in popularity with 430 Catholics walking over 90 kilometres for three days between cathedrals in Ballarat and Bendigo in October 2010.
Alistair Macrae wants to see Uniting Church people finding creative ways to pilgrimage too.
Mr Macrae is endorsing an initiative of the national Assembly Spirituality Network, inviting church members to design and lead a community pilgrimage to a source of “living water” in their area.
Based on the Assembly’s three-year theme — Living Water, Thirsty Land — the pilgrimages are to be held (where possible) between Easter and Pentecost.
“The idea is that people look around their locality and find a water source in their area and design a pilgrimage that will finish at that source,” said Mr Macrae.
“It could be a river, a dam, a reservoir or a water tank.”
In resources prepared for Living Water pilgrims, the Assembly’s Spirituality Network said it’s an attitude that turns a journey into a pilgrimage.
It said that, while the form and purpose of pilgrimage has changed over the centuries, the elements remain as three major phases: separation, transition and incorporation.
The Network has produced a series of liturgies, prayers, songs, Bible studies and tools. Found on the Assembly’s website, the resource kit explains how to plan your pilgrimage and introduces an icon uniquely designed for Living Water pilgrims and available for them to take on their travels.
Mr Macrae led the first of two pilgrimages that he will embark on in Queensland’s Presbytery of the Downs weekend retreat in Cunningham’s Gap, 130 kilometres from Brisbane.
“I think a lot of people there, including me, had not done this before,” he said.
Though some had misconceptions about the origins of icons and how they could be used as a tool, the pilgrimage was also a time of education about alternate forms of prayer, where people experimented with mantras and meditative scripture reading.
They designed a journey around what elderly members present could manage, ending at a campsite creek where they reaffirmed baptism.
“I was surprised at how quickly people got into the spirit of it,” said Mr Macrae. “While it is an intensely personal thing to do there is also a deep sense that you are doing it together as a community — that was powerful for me.”
Moderators help lead
Many moderators, including the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT’s the Rev. Niall Reid, are also putting their boots on and leading pilgrimages.
“I think it’s worth supporting because it encourages people to get in touch with their spiritual side but in the context of the environment where they live,” said Mr Reid.
Based in Pyrmont, Mr Reid has one obvious body of water around which to base his first pilgrimage and is considering using Sydney Harbour in a journey from the Parramatta River to North Head.
He is aware that, in many places, associations with the Assembly’s theme have changed since it was created in a long period of drought and that will inform the journeys people take.
“In many ways water hasn’t been about life,” he said.
“Taking that into account, people might take part in a pilgrimage to work through some of these issues: the things that have happened to them, the suffering they’ve been through and the possibilities that lie in the future.
“In a land that depends in some ways both on fire and flood for life to continue, it may be important for people to reflect on those things.”
Isabel Thomas Dobson, Moderator of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, is journeying through a property owned by members of the Maryborough congregation. Its grounds have been an ancient spiritual place and include Aboriginal Birthing and Sign Post trees.
“I knew Alistair (Macrae) was planning a fairly energetic pilgrimage,” she said.
“He’s better at that than I am. I was looking for something that might be accessible for a different grouping of people.”
She’s journeying through a farm that utilises sustainable practices in an area that was directly affected by the flooding.
“Carisbrook township and the church had nearly a metre of water right through it,” she said.
“If you look at the icon it’s about scarcity of water — coming from a dry place. What we now need to understand is what we do with water as living when it’s also been overabundant. Part of the planning is likely to take us to a reservoir which overflowed.
“We will be in a place where there has been damage as well as good news.
“One of the other nice things happening is that the timing of it is during school holidays and we’re looking for families who can come for a weekend because children can be left out when we think of pilgrimage and prayer.”
Physical and spiritual
“If you are walking, you are very dependent on where the water supply is going to be,” said Ian Bradley.
“You’re suddenly out in the baking sun. You’re much more conscious of your smallness and your dependence on God; and of course that’s another of the big motives you get in the Old Testament: the Israelites realising how dependent they are on God. So I think walking has huge biblical resonances.”
More and more Christians, he said, see their faith in terms of an ongoing pilgrimage — rather like the road to Emmaus.
More and more Christians, he said, see their faith in terms of an ongoing pilgrimage — rather like the road to Emmaus.
And it’s those connections between the physical and the spiritual that intrigue pilgrims like Ian Ferguson, a Uniting Church minister from Beaumaris-Blackrock congregations in suburban Melbourne.
He is part of a leadership team in the President’s second pilgrimage.
“We chose the Macalister Springs because it is a stunningly beautiful place with a fresh mountain spring that later forms the Macalister River. It’s just a trickle at this point and it’s relatively accessible for inexperienced bushwalkers even though it is a four-day walk.”
Mr Ferguson often bushwalks with groups and is looking forward to journeying in a different way with people who share his religious worldview.
“This isn’t just getting together one afternoon to go for a walk,” he said, “it’s a serious few days and potentially quite an extreme endeavour.
“We’re placing ourselves at the mercy of the weather conditions and the environment. I’m looking forward to seeing how the environment shapes our experience. The high country can be beautifully warm and light and it could also snow at any time of year. We’ll have some idea what to expect but the idea is to enter into the experience as we find it and not to go with expectations that we’ll necessarily be sitting on the edge of a cliff, gazing off into the distance.”
Like Andrew Prior, he believes there can be spiritual nourishment in physical challenges.
In September 2010 Mr Prior rode a 430 kilometre course in 29 hours. It’s an activity he described as “a fairly excessive thing to do” but one that has helped him upon his return to day-to-day life.
“The imagery of aspects of that ride keeps coming back,” he said.
“I did that ride because I was facing difficult work and it was pre-discipline. In that ride I spent 12 hours riding in darkness in bitterly cold weather.
“That second night comes back into my mind when I’ve been dealing with difficult pastoral issues. It’s a reminder that yes you can do things, you can endure. And that’s a comfort.”
Read through Andrew Prior’s journey at his blog