At a recent church meeting, a colleague noted that in Europe the Churches are empty, but the pilgrimage sites are filled to overflowing.

I’ve just come off of the West Coast Trail – 75km of God’s best hiking – an epic, remote, rugged coastline walk that runs from Bamfield to Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts for me – in part to mark the start of my 40th year on this planet. Nine of us brave souls spent six days walking and building community together.

As I think back to my last week, there were many kinds of markers along the way.

There were the numerical ones – ever-anticipated (and sometimes elusive or missing!) little yellow signs marking each kilometer. There were nature’s climaxes such as the majestic sea lions, a surging moment of power in the ocean, the spotting of cougar and wolf tracks in the mud, the amazing, almost indescribable patterns in the sandstone and seaweed, a specific grand old-growth tree, a majestic waterfall or the flight of a bald eagle – all of these reminders of the wonder and power of the Creator of all things. Then there were the more human-made markers like the unforgettable local Crab meal at Nitnat Narrows, the campfires that happened most evenings, new friendships, the burger and stories at Chez Monique’s and the labyrinth at Carmanah Lighthouse.

Ah, pilgrimage indeed!

Somewhere along the trail a fellow Christian minister asked me what I thought was needed to revive the oft-flailing Christian Church in North America. Though it wouldn’t have been my usual answer, what came out of my exhausted self as we navigated mud, slippery roots and decaying boardwalks and ladders together – was that our Christian faith communities might need to re-establish ‘waymarkers’.

If what I’ve read is true, at one time the Church provided markers for the journey we call life. Depending on your specific tradition, they might have varied slightly – yet life events such as dedication, baptism, confirmation, first confession, first communion, marriage, last rites and a funeral were integral parts of many branches of the Christian tradition. All of these events were waymarkers shared in community with people who promised to guide and accompany you in celebration or in peril – especially when the mud got deep, or the fear set in.

Many of these markers have eroded. Perhaps the old markers could still work, or maybe they wouldn’t. However viable the old ones might be, I do think that we need some better sense of ‘marking’ in order to guide our pilgrim path – and maybe we need to prayerfully look back our our scriptural and other faith traditions in order to re-imagine what those should be?

Think about your last experience at church (if you can remember that), and then read what one of my fellow travelers (Jordana) just wrote on her Facebook page about our shared journey on the West Coast Trail:

 The West Coast Trail. 75 km. 7 days. 30 lbs on my back. Through old-growth rain forests and woodlands and marshes. On sandy beaches and rocky shelves. We skipped on stones and roots and planks over (and we sometimes fell into) knee-deep and ankle-deep mud. We trudged through soft, pebbly sand that shifted under our feet. We clambered over large rocks to race the incoming tides. We waded through a knee-deep stream flowing swiftly to the sea. We climbed ladders up and down steep hillsides. Sometimes we pulled ourselves up these hillsides clutching the gnarled roots of old trees. We slipped on rotting, broken, algae-covered boardwalks. We balanced on fallen tree trunks across rivers. We crossed rivers on cable cars and on a suspension bridge. We saw grey whales at a ferry crossing. We ate the biggest, freshest, and most delicious crab cooked for us by the ferryman. We explored a sea cave. We saw seals paddle and somersault from the rocks where we picnicked. We sang around campfires. We woke to the grunts of sea lions sunbathing on a rock off the beach where we camped. We were visited by a river otter and a marmot. We saw wolf prints. We were glad we saw no bears, or cougars, or wolves (though I can’t be sure they didn’t see us). We camped one night at the foot of a waterfall. And we walked on trails lined with wild dogwood, and ferns, and bleeding heart bushes, and magnificent ancient trees covered in mosses and lichens. Did we have an awe-inspiring trip that overwhelmed the senses and left us feeling exhausted, and yet glorious and fully alive? You can bet we did!

As I read Jordana’s evocative description of our shared pilgrimage, I can’t help but ask myself if there isn’t a challenge for us as Church to re-engage some sense of epic journey of a deep faith in Jesus Christ that might leave us ‘exhausted… yet gloriously and fully alive”. I can’t help but wonder if we don’t need to make re-enliven our spiritual lives into a journey with ree-stablished (or re-imagined?) waymarkers that are shared and supported together in community.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that faith community has to always be filled with wonder and epiphanies to merely satisfy our sensual or consumer longings (indeed, every pilgrimage has its struggles and down times!) – but I do think that when we live lives that seek to deepen our connection with the Creator of all things, and with each other, it should be about more than going through the motions. It should be akin to all that is ‘pilgrimage’.

With that, I can’t help but wonder how our modern Christian faith might be shaped less like a Sunday-morning destination and more and more like a daily journey through grand, epic and wonder-filled – though sometimes difficult places. As I begin to settle back into my ‘normal’ life, changed by what I’ve just lived on the West Coast Trail, it’s no wonder to me that pilgrimage sites are so attractive in this day and age.

This posting originally appeared as part of the Times-Colonist ‘Spiritually Speaking’ Blog.

 

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