My Dear Friends,
Stanley Monkhouse used to be an assistant organist at St Mary’s. Stanley became Professor of Anatomy in Belfast and returned a few years ago to work in the Medical School in Derby. In July, he will be ordained into the Worksworth Group of parishes. We pray for him to be a blessing as he continues what is evidently quite a pilgrimage.
Lots of people make pilgrimages. My brother-in-law, Mo Sandwick, recently completed a Camino pilgrimage along northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Next year he intends to do a longer version, starting in France. Mo isn’t very religious but the journey is far more than fitness and views. It is about experiencing the countryside more intimately than by flying over or driving through; it is about taking time and (emotional) space to reflect, to review and to plan life; it is about fellow travellers and local residents; it is about achievement: bearing pain and discomfort and staying focussed on steady progress towards the goal. It aids appreciation of home comforts and creates broader horizons for the more mundane elements of life.
Some say we are all on a pilgrimage throughout life. I would want to qualify that by saying that part of what makes pilgrimage a pilgrimage is an intention to see it as such. It requires an intention actively to seek wisdom from each experience to enrich all the others. Further, if life truly is a pilgrimage, it will require a focus which is not just us but about who we are in the world - how we relate both to the world and to our fellow humans and other creatures. That is a broad-brush theological idea and open to all. This transforms life from a series of unconnected experiences and compartmentalised relationships into a connection of meaning and purpose.
I met Stanley last month because I was spending the day talking to medical students in Derby about my kidney transplant and some of the protracted difficulties that kept me off work for nearly 6 months. Knowing I am a minister, I was asked how this difficult experience had affected my faith. I know that many people suffer a great deal worse things than I did and I know that the level of care I experienced was of the highest quality, which made it easier for me, so I am not making any comparisons with others nor attempting to say how anyone ‘should’ feel.
There are, however, some principles about facing difficulties as a Christian which I have found helpful in my pilgrimage. Primarily, I felt deeply loved in the way all sorts of people were and are with me; love shown outwardly and practically met God’s love internally. My gratitude for this required expressions of thanks to others and to God which may have made me easier to live with and forge a ‘virtuous circle’. Secondly, just as the fruitful and pretty parts of plants grow up in the light but depend on roots growing in the dark, so we find our personal growth is often (not always) enhanced by the dark experiences as a necessary part of our development. Thirdly, faith in a Father Christmas/Good Fairy God who makes everything nice and steps in to prevent discomfort or to heal it instantly is not the God of Christians. Most of our early apostles and missionaries were martyred for their witness to a crucified Saviour. God’s best for us is yet to be fully revealed but it involves building His kingdom more than free medical health insurance for us. Finding His love in dark places may be more precious to ourselves and to others than what we experience on sunnier slopes.