Jonathan’s Sabbatical Blog ♯2: Go slow


This is day one of the sabbatical project called walking the St James’ Way. Part of it anyway. We’re beginning in a place called Le Puy, a mere 1,408 kilometres from the destination for pilgrims since the 12th century, Santiago de Compostela. Ruthli and I are simply seeing how far we get. I’m used to beginning projects with the end in mind. This is different.

Today’s first and indeed only appointment is a 7am mass in the cathedral at Le Puy. The congregation is larger than you’d expect at such an unearthly hour because it’s for all the pilgrims, the pélérins, who are setting off this morning. We discover they are from every continent on earth except Antarctica. Arguably demonstrating that we hail from Peckham, we miss the start – I blame it on the bus from our campsite outside town. However, the kindly priest still includes us in the traditional pilgrim blessing at the end of the service.

For a moment the gathering reminds me of the moments before 1500 metre races on the track I used to do years ago, when I’d look around at the start-line to check out the opposition. One difference this time is that everyone has a rucksack, holding hopefully everything we’ll need for the way ahead. Another difference is that no-one else is racing…

Some years ago there was a new make of car, I forget which one, that had to be returned to the factory. The problem was a fault with the accelerator which could get stuck. It was impossible to slow down. Until you crashed.

Today there is a make of human, I might be one sometimes, with a similar problem. Whose accelerator is stuck and it’s impossible to slow down. Until the same thing happens as with the car.

There isn’t a factory to fix this. However, countercultural though it may be to leave the fast lane, there are some antidotes. Going for a walk is one of them. A long-distance walk, like this one on the St James Way, can sort out even severe accelerator problems. Everything and everyone here is on a go-slow. This narrow corridor crossing France and into Spain which pilgrims have walked from the Middle Ages feels unchanged. Mobile networks don’t work – well, mine doesn’t – and even an iPad is too heavy when every gram counts because I’ve got to carry it. All of us pélérins are in a time-warp, and the distant car we hear far from our Way is covering in five minutes what we’ll be walking in the next nine hours today.

In six to eight weeks’ time some of those in the cathedral will make it to Santiago where James the brother of John and disciple of Jesus is said to have evangelised. The historical origins of that are somewhat murky. What’s certain is that the Way named after him is still doing a power of good today. People we’ve met are here for all sorts of reasons, slowing down, recalibrating, praying, thinking, just walking. A few like me, on a sabbatical; Ann Marie a recently retired teacher from Germany pondering life outside a classroom; Jean from northern France getting used to life without a bottle. One of his 12 steps at a time, one day at a time. Ian, a Buddhist from the States, meditating in between listening to French lessons on his ear-phones. Toshio from Japan no doubt has his reasons for being here. My Japanese isn’t good enough to find out what they are. He’s wearing a London marathon t-shirt, but he too is going slow.

All of us at a walking pace. Which, surprisingly, is the speed at which God seems to work. What I know of him is that he runs only in exceptional circumstances – such as when a prodigal is coming home. Otherwise, he seems happy to take his time. And because it is indeed his time which he made, he knows what to do with it. Whereas we can become expert at losing it, wasting it, running after it. There’s never enough.

But here on the Way, there is. Where it seems easier to keep in step with the Spirit. Some of us talking with Jesus, at least in my head. All of us I think hearing from Jesus whether his voice is recognised or not. After all, he is the Way. Where time slows down. Right down. To a walking pace.


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