So, I have finished the initial route-planning for the pilgrimage. The walk commences at Carlisle Cathedral and follows a path along Hadrian’s Wall then to Newcastle Cathedral. The longest stretches are the ones setting off from Oxford (back upwards), from Canterbury (west across country) and from Exeter down to Truro (before which point I am pretty certain I shall fail.
Which brings me to an important point: Failure.
The history of God’s relationship with humanity, as told in the Bible, very often appears to be a story of heroic failures -weak and frail people who are called to do something and who seem to fall short of earthly success -but who nonetheless are beloved of God and blessed by him, and through whose apparent failures, God is somehow glorified.
Take Jacob -after stealing his brother’s birthright he has to flee, ends up married to the wrong woman and trapped into serving his father-in-law for years to win the right one -and returns fairly triumphantly by anyone’s standards, after having wrestled with God, renamed ‘Israel’. His favourite son is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt -from where, at a later date, he rescues the whole family. Moses: eye-balled as a killer by fellow Israelites, legs it into the wilderness to become a shepherd -where God finds him anyway, and despite his apparent speech-impediment, he goes back and leads an incredibly wayward nation, to a new homeland. David -despite being a man after God’s own heart, is also an adulterer and murderer-by-proxy… thus putting himself out of the running to build God’s temple -but his son Solomon -product of the affair -nonetheless becomes perhaps the most renowned wise-man of history, and builds the famous temple in Jerusalem himself. Solomon gets old and infirm and his wives start to wrap him around their finger, setting up idolatrous temples… and the list goes on and on…
From grumpy runaway prophet Jonah – terribly annoyed when his forecast of doom and destruction for Nineveh doesn’t come true… (since it has just the desired effect upon the dramatically penitent Ninevites!) To Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, who harbours spies, and who features in the New Testament genealogy of Christ. Time and again, people in the Bible appear to fail -and yet, somehow time and again, this apparent human failure furthers the heavenly plan.
In his book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Greg Mortenson describes how he had what can really be described as a moment of enlightenment -a dawning epiphany- when he failed to climb K2 in memory of his sister… it was from that moment that he began to do new and amazing things, accepting his human weakness, he began to achieve things for the people of the region which to many of us, may appear superhuman -building schools and providing services, with no money, no resources and no connections to begin with -just a promise that he would DO something.
Failure, in human terms, is not something to be striven towards… since that is not striving -but it IS something, which, once reached, having tried our utmost, must be accepted in order to acknowledge the almighty sovereignty of God. It is often when we reach our absolute limits, having tried our hardest, only to fail, that God meets us… and we begin to realise something of his glory.
With this in mind, it is with a wry grin of acceptance that I survey the task I have set out on – not only does it appear pretty strange, perhaps ostentatious, and certainly in human terms -fairly pointless; but I also have a sneaking suspicion that I shall probably fail when all is said and done. What’s more I won’t fail at any point where I’m prepared or expecting to fail -but it will be a surprise and probably a disappointment.
So why do it? Why say ‘I shall walk between all 42 Cathedrals of England’? Well: Firstly -because it seems to my mind like a good idea -not so much in relation to any other ideas, but just on its own… and the more I think about it, the more it continues to seem like a good idea. Secondly -precisely because it HAS no earthly purpose. (I am aware it may have no heavenly purpose either, but I can’t tell what’s going on in heaven and at the very least it may give the watching angels something to laugh about). Thirdly -because by having no earthly purpose, it draws attention to the fact that earthly purposes are not the be-all-and-end-all. If I could be certain of a purpose -or safely choose one without fear of ‘presumptuous sins’; then I might say: I hope it would draw people into prayer -and into considering the life of prayer, and reassessing its worth and impact. Or at least, that it might confuse a few people who thought they had it all ‘sewn-up’, and make them start searching for God in new ways. At the very worst, it will be something I have not done before, and is not a specifically ‘bad’ thing… just a thing… a silly thing perhaps, but only in the same category of silliness as those frilly, colourful sea-slugs; or the little brightly-coloured macaroons that French patisseries sell. There is a saying, it comes -I think- from a Sufi mystic, who in speaking to a disciple about the futility of talking about God as an attempt to convey enlightenment, says : ‘Why does the bird sing?’ Sometimes just doing something for the sake of doing it, is a song which, though it makes no seeming sense, just must be sung.