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I am an Anglican priest in Birmingham and have been lucky enough to have had a period of Sabbatical. I planned to spend two months of this walking The Cistercian Way a 700 mile route around Wales that links the old (and current) Cistercian Monasteries that played such a part in Welsh Christian history. The pilgrimage, as you will read, did not go entirely to plan, but I really enjoyed it. This article tells the story of the journey and gives some reflections on it. You can read ‘live’ blog posts of the pilgrimage, see more photos, and read other reflections on this blog.
Why the Cistercian Way? I love walking and I love pilgrimage. I am very lucky to get the opportunity to take Sabbaticals. Last time I had one I walked across Spain from Valencia to Santiago de Compostela. This time when I was planning and dreaming dreams I decided to walk something closer to home. A bit of internet research threw up the Cistercian Way which fitted the bill for me of a long religious pilgrimage, a chance to go deep into a country, the chance for some solitude. I started and finished at Penrhys, which was also very attractive – a very good friend had introduced me to it a little while before, and for me the combination of an ancient and important pilgrimage site – as David Williams says, “made a holy place rather by the footsteps of the many who have so sincerely thronged there with genuine devotion” – along with a council estate and the wonderful Llanfair Uniting Church. And a chance to get to grips with Cistercian spirituality in a deeper way.
The rough route of the Cistercian Way. I walked further west to visit St Davids.
The First Day
I travelled to South Wales and spent a couple of days with friends before setting off. They took me to Caerleon to the probable site of the martyrdom of St Julius, one of the first Welsh Martyrs. This is the corner of the carpark of the St Julian Inn. Of course, this being a serious Christian pilgrimage, we stepped inside to jazz and beer. The music of Thelonius Monk and Ray Charles pushed me up some hills over the next weeks.
On the first day I travelled to Penrhys and began with prayers at Llanfair Church on the estate. Twelve or fifteen of us turned up with a fifteen mile day in prospect for me and options for others to drop out on the way. The weather was Welcome to Wales awful. As we trudged up to the top of the first hill, I was glad to be accompanied by others. The waterproofing on my boots lasted about an hour. That on my jacket maybe another hour.
Photo by my good friend Joy. The weather got worse than this as the day went on.
Unsurprisingly everyone else except Maddy Gray, who had designed the Cistercian Way, decided to drop out at the first opportunity. If we hadn’t planned a group walk, I would have started from Llangwynwyd the next day instead. We climbed another hill. I concluded that it would not be a good idea to camp that night and accepted Maddy’s offer of a night in her house. The rain kept on, visibility closed in. Walking on the tops would need slow, careful map and compass work. Probably more sensible to walk along the roads into Maesteg, except the drivers wouldn’t be able to see much. When we arrived at the car that was going to transport Maddy to the end, I packed it in for the day too; I was glad of this late in the evening, sitting in the warm as the rain kept on.
I was back on the way early the next morning, in good weather, and walked up over medieval trackways to see the sea. I love this photo. It expresses for me so much of what a pilgrimage is. There’s the beauty of the hills and the sea, but there is also Port Talbot. Pilgrim Ways don’t shy away from the world (in older times, you needed to go through the towns and cities for safety); there is something important about this, of staying connected to the world and it’s needs – pilgrimage is not an escape; rather it is a walking into the world. Even when walking quietly through remote and beautiful areas, I would be praying for those who had asked for my prayers and what I knew from the news.
I arrived at Margam Abbey in time for Mass and had the honour of preaching there. Praying and worshipping with others has been an important part of the pilgrimage – it is a deep way of stitching me into the places I walk through. I look back with gratitude at all the people and places I prayed in: ancient Churches, people’s living rooms, council flats, and the prayer for others as I plodded the paths with my pack and sticks.
I walked west, staying and walking with good friends, through Carmarthenshire, the mist hiding the landscape from me for a couple of days before gloriously lifting on the most beautiful deep afternoon of solitary country. There are not many footpaths in Carmarthenshire, but there are plenty of extremely quiet roads with grass growing up the middle of the tarmac.
I stopped in a small parish where the Vicar is a relation of someone from my Church. This was a lovely short stay, with a real insight into old fashioned rural pastoral ministry. In fact, we took such a long time visiting the churches and the schools and drinking cups of tea with parishioners that there was no time to walk to Tenby to get the boat to Caldey, so I was given a lift (I was walking 15, 18, 20 mile days in between, honest!). This was just as well. We were going to have a meal but I thought I’d better get a boat ticket first. The booth was shut due to bad weather. Fortunately they were still taking people off, so I was put straight on a boat and whisked across.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a couple of nights at the monasteries at both Caldey and Whitland, the two ‘living’ Cistercian foundations in Wales. It was good to have some stillness amidst the constant journeying of pilgrimage and to be able to experience something of the Cistercian charism.
Monastic Church, Caldey Island
The bad weather meant Caldey was quiet; there were no tourist boats. I lived in silence, praying in those utterly simple churches, looking out of the window at the dawn. Eating simple meals, laughing over the washing up. Dipping my toes into what Andre Louf calls “the evangelical experience of renunciation, prayer and a humble life of love in devotion to Christ.”
Louf sums up the Cistercian Way “A body of doctrine has come down to us from the twelfth century which remains the basis of Cistercian life as it has developed over the centuries. Its characteristic traits are always found at any era of the Order’s history. These include a love of the word of God, the mirror in which the monk tries to decipher the meaning of his daily life; a tender devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate; an effort by the monk to reproduce in his own life the mysteries of Christ’s earthly life, through which will be revealed the invisible Word living in the glory of the Father.”
One thing I have been doing over the last few years is looking deeply at how the Carmelite Mystics, particularly Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross can speak to ministry today on housing estates; I have an opportunity now to see how those who built and lived in places like Tintern, and their daughters and sons today, can do the same. The Cistercian Way has certainly been a spiritual journey as much as a physical one.
After a rest day at a friend’s cottage near Milford Haven, I set out for St Davids – off the Cistercian Way, but as every one of my Welsh friends told me, if you are on pilgrimage in Wales, you must go to St Davids. The forecast was good. I planned to take a couple of days, camping near the sea at Newgale, and then making my way back to the route. I wasn’t going to walk much of the Coastal Path as this takes forever, and as the inland paths were underwater, I took the quietest roads I could find.
I walked along a particularly long and straight one I sat and ate my lunch, sheltering from an increasingly strong and cold wind next to a hedge in a field full of windmills, reminding me of Don Quixote and the giants; certainly this one was menacingly noisy.
When I got near the coast, the wind was buffeting me as it caught my rucksack. It was actually becoming dangerous. There wasn’t much traffic, but I didn’t want to be pushed into a car. I looked at the weather forecast (there’s an ongoing pilgrim debate about technology – in my opinion smart phones have their uses) and the forecast had got very bad. Winds overnight of over 50mph. I decided to turn round and walk back to where I had started from and have a sheltered night. I could get the bus to St Davids in the morning.
St Davids Cathedral
A few days later I arrived at Whitland Abbey. I mentioned the storm at St Davids to the sisters as it hadn’t seemed to have impacted far inland. They had found a manx shearwater – it had been blown inland and, exhausted, had burrowed into their vegetable store. It was checked by the vet and then taken off to be released where it would find its way back.
I needed that shelter too. My knee began to hurt badly. When I do a long pilgrimage, I know it will be hard and that there will be times I will be tempted to go home (as well as the times of the deepest joy). To ensure I keep going, I promise myself that I will only stop walking if either a medic tells me I have to stop or if there is an emergency at home.
My knee was very painful. I wasn’t sure what to do. Ahead of me were a succession of long stages often in solitary places. I sent a message to my friend Roland to ask his advice on treatment. He happened to be nearby and arrived with painkillers, icepacks, and a bottle of wine. This alerted the sisters and a couple who are nurses examined me. I was told firmly, “Fr Andy, you need to stop walking now.” This was a blow but was the obvious and sensible thing. I took the train home.
to be continued …
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