Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: cistercian way, penrhys, photography, photos, pilgrimage, the cistercian way, wales, walking
Maddy and I caught the bus to Pontypridd, accompanied by Pilgrim Nell the springer spaniel. At least I walked all the way from the edge of Abergavenny round to Penrhys. I had walked this final leg just over a year before as part of a large group pilgrimage; it was good to do it more quietly.
Climbing up on old roads, woods and fields, hills. Finding our way past windfarms (I am now always led to reflect on the similarities and differences between these and those of La Mancha). Good fencing and stiles meaning passing a slippery, muddy dog across. Ynysybwl, Buarth Capel, Nant Ffrwd, Mynachdy. Arriving in good time for lunch at Llanwynno. We climbed down to St Gwynno’s Well, very overgrown, but worth finding (much easier if you have a spaniel with you). Another of those saints no one knows anything about. I love this – a very definite reason for devotion. I have an icon in my Study of two adult and one child saints. I have no idea who they are; this seems of utter importance.
And then to the pub (Llanwynno has not much more than a well, a Church and a pub in a clearing in the forest. Perfect.
Over the course of an hour, cheese sandwiches and a pint or two, a wonderful thing happened. Almost everyone who had been involved in supporting me on the pilgrimage arrived.
Together we climbed up over the tops, down to Tylorstown and then up the steep climb to Penrhys. A visit to the well and then the Church for prayers, tea and cake. And for me, hospitality for the night. More on Penrhys tomorrow …
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Walking the Cistercian Way
Thoughts on a Pilgrimage
Talk by the Revd Andy Delmege
Saturday 28th January, 2017, 7.30pm
St Bede’s Church
Birmingham B14 6NN
Collection for the work of Llanfair Uniting Church
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: cistercian way, earlswood, photography, photos, pilgrimage, the cistercian way, twmbarlwm, wales, walking, wentwood
There followed several wonderful days on this homeward stretch, making my way round towards Penrhys, stopping at Caerleon, Risca and Pontypridd, again with wonderful hospitality from friends to allow me to finish the pilgrimage. I lost my hat. I shredded my trousers making an ill-advised short cut over a fence when I had got very slightly off route. On a couple of days I found an odd thing with my speed. Conditions underfoot and my knee meant two mornings where I was averaging around one mile an hour. I knew I had to put speed on to make it to my ending points in time. Somehow I made well over three miles an hour. I am not sure how this happened.
A day of three woods – Chepstow Park, Earlswood (which is no longer there), and the Wentwood. Sandwiches by the beautiful Earlswood Methodist Church, built by the labour of local women in the eighteenth century. Taking the wrong path, but finding it came out in the right place. On the ridge above the Usk north east of Caerleon, a precious few minutes walking along one of the last bits of the old pilgrim way from London to St Davids that is not under a main road.
A morning happily looking round Roman remains, twisting my knee slightly climbing down muddy, steep Lodge Hill. Deciding this meant it was better to head for Risca via minor roads rather than the paths of the Cistercian Way – and then finding out that this would have been the route taken by sick and infirm pilgrims. Recovering enough to climb Twmbarlwm.
Climbing up and down the Valleys, finding my way up and around Mynydd Machen. Very moving to be above the Valleys on the 50th Anniversary of Aberfan, reflecting and praying on this, passing men wearing black suits, the flags at half mast, feeling the anger.
A farmer offering accommodation and quad biking for youth work. A small holder asking where I was bound exclaiming “Penryhs! It’s God’s country there!”
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Part 3 – Picking up the Pieces
My knee began to recover. I spent two weeks at home building up walking – one mile, two miles, five miles, ten miles – trying not to count too much on being able to go back to Wales, but the knee behaved. I caught the train to Abergavenny carrying a much lighter pack. To avoid strain, I left the camping and the cooking gear. To give myself a good chance of finishing the last section I had arranged to stay mainly with kind friends and acquaintances.
I was nervous about starting again, but managed to ease myself back in. I had been invited to The Small Pilgrim Places Network annual gathering and had accepted on the principle that I would have been near Abergavenny at that point if the pilgrimage had gone to plan. The Small Pilgrim Places (http://www.smallpilgrimplaces.org/) is one of those things that does what it says on the tin. It is a network of places that pilgrims visit
Small Pilgrim Places are:
- Spaces for pondering, breathing, meditating, praying and ‘being’
- Small places, not those already on the map, well-known, or that draw crowds;
- Simple, quiet and unpretentious, with the presence of the Divine;
- Places of worship, gardens, ruins, open spaces, holy wells, etc.;
- Welcoming and inclusive.
It is well worth looking at the website and seeing if any of the places are near you. It was good for me, as a pilgrim, to spend time with people who are concerned with maintaining pilgrimage places and with welcome. There is a real richness in putting it all together. If you are reading this and live in Britain, do you have a Small Pilgrim Place near you? Do you have a somewhere that could become a Pilgrim Place?
Esther de Waal led us in a reflection focusing, wonderfully, on cloister gardens, asking us to find our own place of silence, the threshold, the place for entering our own deepest interior self. I think this has helped tie together a lot for me, the themes of who I really am, how I can really be that person, encountering in silence and solitude being among the deep gifts of this pilgrimage. We were given this poem by Bonnie Thurston from Practicing Silence to ponder and pray:
At the monastic centre
is always a cloister,
an orchestrated emptiness,
a place of light,
a fountain to feed
the heart’s garden.
Give me this life:
a centre empty
of all but light,
the stillness of Eden
before fruit was plucked,
my heart a spring
of living water.
The next morning I woke to before dawn to heavy rain. It passed and I began walking. A couple of hours along a quiet road before I picked up the Offa’s Dyke Path. Listening hard to my knee, but it coping. The walking did me good. Views of some of my favourite hills – The Skirrid, Sugarloaf and The Blorange (I would go out of my way to climb The Blorange), passing the site of Grace Dieu Abbey of which there is no sign, it is utterly gone.
Good to be back, thinking and praying, reflecting as I walk. A picnic on a hillside. Cheese scones, welshcakes, apples, black tea. looking down at a tiny remote Church that was locked when I reached it. Into Monmouth after 16 miles, a bed and breakfast, a bath, a meal and sleep.
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I leafed through RS Thomas’ Collected Poems early this morning looking for Kneeling which fitted well into an Advent Sermon on waiting (along with AJ Levine’s insights on the Parable of the Widow and the Judge, where the widow uses a boxing term in her constant bothering of the Judge).
In the Thomas book, I read Welcome to Wales, which I haven’t seen for a long time. I can’t find the text online, but you can hear it being read on youtube.
Read or hear it if you can. It may me chuckle and then think deeply as I remembered the occasional hardness of the weather, of landscapes that wrecked my knee, of beauty, of wonderful and deep human hospitality.
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A (More) Broken Pilgrim
This part of the article is, much more than the other parts, work in progress. I will either revise this or write it in another form after a period of time.
And so began a pilgrimage I hadn’t expected – an armchair pilgrimage as I sat in my chair with my foot up, a spiritual journey as I explored what this all meant, a journey towards healing. It is obviously possible to be on a journey, on a pilgrimage, even if you are forced to be still. This quote from the Sufi Mystic Hafiz brought me some comfort.
There is also a saying from the Desert Fathers, “You need a spiritual pilgrimage. Begin by closing your mouth.”
It was obviously a tough time. In practical terms, I got home and went straight to the doctor. An X-Ray was clear, so I was told to rest and elevate my leg. If the pain eased after a couple of weeks, I could very gently start short walks and build them up. If there was no adverse reaction, I might be able to start the walking pilgrimage again in a month. As it happened, everything worked out and I did start walking after a month. But until a few days before that, I really did not know if I would be able to do any more walking this year.
As well as the pain, there was a coming to terms with not being able to do something I had been really looking forward to. There were some dark times, but within all this there was a feeling of being on a journey, of some movement going on, although not knowing at the moment exactly what this is.
There is something important, and not necessarily easy, in saying ‘Yes’ to God in whatever experiences come to us, of bringing the basic pilgrim attitudes of thankfulness and gratefulness to bear when we have a pile of something nasty set before us. Again, there is that thing of such importance, that it is much easier to talk about than to do – learning to trust, not to worry. Fr Gildas on Caldey gave me a little card that said, “If we are on a Pilgrimage, God too is on a Pilgrimage to us.” A wise Carmelite Nun, sent me a message including the words, “The Lord is hard at work on you.” The support and love of others was of vital importance to me at this time. As if I didn’t know it already, it is impossible to do something like this on your own.
This pilgrimage time has allowed space for me to be present to God in a special way. I am sure I will learn what the benefits of this will be as time unfolds (seven years ago, as I was approaching Santiago, someone from St Bede’s, my Church, sent me a wonderful message – “You will learn the benefits of this over the next decades” – patience!).
I have been made to explore deeply some places I would choose not to go, but honest exploration of stuff around weakness, vulnerability, humility, brokenness, smallness and fragility can never be wasted. It is of vital importance for ministry and life and it is right at the heart of the Gospel. This is at the heart of the human pilgrimage.
While I was on Caldey, a lot of the Office Readings were from Corinthians with Paul’s reflecting on dying and rising in and with Christ. This has spoken to me a lot while I have plodded and then sat. Lots of connections between this, discipleship, life and my ministry to tease out. I want to spend some time reading St Elizabeth of the Trinity and her teaching, from the heart of the crucible, about suffering and self-forgetfulness.
to be continued ….
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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 …