Many years ago, more years than I care to remember, the Diocese used to make an annual trip down to Whithorn and St Ninian’s Cave. From all corners we gathered arriving in coaches, cars, mini buses, by train, I even recall bikes. We trekked through the wood beside the stream and down onto the pebbled beach a beach full of people, full of piskies! I don’t remember ever having a service on the beach, no for that we then headed off for one of the Episcopal Churches in the area, but I do remember standing in that cave as a group of us sung ‘Morning Has Broken’.
For sometime now I have been recalling those trips, maybe it is a sign of age, I even suggested that the diocese might do it for one their gatherings, that idea hasn’t appear to receive any support for the gathering will again be in Glasgow. Anyway before I knew that I had already decided to make a trip to Whithorn and St Ninian’s Cave again, only this time there were only two of us, Hubby and I and the beach was very quiet.
The weather forecast and been mixed but the sun shone for us, we ended up spending far more time there than I think Hubby had anticipated – me I could have spent longer, but then I am always a bit of a dreamer when I get onto an isolated beach. We didn’t sing, but I did send up a prayer of two, I remembered people I hadn’t seen for years, some of who have now come to the end of their earthly pilgrimage, most of whom had influenced my Christian journey in one way or another and I wondered.
I wondered if Ninian really did land on that shore and shelter in that cave. It isn’t really much of a cave by the way no cavernous Cathedral in the cliff face more the size of a lychgate. I wondered what he thought about with the sound of the waves crashing, back to home or forward to whatever lay ahead. I wondered if having landed on that shore he knew where he was or did he think he was in England, you can see the English coast, after all he skirted round the Mull of Galloway to land here not there. I wondered how certain he was that he was following God’s call. I wondered how tempted he was to turn back. I wondered how often he returned. As I wondered those things about him I also wondered them about myself.
Pilgrimages are important but they have lost the place in Christianity that they once had. On a pilgrimage you are taken somewhere, pulled somewhere, led somewhere, but despite that you are the one who makes the decision to go. Somewhere that isn’t a beginning and isn’t an end yet is both. You have time to just be, to think, to wonder, to dwell in the presence on God and saints. Of course those things can be done without going on Pilgrimage yet there is something special and precious about setting that time aside about making the effort to walk in the footsteps of the saints of old, be they of my childhood or of many generations before, to say this time can’t be snatched away by anything else (the mobile was left behind). The answers aren’t easier in the finding but the asking seems kinder, the solutions don’t just miraculously appear but a solution appears more possible, the path ahead isn’t suddenly lit with lights as if an airplane escape route but gently the truth, that you knew all along, that at least you are still on the right path steadies your heart and quietens your mind. As you turn and leave the place life is still the same but somehow it seems more in balance just like these stones that someone had piled outside the cave. Precarious maybe, but that is why a pilgrimage shouldn’t be a one off, for the juggling act of life constantly needs to be rebalanced.