Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Failed Pilgrimage as a Metaphor for the Spiritual Life

On Monday, I took a long bike trip to Wales to see the holy well of St. Winifrede at Holywell. I did not enjoy it. I had intended to ask St. Winifrede to ask God a question for me. But neither of them were home.

Started out optimistically, though rather late. But what's the hurry anyway? Ten thirty saw me happily pedaling away through the village and admiring the view. Scenery, lovey! Scenery!

The flora.

The fauna.

The oddly named villages.

The world. The glories of nature tamed.

Until I hit the first choice. North or south.

I'd had it marked clearly on the map, but it turns out that my information was a bit out of date. The road that was supposed to be there, had been disused for a couple of generations, leading to a ferry across the Dee river that had also not actually been there in living memory.

Where the old road was, is now a house. Admittedly, it's a lovely house with a charmingly twisty chimney.

and a very unambiguous sign on the drive. Maddening. There it was on the map. Behind me across the way was the rest of the road; off in the distance, it clearly carried on through the trees, and likely ended in a bridge.

It was not to be.

It was fine though. The weather was nice, the breeze was fresh, the birdies were singing. Fine. The world was there for me to enjoy. I would get around to Holywell eventually, no hurry. It would still be there whenever I got round to it. All the time in the world to get serious about things. The roads are pleasant, wide and flat, not much in the way of hills and there are flowers everywhere. (You can see where this is going right?)

Another mark on the map said, "Deeferry farm", but of course, the name and the reality...well...

The two friendly farm guys I met said, "Oh, yes. I remember when I were a little owt, goin' doon to the river and looking for sixpences, an' ol' Jimmy used to pull people across on the ferry raft."

Clearly this was in the days when the hobbits still occupied Cheshire.

So, no ferry. Which left rather a problem. The river Dee is fairly broad and deep. Not really the sort of thing one thinks of. There will be a bridge, this is the 21st century; we build bridges.


There are no bridges, no short cuts, no ferries. Just the river. And people who live on one side, and people who live on the other side.

OK, there's a bridge on the estate of the Duke of Westminster, but he doesn't let the plebs use it.

(Though I did ring the bell and ask. No harm in asking. The security guard for the richest man in England was very nice.)

An extra five miles out of my way south and I found Farndon with its medieval bridge.

And this was really the end of the fun. After this England was clearly closing up. Pubs and houses and

charming village inns, boarded up and crumbling. It was supposed to be fun. It wasn't supposed to be a gruelling, depressing ride through nearly deserted villages full of hostile chavs. Hostile Welsh chavs.

At least I got across the Dee.

And was in Wales,

where I made the acquaintance of the only friendly face in the country.

But it turned out he was just looking for a handout, like everyone else.

The glories of the Catholic Church of England and Wales.

The grace and beauty and strength of its faith reflected in its soaring architecture.

Nonetheless, something of resolve stirred in me. I was not going to go find some nice picnic spot and then go home. This was not a joy ride, it was a pilgrimage. And as such, it was supposed to be unfun. You're supposed to like that it's unfun.

Now, something very important to remember about Cheshire, wealthy, beautiful, happy, twee Cheshire, is that it is flat.

Wales, is not flat.

But I knew that when I started out.

I had added on an extra five miles by failing to find a bridge over the Dee, and now was two hours behind schedule. Which meant that I arrived at the Poor Clares in Hawarden just as Vespers was finishing.

Pfaffing about, loving the world and reluctant to pay attention to business and I paid by missing out. The sister portress said that Holywell was just up the road. Fifteen minutes by car. Maybe, she said, I could make it to vespers there with the friars or the sisters. I stopped long enough to splash my face and was off.

After that, there was no more fun. No more flat. It was up.

Just up.

and up...

and up...

I had to admit that the view from the heights was a glory and a joy.

But that road was relentless. Every turn that I thought might bring some relief was only more up. More toil.

And I had run out of map. My map only went to within three miles of Holywell and I had no idea how much farther it had to go. It just ran out and the road kept going up.

I had no idea. I stopped. I knew that I was not destined to be a spiritual alpinist. No flights of ecstasy, no inner promptings. Just exhaustion and the inevitability of failure and the complete knowledge that it was my own fault. Sorry God. Sorry St. Winifrede.

I passed a trail that led down and, not knowing where it went (except down), or whether it would just end in nothing, or whether I was going to be forced by the lack of road to turn right back around, I took it. Without hesitation.

And down it went indeed.

It was a bridle path. It started paved for a bit, then simply dead ended in a wooded track. Either I plunged into the woods or I turned back to face the hill.

No contest.

It started out pleasant enough, lots of dappled sunlight. But soon, quite frankly, I began to see why my ancestors had so feared the woods. It was dark and lined with holly trees that kept sticking their twiggy fingers and pointy reproachful leaves into my spokes.

The path mocked me: "This is what you get when you give up the High Road."

"You could turn back...go back up the hill...

but you won't, will you?"

"Not even when it starts to look like this."


Finally, when I wondered if I would have to go find a farm door to knock on, the track spewed me out, in disgust at my lukewarmity, onto a road that flew down hill and into


Flint, Wales. Land of cheap modern housing developments, cheque cashing shops, pizza-by-the-slice and more boarded up pubs.

I was clearly no longer on the High Road to anything. It was seven pm. The shops, the ones that weren't boarded up, were closed. Menacing bands of chavs roamed the forsaken streets. Ahead was an industrial park, then the coast of the Dee estuary, and a freeway.

I asked a passer by whether there was a train from Flint to Chester and whether they allowed bikes. "Yes." The helpful Welsh.

I sat, utterly exhausted, on a bench outside a decaying chippy, across from a video store and a sign that said, "CHEAP CHEAP ELECTRONICS !!!" in English, and probably the same in Welsh. Dreams of spiritual heroics shattered. I was lost. I had no idea where Holywell was from here. I had given up the path. I had failed.

Then, a sign (click on it to look closely):

and an angel in the form of the last sweet little old lady in Wales, who said, "Oh, yes, the shrine. Lovely. It's just about fifteen minutes down the road on yer bike."

I had no hope of getting there before it was all closed. But I was not going to go home without at least getting there.

But God is a funny joker.

The hill I had forsaken when I had almost conquered it, was still there and the Well was at the top.

Five miles west of Flint the road to Holywell curved back up and into the heights. Two and a quarter miles back up the hill I had given up on.

Very funny, Lord.

The sign lied. The town was still a mile up.

While other signs were, as is usual in the spiritual life, simply incomprehensible.

But finally,


my reward.

Exactly what I deserved for my faithlessness and distractions.

The hill going down was harder than it was going up.

* ~ * ~ *


Iohannes Carolus Crassus said...

Listen, I know I probably shouldn't say anything, but wilfully using an old map is no different than a Christian becoming a Jew: it used to work, but now it doesn't get you anywhere anymore.

Mark S. Abeln said...

Old maps are marvelous and I often use them in conjunction with the new, for the sake of discovering some historical or natural oddity.

But thank you for posting this little photo essay! You say much with few words.

Anonymous said...

It is an ordinance survey map I bought brand new in W.H. Smith.

Anonymous said...

...and it's "different from" not "different than"