Walking out of the World

During Lent the pilgrimage is paused and the journey will continue on Palm Sunday.

In November 2020 I began this blog series, Walking out of the World, a recollection of the journey on foot from Worcester across England and France, over the Pyrenees to north west Spain, to Compostela and Finisterre. These are reflections on a pilgrimage made in a quite different world, yet not so very long ago. Welcome to the continuing normal. This series of blog posts is based on a three-month walk from Worcester to Compostela in 2008 but written as a reflection on life, vocation, and issues in the Church and in the wider culture during a time of rapid change in the 21st century.

In moments of daydreaming and meditation, I re-live moments of that walk, recalling landscapes, refreshing streams, towns, people, food. It all remains tangible for it was a time when I was free to live the sacrament of the present moment, mirroring my surroundings, as in the “selfie” in the church of Saint-Jacques in Chatellerault near Poitiers. My replica 14th century bourdon is tilted at the same angle as that of Saint James, and it opens a door into a parallel world.

When I received my pilgrim blessing from the Dean of Worcester cathedral on 2 May 2008 and set off across England towards Compostela, I had given up my teaching career and I was then to start at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome in September. So the three months spent on the Camino de Santiago was – in another sense – a walk out of the world. I eventually had to return to teaching for another ten years, but that was a later story! But it was a world that we all walked out of: a “pre-pandemic world” which is a joy to return to!

In that world we could mix freely with others without fear, in pilgrim hostels, bars and restaurants. Three months on the road threw up dozens of chance meetings with strangers every day. I calculated that I met over two thousand people in the 86 days walk from Worcester to Compostela. It was a more polite world where we had not yet heard of “culture wars” and there were no Brexit leavers nor remainers, for the UK was still a leading member of the European Union and any other plan was unheard of. There were no Twitter lies from the White House. A certain Greta Thunberg was just starting primary school so she would only find out about climate change a few years later. And my only knowledge of donkeys was they were just some species of sad horse, but I’d never actually met one. In May 2008 I didn’t know about any of these things. As I set off on foot to Compostela I was aware of a simple recurring theme but had little idea what the mantra might eventually mean: I was walking out of the world.

Part 1 of Walking out of the World covers the send-off from Worcester cathedral and the first day’s walk along the river Severn to Tewkesbury abbey. The route passes through Oxford and along the river Thames to London, and heads south through Sussex to the Newhaven ferry to Dieppe. The Via Turonensis in France and the Camino Francés in Spain take me on a 2500 kilometre journey over three months, and the themes that I discuss reflect the thoughts that I had along the route, and now additional thoughts are included as I remember and describe that journey.

The first 60 days can be followed in the links in the sidebar menu, as far as Pamplona, and the rest of the journey to Compostela will continue from that point – over the bridge at Puente la Reina – and all places west to Santiago and Finisterre ‘the End of the World’, from Palm Sunday 28 March 2021.

Tradition and the individual vocation

I wrote this article for the website Where Peter Is and it was published there on 1 March 2021 as Tradition and the Individual Vocation with some slight modifications. If you wish to comment on it, please comment there.

Parkminster Charterhouse, Sussex: the monks’ graves in the Great Cloister garth (photograph my copyright.)

In the first weeks of Lent I learned a lot from reading Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti, which I chose as a focus for these forty days. Still blinking in the sunlight after breaking free from the rad-trad rabbit-hole, I took the following as a keynote for meditation in the first few days: Chapter 1, 48, Fratelli Tutti. Here Pope Francis laments the increased aggression we see in both online communication and the media. He emphasizes the importance of taking the time to listen to one another in order to combat the frantic pace that permeates digital discourse.

The question in relation to Chapter 1 is this: “Are there areas where I lack hope, where I don’t believe God can bring good from a situation? What’s the first step to accepting the hope God wants to give me?”  When I gave this question the full attention it deserved in my Lent meditation, I discovered it was question about vocation and it led me into some positive thinking, also a new way of considering the radical traditionalism which I have now put behind me. 

At first I took a combative approach to my former brothers and sisters in the rad-trad world, and I now think that was unhelpful, as demonstrated by several mutually unedifying flame-wars!   And yet, “Taking the time to listen to one another” is not as easy as it sounds. Standing down from the rad-trad combat zone in the culture wars, I begin to see the way forward is not crudely a matter of crossing the trenches and firing back in the opposite direction. 

The fact that I enjoyed the dismay of my former fellow combatants, should have been a spiritual alarm signal: reflex emotional actions are not always a sin, but if they are enjoyable, the signs are they may well be! No, rather than dismiss my former rad-trad experience as worthless, I should acknowledge it as a former stage of vocation.  Is that too outrageous?

In the Catholic Church we admire people whose vocation is straight as an arrow, don’t we?  The ten year old boy who hears a sermon about the Curé d’Ars and instantly knows he will be a priest.  He never wavers from that calling, through years of formation in seminary to a lifetime of selfless duty to his flock, and he finally retires in obscurity, daily offering his prayers of thanks.  Likewise, we are impressed by the woman who has a mid-life conversion, a sudden clear call to be a religious sister, and thereafter works tirelessly for the rest of her life in a hidden apostolate, assured by God that she is making a difference.  Again, in a different vocation, there are men and women who stand out as beacons of Catholic family life, strong in their call to witness in the home and in their secular employment, inspiring others by their lives. 

We spend less time – or perhaps none at all – considering people whose vocations are unclear and who do not seem to have such singleness of purpose or strong sense of particular calling. Some are not gifted with the perseverance to continue in a direction they first believed the Lord was leading them; others maybe did not discern correctly and became muddled then gave up.  A few spend their lives regretting an undeveloped idea of vocation in which they believe they would have excelled, if only others had been more supportive or practical life events had stopped them achieving it. And who has not heard that phrase ‘failed vocation’?  A harsh judgment on our fellow pilgrims on life’s journey.  While knowing nothing of the internal search in that person’s life, we only observe that they left the seminary early, or did not progress beyond the novitiate, or their marriage disintegrated due to factors over which they sadly lost control or never understood.

Vocation is one of God’s mysteries. There are some faithful Catholics whose entire life’s vocation is a never-ending search for their life’s vocation.  I remember an important observation from a monk who should know a thing or two about the subject: a Novice Master whose life has been spent fostering vocations and writing books about formation.

“There are some whose vocation is to the novitiate,” he told me. “We should not speak of ‘failed vocations,’ for who are we to judge that God calls people to the wrong place?  Nor should you say they mis-heard Him. We see the faithful going down all sorts of roads, don’t we?  We sometimes delight in calling out their error, but in reality only God knows where he is calling his people, and only some are given the true gift of discernment of souls.”

There was a man who played the cello in a symphony orchestra but he felt called to be a Carthusian monk.  He made his way across Europe from the Baltic to the doors of the biggest working monastery in the entire continent.  He settled into his hermit cell and adapted himself to the punishing timetable: Matins and Lauds from midnight to three a.m., then rising again at six; the never-ending tyranny of the bells in the great tower, sounding the changes from manual work to the Office, to private prayer, to spiritual reading; and occasionally, a brief recreation.

After a year he returned to his former life in the symphony orchestra, exhausted and sure the Carthusian life was not for him.  Another year went by and he returned to the monastery for another attempt. The same thing happened and he left after a year.  One day, at the weekly meeting of the white-clad monks in the vast Chapter room – where the walls dripped blood in the fresco scenes of monastic Reformation martyrdoms – the Novice Master announced to the community that the cellist was crossing Europe on his way to the monastery for his third time.

“How long is he staying this time?” asked the Choirmaster.

“He says this time it’s for the rest of his life,” said the Novice Master. “He is sure of his vocation.”

“Ah,” replied the Choirmaster. “The usual then.”

This is neither fable nor dry monastic joke: you will not have read it elsewhere. I am reporting the actual conversation as I heard it in that Chapter room.  A few days later I waited with a hand-trolley at the bus stop at the end of the monastery drive, to meet the cellist and carry his suitcase.  He followed me through the Porter’s Lodge, into the Great Cloister, to the door of his old hermitage. At midnight, once again in postulant’s cloak, he silently made his way into the darkened choir stalls once more, deftly side-stepping the well-remembered creaky floorboard, and took his place leaning back in his same oak misericord.  He chanted the Latin antiphon for Matins, as if he had never left.  

I cannot tell you how the cellist’s story finished, for I left the monastery before he did. I stood waiting at the bus stop with my suitcase and watched the cellist wheel the hand-trolley back up the drive. The door to the Porter’s Lodge closed behind him.  Either he is now a professed Carthusian monk or he returned to his orchestra. What I do know is this: for the time he was in that monastery, that was the place where God had called him to be; and it was the same for me.

Vocation can be seen like that: as a call to be in a certain place for a time.  For ten years I orbited ‘Planet RadTrad’ and I even helped set up one of those ‘traditionalist’ blogs. Gradually, far too slowly perhaps, I saw things differently and I can now say with confidence that I left it all behind, just as surely as I climbed onto a bus one day with my suitcase, outside the Charterhouse, and never went back.

That was my vocation.  If it is not too outrageous to acknowledge both of these stages of my journey as integral parts of my vocation, that raises an interesting question. Can I accept that it remains the vocation of others in the rad-trad world?  The answer surely cannot be different.  The culture wars we have experienced in recent years have been an unpleasant experience, whichever side of the line you are on. I do not think my time was constructively spent, shouting from the sidelines of the Church, reprimanding my fellow Catholics and criticising the direction of Pope Francis himself. 

Is the sense of vocation genuine: do people believe God really is calling them to be voices of caution against too much change?  Phrased like that, I don’t think any of us could disagree. However, God might not want them to remain so entrenched in that position and He may strengthen our vocation to call them out of it.  There is no such thing as wasted experience in Catholic vocation: God does not waste our time. 

One great danger, when rejecting something that we have come to realize is holding us back, is that we jettison all that was good in it, and a fear of the word ‘tradition’ would be wrong.  When I began my Christian journey as an Anglican I was greatly influenced by T.S.Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which is not about theology but poetry.

“If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense… and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”

Tradition became my guiding principle: the One Great Tradition of Christian spirituality, Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican, was instilled in me by my first spiritual director, an Anglo-Catholic monk.  As I converted to Catholicism I gave thanks for the tradition that brought me to that point.  When I broke clear from the gravitational pull of the ‘traditionalists’, I didn’t become a ‘liberal’ overnight!  Rather, I reassessed that narrow trench filled with rad-trad combatants, and conformed my vocation once again to the tradition of the Magisterium.

I return to that simple phrase, “Taking the time to listen to one another,” and I could imagine the words coming from Frère Roger Schutz of Taizé, a protestant pastor and great ecumenist who I was blessed to meet and converse with at length. In the 1960s he had attended the Council as an observer and later became close to Pope John Paul II.  Inspired by Frère Roger, the first twenty-five years of my Christian life – including my conversion to Catholicism – had been an ecumenical vocation.  Prompted by the study of Fratelli Tutti to consider things once more in vocational terms, I acknowledge that “taking the time to listen to one another” has been a practice entirely absent from my Christian conversations in factional debates. I even joined in the habitual sneering against the ecumenism of Pope Francis, while at the same time I felt privately uncomfortable, knowing I was betraying a deeper vocation.

Individual discernment of vocation in relation to these issues may be this: looking at where we are now in relation to our original call; giving thanks for what was good in our former experience; and asking where God is leading us now. We can be critical of brothers and sisters in online echo-chambers and point to identifiable errors, but maybe we should also recall those words of the Novice Master concerning vocation.  Who are we to judge that God called these people to the wrong place?”