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An ancient guide

ancient pilgrim stone at stream ford

Images arise of our way through this lost wood: grainy scenes of leaf and thorn, rock and shadows dappled with mid-day sunlight, the colours everywhere we look overly-rich and lush, the earth moist in our nostrils, the movements of my fellow pilgrims as we descend through the understory of the wood truncated and choppy, like characters in one of those films already ancient by the time it was shown us in high school. The six of us step carefully under a few large oaks casting their great shadows, after which are clearings floored by dead leaves under ash and alder, some of the saplings garlanded with bushes of holly of an impossibly deep green, leaves sharp, glinting like glossy plastic. Where there is shade, there are deep ferns. Most reach our waists although some reach up into blossoms at nearly head-height. At the bottom of the valley the ferns clear and the stream, having changed direction long before we did, meets us once more, this time running south through the ferns and high grasses. We do not know where we should be going, but there is a wooden step-bridge here also, and this time, something else. “Look, look!” shouts Sara, leaning in and pointing in excitement at something half-hidden in the grass on the far side of the planking. It is a boulder, placed on its end so that comes up to her waist, moss-covered, and with paint-like blotches of thick white here and there across its face. The moss covers but doesn’t quite conceal cut marks. “A cross!” Sara traces the ancient lines so we can see, “it’s a pilgrim marker. We must be on the right path.”

There in the upper left quadrant of the standing stone is the cross, cut clear and deep. It’s a sign from others, medieval pilgrims perhaps, or travelers across the moors from centuries past. There’s nothing like a sign to bring speed to our step. The others have already started up the slope. I hesitate. The stone looks old, and there are other cuts there, less distinct. On the top of the boulder cup-marks, and to the right of the cross another line, and then another below it, like a peaked hat or a bird in flight. Britain is full of carved stones, and a medieval pilgrim cross, old as it is, would be a relative newcomer to the long history of rock art. Cup markings and rings can date from the Neolithic or the Bronze Ages.

The others have moved quickly through the deep ferns. This time there is no hesitation. We may not know where the trail is, but we do know the top of the hill. I’m trailing the group, who shout down their encouragement to move on. The moors await us.

 

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Stiles and Kissing Gates

down to the river fording

Some fences mark a human boundary, some a physical frontier. This fence was one of the latter. Instead of keeping apart two rocky fields that are otherwise indistinguishable, or two similar flocks of sheep, the fence at the lower field boundary marked a sharp dividing line between field and forest, between hillside and deep valley, and between sunlight and shadow.

Our group of six crossed the stile, the first across uncharacteristically waiting on the other side of the fence until we were all together. By unspoken consent joviality had been replaced by solidarity. The overgrown path and lack of certainty made us pack animals.

For someone who grows up in the Canadian west, crossing a fence inevitably means grasping strands of barbed wire in hand, stretching the space between the lowest and middle strands as wide as possible, and then squatting and pivoting your back end while you lift a foot and squeeze through, back straight and derriere high, in hopes that no piece of shirt or pants will catch a barb and tear. There are very few stiles in Canada because there are very few public walking paths on private land. In England the history of the stile and the history of the citizen fight to keep public paths open are one and the same. Most UK stiles – certainly the ones we crossed – are built by property owners under legal compulsion.

Most stiles are ingenious in their simplicity. Usually, they consist of a post and a step on both sides of a fence: one step up, then hold the pole for support, swing one leg over to the step on the other side, then the other leg, and Bob’s your uncle. With a stile there’s no need to remember to close a gate, and there’s never any concern about a jammed lock or unworkable mechanism. The livestock have no chance to get out and repairs consist only of replacing a board every few years. The wooden step stile may be primitive, but it’s hard to improve on a model of such basic efficiency.

Perhaps my favourite gate is the one on St. Cuthbert’s Way, at the dry-stone fence, edged by thistle and grass, that marks the border between England and Scotland. It was a bit lonely a location, on the top of a knoll and across a valley from a Bronze Age ring fort, but the day I reached it I felt a sense of occasion crossing, and missed having someone there to share it with. There should have been a pub, as there had been, and a good one, back in Kirk Yetholm. Instead there were cattle, and stinging nettle, and burnt-yellow grass, so I kept on.

the border

Another common form of fence crossing in the UK is what is known as the ‘kissing gate’, so called because there is a gate in the fence that swings free between two fixed posts, just to the point of being able to touch, or ‘kiss’ each post. If you were looking at a kissing gate from above, you would see a walker step to the gate, push it against the far post, step into the small space at the open end of the “vee”, then push the gate back against the post just crossed, and exit through the cleared path on the other side. The point of a kissing gate is that a person can step into and through the pocket that is protected from the swing. But any four-legged creature cannot.

For the walker, the most reassuring thing about a stile or a kissing gate is that it’s proof, physical evidence in wood and sometimes steel that this is, if not the path, at least a path intended for walkers. From where it crossed the fence into forest, the Northdale trail we had decided to take led sharply downhill. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom we stepped carefully over exposed roots and clean river stones that skittered and clattered and slid underfoot. There was a close, fragrant feel to the air. I could feel the suddenly coolness on my skin; despite the trees there was a slight breeze from the north; the valley acting as a funnel for air from the high moor country, perhaps from whatever springs fed the stream we could hear below us.

For a path we had chosen because of a lack of options and not for any particular markings, this one at first seemed quite promising. When we had walked only a short distance we saw that were stairs cut into the earth and banked by wood, and because of the steep descent someone had installed first a wooden railing, then a rope alongside the path at waist height. Just when we were feeling heartened the stairs split, each path descending a different direction. It was the classic dilemma: left or right? We chose left, descending another two sets of earthen stairs to a wooden bridge that couldn’t have been more than a few decades old. The stream would likely have been passable without the bridge by jumping from boulder to boulder across the pools and alternating rapids, but the cool forest air and shadow meant that most of the rock surface was slickly moss-covered. Boots would not have held. Someone would have gone in, or bruised or snapped a bone.

On the far side of the bridge was an ascent as steep as the bank we had just come down. After a few yards of climbing, the path disappeared under high ferns. We slowed, wading through the green, unwilling to risk falling into a hole, or worse, down some unseen rock face. For a few minutes we slowly tested the brush for any hint of trail, but it was clear no one had been through in some time. Whatever path was once there had disappeared. We turned back, first descending to the bridge, then back up again to the forest junction, somewhat anxious. Now there was only one option.

 

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Waiting for a Sign

while finding our way

Walking a partially sign-posted pilgrimage trail is a bit like living out Kierkegaard’s leap of faith in miniature, a hundred times a day. While walking the trail, there is a process that you go through between signs, a crisis of faith and doubt. When the arrow or the sign is first spotted, you feel a natural sense of relief. You launch yourself out and away from the waymarker, your feet sturdy and your mind at ease, but only for a moment. Soon enough comes a fence corner, a split in the path, a field empty of indications or a stile that is unmarked, and you must decide: is it that you have missed a marker somewhere, that the marker was never placed where it could have been useful, or was perhaps lost or knocked down (over the years I have found many markers in ditches, knocked down by sheep or cattle, or behind overgrown bushes), or is it that you have somehow unwittingly strayed from the path and should retrace your steps?

This is the moment – or rather, one of the many moments in a pilgrim walker’s day – of decision. Paths are rarely uniformly sign-posted. From the point on the path where you hesitate, it could well be that the anticipated marker is just over the horizon; at the next junction or field corner. Or it could be that somewhere, a hundred or two hundred paces back you have missed a sign or a deviance in the trail that you should have caught. The slowness of walking, which is normally, I would argue, one of its advantages, begins to work against you. Any decision, whether to push forward or to backtrack, is an investment both in time and in precious energy. In a ten-hour walk on a secluded trail, too many bad investments can mean the difference between success and unpleasantness, discomfort and perhaps even in some rare cases, disaster.

Modern technology, and especially the nearly ubiquitous smart phone with its built-in GPS location systems, would seem to have made the pilgrim’s Kierkegaardian dilemma obsolete. Even if a sign-post is missing, the map function of a phone should be able to show the pilgrim where he or she is, at least closely enough to avoid much more than a few fields’ length of detour. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon one’s view of such things) there was no mobile phone coverage in the Rosedale valley. We were on our own with terrain and map.

We passed a farm that we thought might have been Northdale Farm, but was not. Now we knew we were seriously off the trail. We looked at the maps, but they made little sense. We talked, but never argued. Six cooks and still the stew was okay. The trail continued on through a field north of the house and barn and then petered out in the second field, turning into what seemed to be only an animal track. We spread out, all six looking in different directions uphill, and down. In the downhill far corner of the field closest to the wooded gully was a gate. It looked like there may have been a sign there; certainly there seemed to be a trail. We headed downhill.

There was no sign. Then again, there never had been any St Hilda signs per se. On the other side of the valley the earth rose up again to the heights of the moors. Our trail was on that other side. We knew that much at least, and that to get there we’d have to cross the valley. There was no sign, but there was a path. The woods were thick with underbrush, the trail overgrown. The sounds of water came from somewhere down below. We decided to risk it.

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Walk Past

There’s something about Lindisfarne, Norway and Ireland that connects all three in history, art, and memory. And faith. Cuthbert (634-687) was an Anglo-Saxon shepherd boy trained by Irish monks from Iona, who accepted the decision at Whitby to go with Roman customs, and whose remains were troubled by Viking raiders, whose Danish descendents in the Danelaw, later Northumbria, eventually honoured him as their patron saint. Life is indeed strange. Over thirteen centuries later, a descendent of Norwegians, I arrived by foot at the cave of St. Cuthbert, accompanied by my Northumbrian friends Chris and Clare, after having marveled at the intricacies of Viking art and archaeology in Celtic Dublin and walked through Norway’s St. Olaf Way, to pay my respects at one of the resting places of an Anglo-Saxon saint.

Mostly that morning I’d been worried about keeping up with Chris. His lanky frame and long legs, combined with a love of walking, an interest in history and an excitement for the path ahead, mean that he is a wonderful pilgrimage partner – when he doesn’t mind slowing just a bit. In any case we had to slow to find the place. The signs to Cuddy’s Cave, as it is sometimes known, were not all that clear. The property is managed by UK’s National Trust, but unlike some of the Trust’s other locations there is little infrastructure – just the sandstone rock formation, stairs cut into the rock on either side, some blackened soot on the cave wall from someone attempting a campfire, and the cave itself. Standing in the cave, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the rock overhead. Here, according to which report you believe, was where St Cuthbert actually lived for a short time as a hermit seeking even more isolation than Holy Island could provide, or where centuries after his passing the monks of Lindisfarne hid out from the Vikings with the coffin of the unfortunately mobile saint. Or both.

Both Chris and I are in our 50s. When he was in his early 50s, St. Cuthbert realized that death would soon be on him, and left his post as Bishop and Prior of the active monastery at Lindisfarne/Holy Island to die in his hermit’s cell on Inner Farne Island. He left specific instructions that he did not want to be buried at the monastery because he did not want the monks to be bothered by all of the pilgrims he knew would come to his tomb. But his friends insisted and so that is where he was first laid to rest.

It was almost as if Cuthbert knew what would happen. Centuries later, the vikings raided rich Lindisfarne and laid it to waste. While the sea marauders were not interested in the saint’s spiritual blessings, they were very interested in the kinds of riches that typically adorned saints’ tombs. So the monks fled with the coffin of the saint, and wandered the countryside for seven years before eventually being led by a dun cow to the site of what became Durham cathedral.

Caves are places of shelter, life and death, despair and fear, and hope. The ferns along the path nodded at the lightest touch of a warm wind, and cicadas started up here and there in the trees to accompany our bright and lazy afternoon. As we shared a cup of tea I tried to imagine Cuthbert right there, where our packs were set against the sandstone. An ancient saint, rocks more ancient still.

In his early 50s. The nature of shrines is that we all carry something not only to, but also past such a place. I hadn’t quite finished my tea but Chris was pacing. I got up, brushing the crumbs of cake off my chest. What do you think, I asked him? Can we still make it before sunset?

carrying St Cuthbert statue

 

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Five clues that you’re already a pilgrim (even if you haven’t yet walked a trail)

 

Take this simple test. You know you’re a pilgrim when….

 

1. you find yourself washing our your shirt or underwear by hand even when you’re at home.

 

2. you think it would be cool to live a very full life out of a very small bag

 

3. it seems completely normal to you to carry blister bandages and pack water every time you step out the door

 

4. you’ve come to believe that for the most part, strangers are just friends you haven’t yet met

 

5. in your mind you dream of new landscapes to walk, and when you walk, you dream of new landscapes for your mind

at rest at St Cuthbert's cave

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From Old Montreal to Kahnawake: a 34-km pilgrimage to combat ignorance

A group of Theological Studies students at Concordia bridge cultural — and physical — divides

Posted on June 18, 2014
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By: Matthew Anderson
Pilgrimage

Photos by Matthew Anderson


Last weekend Matthew Anderson, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Theological Studies and the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability, and Sara Terreault, a lecturer in the Department of Theological Studies, led a group of students on a walking pilgrimage from Old Montreal to the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory.

From Saturday through Monday, they toured churches and First Nations institutions, learning about the people and the cultures they represent. Anderson compiled this account.

Plotting a 34-kilometre walking route between Old Montreal and the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory was difficult. But the hardest part turned out to be the last few kilometres.

Sara Terreault, a lecturer in Theological Studies, and I were temporarily stymied at city hall in Sainte-Catherine, a city near Kahnawake on Montreal’s South Shore.

“Oh, no, you can’t walk to Kahnawake from here unless the police stop traffic and you use the highway,” a clerk said. “I’ve lived here for 30 years, and I can tell you that it’s just not possible.”

Only a couple of minutes later, we discovered a service road footpath connecting the communities along the river. The problem is clearly not impassible terrain, but something else. Maps of the town end at the border and show a blank space to the west, where Kahnawake lies. When there is a blockade or a political crisis, this benign ignorance on the part of many non-Indigenous Montrealers can turn into outright suspicion or hostility, as clearly happened during the so-called Oka Crisis of 1990.

What’s the solution to such a conundrum? Part of it may begin with simply putting one foot in front of the other.

Pilgrimage

Students move between two destinations — and two cultural realities.

In a study I’m presenting in July at the Sacred Journeys conference at Mansfield College, Oxford, I propose that the dynamics of a trek offer a unique way to bridge cultural differences. Our research shows that walking combats ignorance of the cultural “other” not only in the shared experience of the journey, but also by allowing us to feel in our own bodies the distance from — and proximity to — these supposedly foreign places.

This is an experience that travelling by motor vehicle just doesn’t offer.

Taking steps to combat ignorance

This summer, Terreault is teaching a course on pilgrimages in the Department of Theological Studies. Along with me, she organized the 34-kilometre walk from Old Montreal and Kahnawake, which we undertook this past weekend.

To test how walking pilgrimages change the cultural suppositions of those who undertake them, she required her students to critically engage with pilgrimage theories during their trek between the historic destinations.

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel

Participants tour Old Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, once a popular site for Christian pilgrims.

The walk began on Saturday morning, with a tour of Old Montreal’s iconic 17th-century Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, a structure built at the behest of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys that served as a pilgrimage site for the first Christian inhabitants of what was then called Ville-Marie.

From there, we walked the 23 or so kilometres to Sainte-Catherine, where we stayed in the basement of Église Sainte-Catherine d’Alexandrie. Early the next morning, we began the roughly 10-kilometre trek to Kahnawake.

While there, we visited the shrine of Kateri Tekakwitha, who became the first Indigenous North American saint with her canonization in 2012. We learned more about Tekakwitha from Orenda Boucher (BA 09, MA 13), who is working on a PhD thesis on Mohawk spiritual expressions.

Later, we toured the Kahnawake Cultural Centre with Tom Deer, its cultural liaison officer, before we ended our time in the territory with a visit to the Kahnawake Longhouse, a place for traditional religious expression. We also had the privilege of spending some time with Kenneth Deer, a Kahnawake journalist and educator who is involved with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Our pilgrimage concluded on Monday with our walk back to Montreal. Terreault was moved by the entire weekend.

“It’s humbling as well as instructive to see how warmly we were welcomed throughout our journey,” she said. “Communitas is a technical term used in pilgrimage studies that refers to the spontaneous emergence of fellow-feeling among people journeying together, regardless of social or other differences. There was certainly a sense of that about our entire trip.”

Ultimately, the voyage we undertook was not so much to a destination as between two cultural self-understandings and the physical spaces that exemplify them. It’s important to note that the walk was part of Concordia’s ongoing mandate of public outreach.

On our journey, we crossed densely urban, suburban and industrial zones, as well as parks and recreational areas, rediscovering parts of what was once an important historical Montreal trail. But as much as we were retracing the past, our eyes were definitely on this route’s future. Our political leaders, including those of the First Nations communities, are asking us to learn from each other.

Walking is a singularly powerful way to begin to do exactly that.

article from Concordia NOW, at http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2014/06/18/from-old-montrealtokahnawakea34kmpilgrimagetocombatignorance.html

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Twenty Minute Liminality

 

Bridge from SeawaySince it wasn’t rush hour and the span over the St-Lawrence was clear, it took only twenty minutes to drive from my home in Verdun to where the steelwork and concrete delivered the little rent-by-the-hour Toyota containing my friend Sara and me into the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake (Kahnawà:ke). I’ve always found there to be something almost harsh about the Mercier Bridge. Despite being of similar construction it has none of the 19th century charm of the Victoria (a bridge my children used to call the “singing bridge” when they were little, for the hum of the tires on the steel tracks slung along its sides). Nor does the Mercier attempt the modernist concrete vision that first inspired and then doomed the grandly arching Champlain, finished in 1967 and already on life support. Where the Jacques Cartier Bridge meanders genteelly over roller coasters and parks, the Mercier seems more grimly pedestrian, even though actual pedestrians would be risking their lives to walk it.

Maybe it’s the way one is forced to drive the Montreal approach to the Mercier, encased in a graffiti-covered cement chute that twists and turns through barely glimpsed walls of duplexes until the roadway finally shoots you up and onto the steel. It’s really only as you near the bridge’s end that you realize how high you’ve come. And then, just as the Seaway glitters below you, you drop down the exit ramp to the erroneously named “south shore”, the car’s shocks pinging at potholes. Suddenly you’re in a land you didn’t realize was there, a strip of gas stations, restaurants, smoke shops and road-side businesses with signs in a language that seems to have too many consonants, apostrophes and syllables to make sense. This is not your land, you think. And you’re right.

The Mercier Bridge’s greatest shortcoming might be that, on a good day, it delivers you too quickly from one world to the next. From the thick stone walls of the centuries-old Roman Catholic mission among the Iroquois, through the Mohawk steel workers who were first trained on the bridge spans and went to American cities for work, through Indian residential schools and the riots and blockades and soldiers and warriors of the late summer and fall of 1990, there are stories to be told about every foot of the transition between shore-lines. When traffic is light the stories flit by like the shadows between girders, far too quickly even to be heard, much less really heard, which is to say, to be felt and understood.

In June Sara and I will be leading a group of walking pilgrims from Old Montreal to Kahnawake as part of the pilgrimage class we’ve developed at the Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University. Each year the students have had to walk a pilgrimage. While in the past we’ve focused on European routes, this year we’re sticking closer to home. In June we will walk the 30 km or so one-way route together. Although we are starting in the Old Port it won’t be a pilgrimage to Kahnawake (although such a pilgrimage does exist, centred on the shrine of the Mohawk Saint Kateri). Instead we hope our June walk will be an experiencing of the full distance – cultural, temporal, linguistic, historical, and spiritual – between two poles: Old Montreal, one of the hearts of Champlain’s dream of French settlement in this part of North America, now a gentrified example of Quebecois North American culture, and Kahnawake, a territory of the Mohawk, part of the historic Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Each end of this walk has its own understandings of, and traditions around, journey. We hope that by taking our time along the distance between those understandings and experiences of mobility this summer, the stories will unfold at a pace we can hear as well.

This morning when Sara and I arrived by car in Kahnawake, we realized fairly quickly that our maps were not going to be of much use. There were no street signs to be found, anywhere in the village. “Why do you need street signs?” someone said to us when we asked, with a gentle lifting of the shoulders and the trace of a smile. “Everyone who needs to know where they’re going already knows how to get there.”

This summer we hope that we too will learn, together and footfall by footfall, where we are going, and how to get there.

The heart of Kahnawake

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The Phantom Bomber

starting out

Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.

Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.

There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.

Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.

When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.

This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.

I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.

The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.

The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?

east hill