Reflection shared with the West Durham Methodist Circuit Pilgrimage
I first had the pleasure of reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce a couple of years ago (Publisher: Black Swan; 2 Jan. 2013). It is a story about an old, unfit, retired sales rep, Harry Fry, who after receiving a letter resolves to walk all the way to Northumberland to visit an old colleague, Queenie, who is dying of cancer. He believes that in some way his journey will help his friend to live. Without maps or waterproofs and only yachting shoes on his feet, he walks and walks from Kingsbridge in South Devon to Berwick upon Tweed, while his wife Maureen waits at home. During his walk which in 87 days will cover 627 miles, he reflects about his marriage, his former employment as a brewery rep, and about his son David addicted to drink and drugs, and who after university at Cambridge committed suicide in the garden shed. From stopping places he sends postcards, to Maureen, to Queenie, and to the unnamed girl at the filling station who gave him inspiration for his journey. Harold never fully understands why he started his journey; he just knows he must keep going. The twists and turns of his journey, his encounters with complete strangers and the circumstances he finds himself in are the backbone of Rachel Joyce’s moving story.
There are Biblical overtones and elements of parable to Harold’s story; a low note of hope threads through the writing, building slowly. Along the way he encounters many different people. Some are moved by his act, others bemused. At times the novel, with its gentle, episodic and occasionally repetitive structure, borders on the twee but Joyce rarely sugar-coats things. The story is laced with loneliness, with life’s numerous small disappointments and the great grey weight of the real; the last chapters deliver a couple of unexpectedly savage emotional blows. But all this is tempered with a sense of quiet celebration.
The story of Harold Fry was written in a maelstrom of grief and rage after Rachel Joyce learned her beloved father, Martin, an architect who lived a quiet, unassuming life devoted to his career and family, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. ‘Writing it,’ she says, ‘was my way of singing a hymn to my dad. ‘I had begun writing a radio play when my father told us he had weeks to live. He didn’t want to die and we didn’t want him to die. So I suppose, looking back, writing it was about me trying to keep him alive. The more I thought about an ordinary man doing something extraordinary in a very ordinary way, the more I knew, that’s what I want to focus on. But, as it is for anyone who has lost someone, you always think – he should be here. It’s an angry feeling.’
Today is the day of the annual September Circuit Pilgrimage. The Christian life is often seen as a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage filled with lessons, hardships, heartaches, joys, celebrations and special moments that will ultimately lead us home to heaven. The road will not always be smooth; in fact, throughout our travels, we will encounter many challenges. Like Harold Fry’s journey some of these challenges will test our courage, strengths, weaknesses, and faith. Along the way, we may stumble upon obstacles that will come between the paths that we are destined to take. Along our journey we will be confronted with many situations, some will be filled with joy, and some will be filled with heartache. How we react to what we are faced with determines what kind of outcome the rest of our journey through life will be like.
And like Harold Fry the people that we meet on our journey all play some kind of role. Some may stay for a lifetime; others may only stay for a short while. It is often the people who stay for only a short time that end up making a lasting impression not only in our lives, but in our hearts as well. Although we may not realize it at the time, they will make a difference and change our lives in a way we never could imagine. It is because of these encounters that we learn some of life’s best lessons and sometimes we even learn a little bit about ourselves.
Like Harold Fry’s pilgrimage people come and go into our lives quickly, but sometimes we are lucky to meet that one special person that will stay in our hearts forever no matter what. Even though we may not always end up being with that person and they may not always stay in our life for as long as we like, the lessons that we have learned from them and the wonderful experiences that we have gained from meeting that person, will stay with us forever.
Memories of such people and events are priceless treasures that we can cherish forever in our hearts. They also enable us to continue on with our journey for whatever life has in store for us. Sometimes all it takes is one special person to help us look inside ourselves and find a whole different person that we never knew existed. Our eyes are suddenly opened to a world we never knew – a world where time is so precious and moments never seem to last long enough.
Like Harold Fry together with a friend of Sam Wells, Priest, St Martin the Field, London my wife and I are journeying with a dear friend whose earthly life is slowly coming to an end with a cancer that has passed the point of no return. In a recent Thought for the Day Sam Wells suggested that in thinking about his friend’s brain tumour “one could pray and plead with God for a miracle or to seek acceptance.” But right now as we journey to Sheffield regularly to see her I’m finding myself thinking like Wells “if these last few months can’t be happy, make them beautiful, make this end part of the pilgrimage a time when my friend finds a depth of love, companionship and truth she’s never known before. As she stares down the intimidating frown of death, give her a richer sense of the wonder of living, a joyful thankfulness for what she’s seen and known, an ability to bless others as they face daunting challenges themselves, and a piercing insight into the heart of God.”
To describe this journey Sam Wells suggests the word “transfiguration.” My friend hasn’t got long. The truth is, none of us have really got all that long. My prayer is that over these days and weeks she discovers what her real nature and destiny are, so that when her last day comes, we gather round her, like Harold did with Queenie and say not only, “That was tragedy,” but also, “That was glory.”
Minister, St Andrew’s Dawson Street, Crook
Written on the Feast Day of the Transfiguration, 6th August 2015