carries the sacred and holy
around life’s circumference
in the expecting family
and excited toddlers,
and arm-locked lovers,
and funeral go-toers
“For what wears down your sole
Works in you to raise your soul
for on holy ground, you stand,
I made it so.”
From the anonymous poem “City Paths”[i]
This ugly, tarmac, dirty footpath is not holy ground, so I was prone to protest as I walked suburban streets in January this year. I was sponsored to walk a hundred miles in the month and I deliberately chose to walk the same route of about three miles every day so I didn’t have to think too hard during an otherwise busy month. Over the thirty-one days I learned all the nooks, crannies and cracks of the walk. Met the frequent dog-walkers and the one-time passers by off to a funeral, or the pub, or both. It was, mostly, an unremarkable path. But, something kept nagging me about “holy ground” but I persisted in my resistance that this was holy. The route had not been declared “holy” or “sacred” nor had centuries of pilgrims trod the path before me on a way-marked route guaranteed to lead to a holy place. Yet, over the course of the hundred miles, something began to change in me that transformed by ambivalence about tarmac which had seen better days into a eucharistic connection with this holy ground. This trammeled tarmac woke up something of God within me.
This has come back to mind since I joined in the “Camino to COP” as pilgrims passed through my circuit between Malvern and Worcester. The route was designed to get us from A to B and had no particular historical significance as far as we knew. Nevertheless, we reflected in our ramblings about what made this a pilgrimage as we weren’t following, as we would perhaps usually do on such a journey, a path described as sacred.
Was it a pilgrimage, we wondered, because we were walking it with a holy intention – to highlight the cause for climate justice and to demand that proper action is taken when the COP meets in Glasgow in November? Yes, that is surely part of it within the great tradition of historical marches – Jarrow, Salt and Washington to name a few.
But I’ve been troubled that this reduces the potential for holiness to what humans can do to the earth. We make it holy by walking it? Isn’t the ground already holy because it is made and shaped by the creator’s hand. It was God, remember, who declared the ground on which Moses stood as holy. We forget to our peril that Genesis tells us God formed humanity out of the ground of earth, and to the earth we shall all return. And isn’t it the attitude that we have complete dominion and control over the earth that has got us into the mess we were walking about anyway?
So I wonder if the pilgrimage was having the opposite effect. The holy earth shaping holiness in us as we felt the connection between our bodies and the ground under our feet pulling us closer and reminding us that we are all part the wholeness of creation. Reminding us that neither earth nor humanity can fulfil our destiny to flourish in God’s gaze if we don’t recognise the holiness in each.
The pilgrimage led me to a “thin place,” where, as Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in place between worlds, beyond experience”[ii]
Which led to that led to the great hymn in Paul’s letter to the saints in Philippi:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”[iii]
For Jesus chose a non-violent path of humility that opened up the possibility of new life.
A Camino to COP reminds me that I need to let go of my vested interests in our domination over the earth and our siblings for whom climate’s crisis has a greater devastating impact than I can ever imagine. We are all holy, shaped by God in God’s image and that’s why we need COP26 to deliver a holy justice.
[ii] Kerri ní Dochartaigh, “thin places”, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2021), p.23
[iii] Philippians 2:5 & 8 [NRSV]