Go for it!

November 21, 2023 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Getting my hair cut in North Belfast, I got into a conversation with the young barber about everything: life, its meaning, and religion. He told me how he loved nature and walking and would like to get more into it, but too often he just couldn’t get round to it. Trying to encourage him to follow his deeper desires (an Ignatian principle), I explained my Camino philosophy of ‘always go’ and get yourself out the door and walking before the brain starts undermining everything good! He liked that approach as it helped him to get closer to what he really wanted to do.

A few years ago, I remember leading a group through Wicklow to Glendalough. The weather was against us from the beginning, and it was tempting to call off the whole thing, but we decided we would try it for a day or two. On the second day, we all got a soaking from the incessant rain. Arriving at the mast on Kippure mountain, we had a miserable and cold lunch break. I decided to call off the rest of the walk and headed for the road where we were to be picked up by our support driver.

At the debrief that night I was amazed to hear people talk about how much they had got out of that day. The rain and heavy going (deep heather, peat hags and bog) brought out a solidarity and mettle in us that I will never forget. ‘Don’t worry about the weather, always go’ became our slogan. Waiting for ideal conditions or good weather, especially on the island of Ireland, means that you might never get on the move and so miss a great day out. Rain is uncomfortable but generally not fatal, especially if you’re wearing the appropriate gear!

On New Year’s Day some years ago, I had planned to climb Benwhisken in Sligo with some old school friends. We were put off by the morning rain hammering down in the windows but decided to go anyway. Miraculously conditions rapidly changed and our decision to brave the elements was rewarded with blue skies and a winter wonderland of fresh snow. It was probably one of the best walks ever. The unexpected and providential nature of it, expectations having been dramatically lowered, was what really made it. I always remember that day, the absolute gift that it was and how much I enjoyed every single moment. I continue to think though, ‘What if we hadn’t gone, what we would have missed?’, and the ‘always go’ slogan is once again reinforced.

On the Slí Cholmcille 2023 the weather forecast was not good for the week and if we had believed it we might never have left home! The reality was we had two wet afternoons and the rest was lovely walking weather, and even included a few sunny days. At one point it was raining everywhere else in Ireland but for the extreme northwestern tip or Donegal, proof again of the pilgrim’s trust in Providence and the need to just get out there. Paradoxically, even the rainy days failed to dampen our spirits, and one day we had a beautiful walk across a bog road from Creeslough to Glenveagh, we were surrounded by running water and full watercourses, a unique Irish ‘desert’ experience.”

Some advice from St Ignatius Loyola can be helpful here. There are life decisions that can be very challenging, and we become frightened as we get close to having to make them. An Ignatian rule of thumb is to stick to good decisions made previously in consolation (a felt sense of God’s presence, a sense of light and life) acknowledging that these may not always feel great when it comes to the time to implement them.

Another helpful ‘rule’ is to act against ‘desolation’ (dryness and emptiness) or being taken to dark and isolating places. Paradoxically you can be going through a difficult time – recovering from illness, facing into something scary or struggling to get back on your feet – and yet still be in consolation because you know you are doing the right thing.

Anxiety and fear can often throw us off making good decisions, leaving us trapped and immobile and not really dealing with things. The key to realising what is good and from God is in recognizing and paying attention to the deeper feelings (peace/rightness) inside yourself, not the superficial ones (enjoyment/distaste). Also, to note if you are travelling towards growth and genuine happiness or away from it.

It is probably true to say of life as a whole that we can easily get put off by apparently daunting situations or what seems like insurmountable difficulties. Indeed, there may well be situations that lie beyond our capabilities which would be unwise to tackle – so obviously, some discretion is called for.

However, it is also true that anxieties and fears can dominate our thinking to such an extent that we are afraid to move or take any risk at all. Often it can be helpful to test the water with a decision and see what emerges. Or to take advice, make a move and evaluate if it is possible.

The Camino pilgrimage is helpful in this regard. There is a rule of thumb when thinking about abandoning the Camino – get out the door next day and see if you can walk a few kilometers at least. This often helps overcome negative thinking and is empowering as it helps you realise how much you can do by lowering expectations, so they become manageable. In our modern world, anxiety, fear and over caution are often elevated to such an extent that we are rendered immobile. ‘Always go’, or at least ‘try it and see’ can be a helpful approach to living a more fulfilling pilgrim life in line with our deeper desires and hopefully with what God wants of us.