Taking to the road

December 9, 2008 in General, News

pilgrimage_01.jpgInspired by the example of the early Jesuits, two of the staff of Slí Eile, Padraig Swan, director, and Noelle Fitzpatrick, took off recently on a ‘pilgrimage experiment’. What this entails – as Jesuit novices well know – is spending some time on the road, without bags or baggage, completely reliant on the kindness of strangers. It is a valuable way to get a small bit of first-hand experience of radical poverty, and it disposes one to seek God in an ambience free of clutter. Padraig writes an account of his experience below.

The real spirit of Christmas is alive and well

by Padraig Swan, director of Slí Eile

This is a very simple story that contains a very profound experience. The experience that thankfully brings the real meaning of Christmas to life.

It’s the story of 2 young people that decided to take a journey of faith and trust into a bitterly cold winter weekend with no means of transport, €6 in their pocket, no bed to stay in and no food to eat. A story of the humility that this “nothingness” brings, and the irony of the immense richness that it brought.

At this time of the year we see all around us the preparations for the season of Christmas, and particularly this Advent of 2008, we are all consumed by the woes of the financial crisis and the possible return to days of high unemployment and emigration. A current advert in a pharmacy window reads “It’s the season for over indulgence”, and the advert promotes a product to treat this. We have created a market for over eating and then another for the products that attempt to remedy this. There are stories of people frantically buying gifts for family and friends just to satisfy an expectation. The gift may not be wanted or needed by the recipient, or even affordable by the giver. (For sure, there is genuine sharing of gifts of love and it’s not to forget or take from that. But this story attempts to reflect another side). Is this the society we have become? Is this what Christmas is really all about?

Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus and the living presence of God in our lives and in the society that we live in. This is manifested by a spirit of openness, generosity and trust. Last weekend (Dec 5th-7th) we, 2 young adults, went on a pilgrimage to a monastic site in the midlands and encountered the real spirit of Christmas – alive and well in the Ireland of 2008. In the midst of the troubles that we face as a society, there is real hope.

The journey began with a one way train ticket to get out of the city to a rural midlands town. On the train, the feelings of fear of the unknown were very real. We are 2 so-called educated and intelligent young people that were prepared to walk into a dark winters night with no clue of what the next hours or days held. Were we mad? What could possibly have possessed us? What did inspire us was the desire to experience the humility of engaging strangers and accepting the generosity that we hoped would follow. For us, it was a true journey of trust in the living God that we celebrate at Christmas.

Standing outside the railway station at 7pm on the first stage of our “pilgrimage” we decided that hitching lifts would be fruitless in a dark night on a country road, so we planned to engage people at a local petrol station and explain our story. What followed was an amazing journey.

Our first experience was a lift from a man who came from South Africa. In all, we met 24 strangers on our journey from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. 10 of them were foreign nationals that have come to make a home in our gracious country and they chose to give their generosity back in abundance. From the spoken and unspoken gestures of willingness to help, to the actual generosity given, it was truly amazing.

One man who had travelled 20 kilometres to the point we met him had offered to travel back the 20 kilometres to get us to our destination even though he was going the opposite direction. He was from Algeria. Another lady wanted to take us into her home for the night but because we were strangers and she had children in her home she put her children’s safety first. Perfectly understandable. BUT she opened her heart and was willing to take us in. She was from Hungary.

We knocked on doors and met strangers on the icy roads, all the time telling our story of travelling on a pilgrimage with nothing. We simply spoke and waited for the response. It’s the same waiting that we live through during Advent – waiting to celebrate the tangible presence of God in our lives.

After knocking on a few different doors on Friday night, we received a floor to put our heads down in a local Baptist church, preceded by an open welcome from the new pastor and his family. On Saturday morning we spent hours talking to a young man about religion, politics and the simplicity of living in a country town. He then gave us a lift to a safe point outside the town as the road we chose to walk on was treacherous and dangerous. We exchanged contacts and vowed to write expressing our own gratitude. We walked many more miles to our selected monastic destination, at all times hoping for the generosity of another to reveal itself. At lunchtime on Saturday we met a woman who, having heard our story, offered a bed for the night and a meal, but as it was too early in the day to impose ourselves, we decided to travel onwards.

Friday night was bitterly cold, minus 5 degrees celsius. We couldn’t stay outdoors on Saturday night so we had to find a place to stay. After a few hours we thought about taking the safe option of going back to the woman that generously offered food and a bed. But we chose to trust in God and walk into the unknown. It was dark by now and the roads were very icy. After a few miles we met a man on the road and we shared our story.  Nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.

The man put out his hand, spoke his name and totally opened his heart and his home to us for the night. He stuffed an amount of money into our hands and brought us to the local supermarket to get food. He lit a roaring fire and we sat in front of it in pure wonder and awe. The same man had many issues going on in his own life that we came to share over a number of hours. And through all this he saw it fit to offer 2 strangers a most memorable experience of generosity and love that will never be forgotten. This was really a meeting with the living God of Christmas.

We woke up on Sunday morning to a beautiful frosty winter’s day and thanked God for our blessings. We walked for 11 kilometres in silence, reflecting on the events that we had just experienced. We got to the nearest town, and after hitch hiking on the side of the road, we received a fitting end to our journey when a young man who was shopping in a town 16 kilometres away, on hearing our story, travelled a full 50 kilometres to Dublin to take us home. Another act of pure generosity. Again, this is the real spirit of Christmas alive and well. 

This is a very simple story that contains a very profound experience. The experience that thankfully brings the real meaning of Christmas to life.  Happy Christmas!