Fresh adventures in later years
As we get older, we need fresh adventures to keep us growing. Two new experiences I’ve been enjoying are short pilgrimages and retreats. The difference between a pilgrimage and a walk is subtle: I’d say a pilgrim is walking with a deliberate intent, such as meditation or healing, and often with a special destination, maybe a sacred site like Lindisfarne.
The difference between a retreat and just staying somewhere is subtle, and also about intent. I now try to have a few days away on my own twice a year when I can reflect, take stock, and set out some future intentions. Recently I did a self-guided retreat at the Northumbria Community, a centre in rural mid-Northumberland, inspired by the Celtic Christian monasteries which once flourished in this area.
One of the spiritual practices they encourage here is pilgrimage: the journey itself is a chance for prayer and contemplation, as well as the place you travel to. So I decide to do a day-long pilgrimage to the coast, a few miles away. Glancing at a map, I can see there’s no simple route, but there’s an interesting, tangled network of lanes and footpaths.
I’m just fifteen minutes into my hike when I need to check my route, and find I’ve left the map behind. I find this hilarious, a good cosmic joke. My book for Men Beyond 50 is eloquent about the way men love maps and knowing where their route options lie. I conclude I am meant to be a pilgrim without a map for the day, so I press on.
Lacking a map forces me to use other methods: observation, intuition, and asking strangers. All of these help, and at length I reach the goal I was aiming for, the delightful, small seaside town of Amble. When I get back later and review the map, I can see that my route was more long and wiggly than it could have been, but it was my own original creation, and I’m proud of it.
Well before I reach the coast, I am suffering from my other oversight: footwear. Travelling light on a 2-week tour of the North, I don’t have room for walking boots. So I have borrowed a pair of over-sized, thin-soled wellies. Their effect on my soles is like those meat tenderisers. And I still have to walk back! Is there a lesson in my suffering? I haven’t found it yet.
Spiritual communities are so varied, and this is an interesting new one for my collection. It’s diverse in age, gender and nationality, but aims for a monastic quality. You can see this in the simplicity of the lifestyle, and the rhythm of four services which guide you through the day. It’s a Christian community, but very welcoming to all. Services are led by different members of the community, and much of it is participatory. At Compline, the 9.30pm service for the end of the day, there is a prayer which everyone says in turn: My dear ones, O God, bless Thou and Keep, in every place where they are. Everyone is asked to sit in silent meditation for a few minutes before and after the services, and I felt this deepened them.
You may wonder, what did I get from my four days on retreat. Firstly, a sense of catching up with myself, and integrating a hectic and exciting period since New Year. Secondly, a sense of relaxing and expanding which I always find in the wise, empty, beautiful landscapes of Northumbria. Thirdly, deep gratitude for the resources, health and freedom to be here. And lastly, a sense of being nurtured by life, by Nature, by those close to me, and a calling to give out love and nurturance to everyone around me.
Days later, my feet are still sore, but that’s a useful reminder: you don’t have to be dependent on maps and boots, you can get by without them – but life’s easier with them!
Many aspects of this episode offer insights about creative ageing: finding new skills when we seem unprepared for the situation; handling stress with humour and inventiveness; taking time out; and letting the rhythms of community nourish us, in some form or other. All useful tips for the fresh adventures of life!