Walking to Rome – interview with Mary Kirk

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 14.32.18Mary Kirk, 69, from the Harleston end of the parish, will start her pilgrimage to Rome from Canterbury on Sunday 1 May. The website team has interviewed her before her departure on this 2000km journey on foot – through France, Switzerland and Italy.

MéridaQ: The first question must, obviously, be why?

Mary: There are so many reasons! So it may take some space to explain them.

I have now walked several Caminos to Santiago de Compostela (from Vézelay in Burgundy and along the Camino Francés in 2011, the Primitivo from the Asturias in 2012, the Via de la Plata from Seville in 2013, and the Camino Inglés in 2015). One or two of these routes are at saturation point, and would-be pilgrims are choosing other ways to Santiago, which in turn will become crowded. So I looked for a road less well travelled.

I have never been to Rome. As a Catholic Rome is one of the cradles of my faith, and the seat of the Church in which I have chosen to remain a worshipper, despite its failings, corruptions and scandals, and my many attempts to break away over the years. I have also spent very little time in Italy in my life, and my Camino experience has taught me that walking through a country is an excellent way to meet “real” people, taste life there without the trappings of tourism.

Q: What is the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk?

Mary: Simply, a pilgrimage is a journey to a place of spiritual importance. That place could be within oneself, or to a physical location. Traditionally and historically Christians undertook to travel to a shrine or holy place to venerate a saint or place of holy significance – for the good, or possibly the salvation of, one’s soul. For Muslims the hajj to Mecca is one of the Seven Pillars of Islam. These journeys were often arduous, lengthy and frequently dangerous, and their completion was “rewarded” with some spiritual benefit – an indulgence, or forgiveness of past sins.

Today pilgrimage has seen a great revival. Millions go to Catholic shrines – Lourdes, Medjugorje, Fatima, Knock, Walsingham. These modern voyages to holy places are often by coach or plane, and the pilgrim stays in a hotel. The great medieval pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela has known a huge growth in popularity in the past two decades, with around a quarter of a million making their way there on foot, bicycle or horseback each year.

It is a cliché these days to use the word “journey” to describe a learning experience, but the many who have walked – for example – across Spain or even across Europe some of the many caminos to Santiago will affirm that it is the process of travelling many hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres that has the most profound and transformative effect on them – rather than the achievement of arrival. The journey is within ourselves.

Q: Did you decide to go this year because the Pope has declared it a Year of Mercy – a jubilee year?

Mary: That is an added spiritual bonus (though the downside is that the Italian stages of the journey as one nears Rome will be very crowded), but in fact I decided before the Pope announced the Year of Mercy. However, the many Doors of Mercy in churches and cathedrals which will be open are wonderful symbolic gestures of reconciliation, and the possibility of forgiveness. I think that to recognise one’s need of mercy is to take a first step on a pilgrim road that can lead to wholeness.

Q: What do you get out of these pilgrimages?

Mary: A pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, pains and pleasures; with its turning upside-down of plans, its encounters with the unexpected; with the people who cross one’s path, and the people with whom one walks a stretch and more. As in life, it is how one deals with all of this that brings to light one’s true self, and the necessity of transformation.

Setting off at dawn, in the cool of the day

Setting off at dawn, in the cool of the day

There is something about the steady daily plod, the rhythm of walk, eat, sleep; walk, eat, sleep that teaches a type of mindfulness, a living within the moment. There is space to think, or space to empty one’s head; time to pray; and freedom to just be. There is the liberty of the open road. I was an only, and a lonely, child, and I shall have been a widow for 30 years in 2016. For me to have to share – cramped dormitories, unisex washing facilities, enforced closeness – does not come easily, and is one reason I undertake these trips: it is good for me. There are dormitory companions with their snores and smells; there is drenching rain, burning sun, blisters, injuries, bed bugs, missed turnings and miles to return, exhaustion, and food that falls short in amount or nutritious value. It is life in all its fullness, and maybe also a life that gives a minute, privileged, and temporary glimpse into what it is to be less fortunate.

Q: What else attracts you to pilgrimage?

Mary: The encounters above all. The Christ-like kindness of people; the needs and difficulties of others. You go very deep quickly when you’re walking with people, and when – like the disciples who met Christ on the road to Emmaus – you break bread with them at the end of the day. For me this is church, more so for me than parish life where sometimes love can seem to lack. I could say it is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

Q: Isn’t it a rather privileged thing to do? Some might call it self-indulgent.

Mary: Yes, it is a privilege, and one for which I’ve been saving from my pension for some time. At times it is anything but self-indulgent when you’re soaked or cold or sun-burned, homesick, in pain, and weary from 20 miles nearly every day. I do feel slightly uncomfortable about the morality, or otherwise, of walking south with my nice rucksack and new boots, when so many are struggling in desperation to come north from the horrors of war and starvation. Because of this I have set up two “Just Giving” pages on my blog site (http://quovadis-walkingtorome.uk) for Shelter and for Refugee Action. It would be wonderful if people could support these causes.

Q: Do you carry everything with you?

Harleston Pilgrim

Harleston Pilgrim

Mary: Yes, and I always carry too much! It takes discipline to root out what is not strictly necessary. I’m not good at that (though the picture which looks as though I’m carrying a house on my back is deceptive: there were actually two rain covers on my rucksack which were puffed out by the wind. I’m not that masochistic!). The modern-day pilgrim needs a lot of technology – chargers for mobile phones and iPad (for my blog), as well as a sleeping bag, mat, guide books, rain gear, spare clothes, trekking poles, and emergency rations.

What I do hope to carry with me is the prayer requests of people in the parish, for I can promise to pray these every day – so please do get in touch (mary.kirk@btopenworld.com) before I go if you need prayer. What I don’t carry is the burden of being known: no-one knows my past, my problems, my prejudices, my drivers, unless I choose to share these. The people I meet have no pre-conceptions about me. That is very liberating.

Q: Finally, I think I’m getting that you like a challenge. Is that so?

Mary: Yes! But probably more so in retrospect. I’ll tell you more in three months’ time.