Duncan, one of the Kicking the Bucket team, writes:
I have recently returned from a trip to the isle of Iona, off the West coast of Scotland. It was my fifth visit there – the first was over fifty years ago. It was primarily a holiday, not a pilgrimage, but on Iona it is impossible to avoid the sacred history of the place and the fact that it has been visited by pilgrims for hundreds of years. Until the age of powered travel, just reaching Iona was a long journey, and sometimes a dangerous one. My wife and I walked there in the year 2000, as the destination of a trip which had started on Holy Island in Northumberland nearly two months previously. There was no danger, but travelling largely on foot did give a sense of distance which wheeled transport tends to diminish.
Making a long journey these days is a matter of routine for very many – be it a lengthy commute to work, or hopping on a plane for a weekend somewhere in Europe. Travelling, in these circumstances, tends to be seen as a necessary nuisance which has to be endured as a means of getting to the destination. Since the nineteenth century we have been seeking ever faster and more convenient ways to get about. The focus during the journey is on where we want to get to, not on where we are now. The travelling itself is rarely seen as having a value.
One of the merits of the old-fashioned – and now again increasingly popular- way of slow pilgrimage is that it makes the journey the important event. I talked recently to a couple who last year walked the “Camino” to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It was clear that what stood out for them in their memories was not primarily their reaching the place, but the countryside they had been through on the way and the people that they had journeyed with.
One of the consequences of our very busy lives can be that in our heads we are always preoccupied with where we want to get to, and not where we are now. We are always rushing through this task or this journey in order to get to the next activity or place – only to find, when we do get there, that our mind has already pushed on ahead to the next place.
It was my observation from working in a hospice that the people who were most at ease with their approaching end tended to be those who had stopped hurrying. By and large they didn’t have a huge “bucket list” of things that they felt that they had to do before they died. They weren’t living in the future, because the future was so uncertain. They were living, as far as they were able, in the present moment – appreciating what the moment had to give them. I often felt envious of their simultaneous detachment and presence: detached from the hurly-burly of life, much of it unnecessary, but very aware of their immediate surroundings, and of the people that they were amongst.
Remembering – even celebrating- our mortality can be therapeutic if it helps us to pay more attention to the now. Trying to live ahead of ourselves isn’t what brings contentment.