The ups and downs of a pilgrim’s path with Parkinson’s

I’d like to begin this blog by recommending a film called ‘The Way’ (2010) (starring Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt) which tells the story of four unlikely pilgrims walking one of the most famous pilgrimages – to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I watched this gentle uplifting film last week while on a ‘Thinking Faith’ retreat at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. My week off work was far from just relaxing and watching films though. The theme for the week was pilgrimage and we were in the beautiful Lake District so of course there was (quite a bit of) walking involved…

Although I had been looking forward to the week, I was a little concerned about hiking in the Lake District each day as I am not used to that type of undulous walking and would have found it challenging even before I had Parkinson’s. With my Parkinson’s having progressed recently, I was grateful that there would be options for slightly shorter walks or missing out walks and resting if necessary. Although I knew everyone would be supportive and very accommodating, I didn’t want to slow the group down or cause unnecessary inconvenience.

Each day consisted of a longish walk – mini walking pilgrimages to various Holy places including Furness Abbey and Lingard’s House in Hornby. I thought carefully about how much I could sensibly manage and planned accordingly, assessing how I felt each day.

For me, the most important part of a pilgrimage is the journey – usually involving some hardship or challenges – and those making the journey with you. The most memorable walk for me was at the beginning of the week. It involved some steep sections which were rewarded with some amazing views. We ended up taking an unexpected detour via a particularly challenging steep route and I have to admit I struggled. A lot. Especially as it was at a time when my medication had not yet kicked in. A trough in my daily medication cycle coinciding with an uphill climb! I’m so very grateful that I had help from my fellow pilgrims who took my hands, helping and guiding me (even climbing backwards in some sections) as I slowly took each shaky step, one at a time. I was scared at every step but I knew I had to keep going, and with so much support from my fellow pilgrims, I eventually made it to the top. Unfortunately it turned out that we had taken a wrong turn and the safest route was to go back down the way we had just come! We joined together in prayer and by God’s grace we made it back down again, and in fact it wasn’t quite the struggle we all thought it would be. It was quite an adventure and certainly provided some hardship to our pilgrimage that day. It also brought us closer together as a group of pilgrims, putting our faith in God, and walking together. While I can’t say I enjoyed every step of our pilgrimage that day (it’s hard to enjoy being quite so scared), it was an amazing day of ups and downs. And I feel very blessed to have shared the experience with my lovely and supportive fellow pilgrims.

Another important part of a pilgrimage for me is the other people you meet. People from all walks of life who you may only meet briefly, but who leave a real impact on you. For me, one highlight of the week was our time spent with the Cenacolo community. The Cenacolo community helps people who have struggled with addiction to rebuild their lives, through living in a community, friendships, prayer and working together. It was a real privilege and a humbling experience to be welcomed at Cenacolo and to hear two members of this community share their dark experiences of addiction and how through Cenacolo they were rebuilding their lives. I was so moved by their stories. I have experienced a few particularly challenging periods in my life when I felt lost, but I just cannot even imagine struggling through such dark times for years, and then slowly turning your life around. They showed such strength and courage. It was inspiring seeing the grounds and the fruits of their labour. A true testament to the presence of God’s grace. It reminded me to focus on the many blessings in my life – something I intend to remember next time I feel like I am having a hard time.

I walked 37 pilgrim miles or 91,640 steps last week – which is a more than I thought I would manage. I’m proud of myself for pushing myself walking as far as I did, and I am sure it was good exercise and helped me to stay fighting fit with Parkinson’s, but I feel most blessed by how far I’ve come on my pilgrim journey, which is something that cannot be measured by numbers.

A pilgrimage can transform you. I came home with a few blisters and a bit of a tan. The blisters will heal and the tan will fade with time. But I also came home with renewed faith and new found friendships… and I know my faith will continue to grow and the new friendships I’ve formed will grow too and last way beyond this retreat.

I’ve returned feeling physically exhausted and it will no doubt take me a while to get back to normal. But I also feel mentally, emotionally and spiritually uplifted and inspired and stronger. And I am determined that Parkinson’s is … not going to stop me from being the best pilgrim I can be.

This blog is dedicated to my fellow Thinking Faith 2019 pilgrims who all inspired me in different ways. Thank you all for a wonderful week.

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