It was a humbling experience to be in Paris last weekend when pilgrims arrived from all over the world. I had walked with the UK ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’ group for a day, between Burgess Hill and Brighton, and saw them off along the south coast the next morning. It was great to see them again at the completion of their journey. Other groups had walked from other parts of Europe. One group had come from Peru and Yeb Sano had led a walk from the Philippines via Rome. Some had cycled from the UK and one couple had cycled from Vietnam: 16,000km.
I was so pleased to meet Yeb Sano, who has been such an inspiration since he fasted at the Warsaw climate summit in 2013 following the devastation caused to his homeland by Typhoon Haiyan. We’ve fasted and prayed for the climate. We’ve stood in the sea and prayed for the climate and those already being affected by climate change. And some have walked and cycled for the climate, to be in Paris for this super-important UN summit. People can be amazing.
Sometimes I think you just have to get on with something. These are all ordinary people, just doing something because something has to be done. Fast. Pray. Walk. They are small gestures that may never be more than that, but may connect with others and build something significant. In any case, I think that small gestures, motivated by love and by dis-satisfaction with the alternatives, are easily aligned with the redemptive love of God and so tend to be transformed, and to transform, way beyond their own essence, like a seed springing to life.
All of these journeys demonstrate an alternative reality. At its most basic, this says that you can go from A to B using your own natural resources. You don’t need oil, just time. Each step, each turn of the pedals, moves you along the earth a little. The gradient rises and falls. The wind blows in your face and through the autumn grass. The rain falls and you get wet. There may not be a toilet or a shop. You are a pilgrim on the earth, connected to the land on which you travel – you don’t get that in a car or a train and definitely not in a plane. Then companions make the journey far richer, and perhaps make it possible at all. That all adds up to a powerful alternative reality.
One of the pilgrims told me that she wouldn’t have described herself as gregarious, but she had learned what a wonderful and beautiful thing it is to be in community with others. After two weeks in close company, when one of the beds on offer in their lodging in Paris was in a room on its own, no one wanted to take it.
This demonstrates one way in which a gesture can be transformed into a larger reality. This person’s choice to be part of the pilgrimage transformed her desires, through experiencing a depth of comradeship that she would otherwise have avoided, but now really values. I have found something similar through my year’s fast from meat. As a meat lover, I have sometimes craved it, but I find that now that I have ended the fast, my desire for it has almost disappeared. (That is why freedom comes through discipline rather than through licence, I think). Eating less meat and, to a much greater extent, deeper communal bonds are features of a life with lower adverse ecological impact. It may even be a life that puts more in than it extracts.
Mary Grey (e.g. Sacred Longings, SCM, 2002) and others have argued that we are motivated and shaped by our desires. The negative, reductionist campaigning that can typify the environmental movement, ignores this to the peril of us all. We need our desires to be transformed so that what we long for inspires us to a better world. We need to be able to articulate those desires so that we can identify them, communicate them with others and so that they can be continually reformed.
The very recent history of Paris puts two alternative visions into stark contrast. A wounded, grieving, frightened and angry city, following the terrorist shootings on 13th November, could easily lead the world along a road of security through the barrel of a gun, and there were lots of guns on show in Paris last weekend in the hands of lots of police and soldiers. We easily slip into this narrative, which George Orwell summed up in one of the slogans of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “War is Peace”. It’s a narrative of self-defence and justifies the division, the hoarding of wealth and the utilitarian view of resources that brings us to war and ecological catastrophe. To borrow from Jesus’ parable, it’s an easy, wide, obvious road – a road you go down by default, with the flow.
On the other hand, the pilgrimages, the demonstrations all over the world on Sunday, the fasting and the praying and all the other ways in which people have shown support for a good deal from this UN climate summit, all point to an alternative. It is less obvious. It looks harder going, rocky, narrow and steep. You have to make a deliberate choice to travel it. People will think you’re stupid: standing in water – what’s that going to achieve? Well, if you’re priests carrying the Ark of God in the days of Joshua, it will open a way into the Promised Land, but you have to get your feet wet before the waters part.
The pilgrims got their feet wet. They have been changed through their experiences of the journeys they have made: the distances, the landscapes, the comradeship, the hospitality of strangers. In the deeper connections they have forged on the journeys they have chosen, the larger journey to the Promised Land is already underway.