I was on holiday on Orkney at the beginning of September and an interesting signboard right next to my cottage caught my attention. It is one of a series of information boards for the stages of the St Magnus Way, a recently created walking route tracing, roughly, the medieval route on which the bones of St Magnus, martyred on the island of Egilsay, were transferred from Birsay, on the northwest corner of Mainland Orkney, where they originally rested, to Kirkwall, where the cathedral now bears his name. The normal information you would expect for a walking route is there on the boards, a map, for instance, and you might expect hints about the flora and fauna, promises of dolphin sightings on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, exact timings for reaching the top of Swiss mountains, but this Way is described as a Pilgrimage Route, a ‘journey of spiritual significance …rooted in the Christian faith ….but welcoming all people and faith perspectives.’ For each of the 6 stages along the 50 mile Way an information board offers Questions for the Journey on 6 themes of Loss, Growth, Change, Forgiveness, Hospitality and Peace – these last two ring Benedictine bells!
The board next to my cottage is the second stage on the route and asks the walker to consider the theme of Growth. Questions are offered for meditation :
Who has inspired you to grow as a person? Why have they been so influential?
What circumstances in your life have helped you to grow? Was it because, or in spite, of what happened that you grew?
In what areas of life do you feel you have most room still to grow? Are there any areas where growth feels stunted or thwarted?
This took me down a thought path and suddenly the idea of growth was everywhere – in the Gospels, in the Psalms, in sermons, in the Rule, in reading, but also in shared prayer sessions on Zoom, in reflections on Facebook, in novels and poetry. I have found the St Magnus Way questions on growth a particularly good starting point for extended reflection, not only on whether I am, generally speaking, growing as a Christian person, but also whether I am challenged to grow specifically as a Benedictine Oblate.
On the Oblate Retreat Day this summer Bishop Richard Moth spoke about the journey of the Oblate Life, how the initial stage of living the vocation is marked often by enthusiasm and excitement. I suspect his comments made many of us reflect on those happy times and wonder how we ‘lost’ that sense of discovery and direction. I have not tackled the 50 miles of the St Magnus Way for knee-related reasons, though Orkney has few hills, but I have done a few stretches of it and I recognise from a lifetime of walking the enthusiasm of putting the boots on after breakfast and launching happily into the landscape. By lunchtime I can guarantee, particularly if the weather has taken a damp/chilly/windy turn, that I will be aware that trekking up mountains is not all undiluted joy. This has, however, actually never prevented me from making it to the top eventually.
In the spiritual life, the Oblate life, too, the going becomes more challenging, maybe less interesting. Maybe it is, as it were, raining in my spiritual life. At this point it may be good to ask ourselves who or what inspired our Oblate vocation. Can I recall the moment I made my initial enquiry? How did we feel we grew at that time? What seeds were planted in the ground of our life as an Oblate, and are they now wilting for lack of nurturing, or have they been swamped by weeds? Do we need to re-plant, prune? Where has flowering and harvest somehow failed to appear? Did I sow enthusiasm, attentiveness, patience, creativity, joy, humility, constancy, peace?
God is not interested in the weeds. We can waste a lot of spiritual energy thinking about the weeds in our lives and getting depressed about it. What Our Lord offers is Life. Life means growth. If I am not growing, I am not fully alive. My age in years is no barrier to inner growth, whatever physical issues remind me of the fact that I am inexorably, slowly falling apart at the seams! I am very aware that in all aspects of life, as the years move on, I may be settling for being less than I could be in relationships, above all in my relationship with Our Lord. Am I still making efforts to be open to development, to new ways of being, praying, relating, to enjoying the creative use of the gifts God has given me? And one of these gifts is the Rule. This is, as it happens, the 25th anniversary year of my Oblation, so I am conscious of the need for reviewing my Oblate-ness, but for all of us NOW, TODAY is the hour for listening and accepting the challenge of growth to which we are invited.
St Magnus, pray for us!
Oblate of Stanbrook Abbey