A Pilgrimage of Faith – a description of everyday Chaplaincy
To go on pilgrimage at first sounds like doing something special or extra, over and above the ordinary stuff of life. Pilgrimage involves a journey with both outer and inner dimensions seeking more of the sacred. But as I pondered the title of this edition of Cross Currents I found myself thinking about how my everyday role of chaplaincy might be viewed as a pilgrimage of faith.
Certainly I physically travel in this role. With the social work services scattered across Finsbury Park, Highbury and Islington, Marylebone, Camberwell and Lambeth, I am adroit and leaping on and off of tubes and buses. Nowadays I am one of those people who tries to get on a tube at the right point for the exit where I will be getting off. My preference is for the top deck of the bus where I get more of a view of London’s street, and when I am on foot my reputation is of darting across roads to walk the shortest distance possible.
As chaplain, my focus in on the sacred, the spiritual, the God stuff. Our dedicated specialist staff teams have the expertise to work with the people who come to us. I go to our social work services to be a visible sign of the presence of God with us all. Not that I am taking God to the services as though God is not there already. Where the care and compassion of Christ for the stranger and marginalized is expressed, God is. Where people hold onto faith amidst many trials and challenges, God is. This means I go to our services to meet with our users and residents with a sense of expectancy, wondering what the God of surprises might reveal in any forthcoming encounters, just as any pilgrim wonders what encounters will come their way that day.
And as for any pilgrim, there are times when I wonder what I am doing there: when the day room at the Haven empties of all residents and I am left sitting on my own; when a user at the Day Centre tells me in no uncertain terms that they don’t want to talk to anyone from the church; when the conversations I have, however pleasant, stay at a fairly superficial level. But also as for any pilgrim, there are times when I am stunned by the vista before me: the courage shown by someone in the face of all that life has thrown at them; the generosity of spirit that our users and residents show to one another; the deep, prayerful faith that someone tells me helps sustain them; the honesty and laughter in the spirituality group as people with very different perspectives share with one another. The fact that fellow pilgrims on life’s journey choose to share with me some of their deepest hopes and dreams, regrets and sorrows is a privilege indeed. It is not my legs that end up aching as a chaplain, but my heart.
So as for any pilgrim, it is important that I depend on God for strength for the journey. I value the sharing in prayer together for our work each Monday morning in the Social Work Central Office. But I have also learnt to pray my way into a particular service as I travel on tube, bus or foot. I hold before God the people I will meet there, service users and staff teams, remembering the last visit, putting down whatever administration tasks I have been doing and seeking to be open to what the Spirit will reveal. As I come away, I will also seek to trust all those I have met in the more than capable hands of our loving God. Now the danger is that this sounds somewhat super spiritual! So let me be honest and say I may also be thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch, dreaming of the next day off, or wondering just when I’m going to get to all those emails! But that’s one of the things about pilgrimage, sometimes we end up off the track, wondering about the route, or sure that we know best which way to go!
My experience as Social Work Chaplain is that God simultaneously beckons me on, and paces me, as I journey in faith.
Revd Ruth Bottoms, Chaplain to Social Work