Pilgrimage in the pandemic

Bridging the gap between school and church

The most positive ‘pivot’ of my pandemic experience so far was to convert our usual indoor ‘prayer journey’ for local Year 6s into a pilgrimage to church.

A new spiritual experience

Knowing that church volunteers visiting the school hall for a morning of sharing equipment and close conversation was firmly off the agenda, I signed up to the diocesan ‘introduction to pilgrimages’ session, hoping to hit upon an alternative. It was the most inspiring and creative hour I’ve spent on Zoom, covering a (brief!) history of pilgrimage, explanations of how a modern pilgrimage can be organised and the fantastic suggestion that a simple journey from school to church could begin to heal the gap that’s opened up between us with visits cancelled and only online assemblies. I signed out believing that our difficult circumstances might open up a new spiritual experience for the children that would be better than what’s gone before!

Like our church members, each school has a different idea of what they’re comfortable doing. I arranged one pilgrimage to church and one within the confines of the playing field.

As a children and families worker, I am used to filling my garage with random items ahead of events, and the school pilgrimage was no exception. I joined the Fish Society to get 10% off an order of 80 scallop shells, dug out the rainbow-shaped post-its I’d bought on spec knowing they’d have a part to play in something soon, and dragged the dusty and exceptionally heavy box labelled ‘prayer stones’ out of the church cupboard. The night before the first walk I even made myself a pilgrimage flag to carry, after a sudden panic that most of the Year 6s were likely to tower over me as I sought to guide them up the road to St James’ Ruscombe!

Leaving fears behind

The pilgrimage aimed to help Year 6s reflect on their time at primary school, leave behind any regrets or fears and share their hopes for the future. We gathered in the playground, where the children used their set of six rainbow sticky notes to record memories from each phase of school before creating a class rainbow of reflections. I was struck by how many school trips and performances featured in their reflections; highlights of school life that have been impossible in the past 18 months.

Our rainbow complete, we introduced the children to the age-old pilgrimage practice of selecting a stone to carry part of the way to represent a worry or a fear. They each chose a rock enthusiastically, and after a blessing from the vicar, our journey began with the challenge to notice something new on what would be a familiar route to many.

We gathered on the green outside the churchyard and formed a massive circle, before encouraging each pupil in turn to place their stone on the class cairn and lay down their worry. It was incredibly moving to witness such a calm and private moment, which every 11-year-old entered into respectfully, brought to a close with a simple prayer.

The path ahead

There were audible ‘wows’ as the children and their teachers entered our smallest, oldest and arguably most beautiful church, a church we don’t normally invite schools to because of its size and lack of loos! I had scoured the extensive guidebook for a handful of facts I thought would be most interesting to a Year 6 and hidden these in their pews for them to share with the class.

Having carried a natural object on their journey to church, we gifted each child a scallop shell to carry home and keep. The squeals of delight from this supposedly screen-obsessed, virtual-reality generation at being given a shell were truly humbling and made me glad I’d joined the Fish Society! As they held their treasure, we discussed the symbolism of the shell before leading simple prayers looking to the future.

Do the lines stretching out along your scallop make you think about the paths you will take?

Is the shell an empty space waiting to be filled by future friends, gifts and experiences?

The return to school was joyful and finished in the playground where we gave out pilgrimage certificates printed with an Irish blessing, which the children read out to each other.

We will never get back the time lost with our local school children since March 2020, but I hope that the pilgrimage gave each of them a final, special memory of their school’s relationship with their church, plus a shell treasure reminding them that God holds them in the palm of his scallop-shaped hands.

Ele Buckley

Children & Families Worker, Benefice of Ruscombe & Twyford with Hurst

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May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm

upon your face,

the rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you

in the palm of His hand.