Can you do a pilgrimage on bicycles – a proper pilgrimage, that is? This was the question Ola Isacsson, pilgrimage officer in Växjö diocese, was trying to answer by organising a cycle-pilgrimage from Jönköping to Växjo at the end of May. Going by bike would mean the problems occasioned for walking pilgrims by the long distances between shops and places to stay in parts of Småland would disappear – no need, certainly, for support vehicles to carry food and baggage.
The 100 mile route was to be covered in three days with stops for buying food and for praying and resting at the churches en route. There’d be a communion service at the Pilgrim Centre at Nydala, where the remains of a Cistercian Abbey still accommodate regular worship, and the pilgrimage would culminate with a special Pilgrim Service in Växjö Cathedral at which other pilgrims would join the cyclists. One night would be spent at Tallnäs, the diocesan conference centre and another at Asa Youth Hostel.
Accordingly, a group of seven cyclist-pilgrims (another joined later) assembled at Jönköping railway station on the morning of Ascension Day. It was an ecumenical group – Church of Sweden people, priests and laity, men and women, a Church of England priest (male) and a Roman Catholic layman. The weather was set fair and the climb up from Vättern lake out of Jönköping after morning prayer in the Sofia Church proved easy enough. Food was bought and eaten, further churches were visited and further prayers said, rest was taken, the sunlit countryside appreciated and conversation, on and off the bicycles, enjoyed. (Conversation: there was a question answered – there was plenty of opportunity on smaller Småland roads to talk to a companion riding alongside; equally, if some meditative, quiet space on one’s own, as it were, was sought, it too could be found as one rode.) When the going got tough and the sense of physical effort dominated, one could think of oneself as ‘praying with the body’, offering the effort to Christ. We reached Tallnäs with the sense of an experiment successfully conducted (for all the occasional recalcitrance of bicycle chains), happy to cool feet in the lake and with appetites in good condition to make the most of the excellent supper provided. A minor snag: Tallnäs was hosting large numbers of confirmation candidates and these lively fifteen-year-olds saw to it that the night’s rest was not all it might have been (the bells! the bells!) but we survived and were eager to get on the bikes the following morning.
It was a short stretch to Tofteryd Church where we said Morning Prayer and not far from there to Nydala where we celebrated a Pilgrimsmässa, a style of Holy Communion currently rather widely used in Sweden, where pilgrimage is so popular. It’s a moving experience to worship in this ancient Cistercian place and to sense its growing importance in the revival of the classic medieval spiritual practice of pilgrimage – a number of pilgrim trails now converge on Nydala. (Opportunities exist to join the staff at the centre during the summer to help with pilgrimage and related activities – and if anyone has a million pounds or so to spare, the old manor house is crying out to be developed for some kind of shared Lutheran-Anglican endeavour cognate with pilgrimage.) After lunch we continued south along Rusken lake until the turn off for Gamla Hejlmseryd Church where, needing to get back to England for the Sunday, I had to go on back to Växjö on my own.
So was it a proper pilgrimage? From my admittedly truncated experience, I’d say so. Time out of the everyday routine, formal prayer, meditative attentiveness to God, closeness to the natural world and renewed appreciation of it, companionship, journeying unhurriedly towards a goal and the sense of achievement on reaching journey’s end and of God’s help in making it – such characteristic components of pilgrimage were all part the experience. If anything, I’d say we had it too easy; there wasn’t much of what I tend to find on foot pilgrimages – those passages of the journey, perhaps boring, perhaps physically uncomfortable, that just have to be got through but which help validate pilgrimage as a metaphor for the journey of life. But did I feel blessed? Yes. Had I come closer to God? I think perhaps I had.
Ola hoped the cycle pilgrimage idea might be useable on people’s home-ground, wherever that might be. Oxon, Berks and Bucks are perhaps too car-ridden to be absolutely ideal territory for this mode of pilgrimage – even in the much emptier Småland the distracting cry of ‘bil’ (‘car’) went up more frequently than one would have wished. But, still, it might be worth trying to link up our official Oxford diocese pilgrim places into a route which opts as much as possible for the back roads and testing the experience of riding it. Or maybe something a little less ambitious first time round?! In any case, preferably with Swedish friends. Do be in touch if you’re interested.