"I think you should go on this pilgrimage?" I looked at Tricia and knew she was right. Everything in me was resisting and looking for excuses. I was now in England two months and had settled into the hectic secretarial day of nine to five in busy central London. My next plan of action was perhaps a long weekend over in France. I was surprised at how quickly my friend and I had adapted to London life. From a rural West of Ireland town, to Dublin, to a multi-cultural city of many faiths and religions. It was all so interesting.
Travelling on the bus with a group of friends from the prayer group, I thought back on the scrapped plans for France and wondered what this Catholic Conference would be like. I knew in the quiet moments of the day, the Spirit of God was gently prompting me towards prayer, and I, thirsty for pure water, from early days in Ireland, drank deep from the celebration of daily Mass.
I was taken aback by the buzz of activity as I stepped down from the bus, stretching my legs and finding myself on solid ground. We were in the heart of beautiful countryside. Crops of golden wheat dotted the folding fields and narrow winding pathways marked the convenient shortcuts to the village one mile away. We had arrived in the North East of England at Our Lady's Shrine in Walsingham.
Groups of happy folk queued at the registration tent and as I joined the queue my eyes fell on the big notice pinned to the bill board outside. A long list of events were written up. Times of Mass, Confessions, talks, workshops, adoration, Divine Office, etc. Reading my face, one of the prayer group, Paul, laughed light heartedly and said "You don't have to attend them all. It's your choice!"
On the second day, now familiar with the routine and warmth of the entire event, I sat in the main tent to listen to the speakers and the workshops they would be presenting. The next priest introduced himself as Fr. Kevin. He invited us to join him for his session that afternoon. I knew he was the priest I was to listen to.
About thirty of us arrived at the quiet little chapel and sat before a humble gentle priest, whose love of God and every soul was in his smile and words. His 'talk' for his session was to be something that would have a lasting effect on me for the rest of my life, the seed that would grow, so gradually and carefully over time.
"What I want you to do is go out into the fields. Look for a spot where you can sit and enjoy God's creation around you. Find a place where you are completely alone and not near your friend or other member of the group. Then, stay there an hour, just listening. Don't bring anything with you, no writing pad, Bible, beads. Just sit in the quiet and listen to every sound around you - that's it."
As I sat there, beneath the tall trees, and only metres from rows of golden wheat, everything was quiet. Far in the distance the drone of a tractor faded gradually into the meandering roads. The softest swaying of flowers met with the mood, fanning away all fret and concerns. The birds chirped happily and then ceased as if they too rested in the Creator's silent presence. I didn't know it then, but as I completed the hour, I had given to God time that was to be the beginning of the gentle drawing into contemplative prayer. Prayer that would happen gradually and certainly, carved and etched by trials and tears, by joy and peace. But always with His grace at work. It was the little seed of quiet that found its way into my heart and silently rested there until it was to awake, under the watchful eye of the Spirit in the coming years.
The following morning Fr. Kevin slipped into the seat beside us for breakfast. "So, how did you find the pilgrimage?" I looked into the eyes that carried beauty and truth, and no doubt hidden concerns and personal crosses, and I thanked God for the gift of priesthood.