Today is a celebration of journeys, of journeyers. To be honest, I never paid much attention to the Three Kings of the Christmas tale; their gaudy costumes seemed so out of place in the poverty of the manger scene. But here in Spain, the day of Epiphany is set aside as a celebration, in honour of those ancient stargazers. And every year I find myself more drawn into their story: what would make those men leave the familiar and the comfortable in order to pursue something that was so uncertain, and yet so full of promise?
There are, of course, times when we are forced to take journeys - whether physical or metaphorical - that we would rather not. I think of friends facing ill-health or the loss of a loved one, those who are travelling a road they would never have embarked on voluntarily. But if we choose our way, then surely some desire is drawing us, some sense of purpose is propelling us.
This Epiphany, the very notion of voyage is like a loose thread that I can’t stop messing with. Quite unbidden - like all the best moments of inspiration, I find - the thought came to me as January dawned: “You have never before been where we are going now.” And so I find myself thinking about the coming year as a sort of exploration of something new, an adventure into undiscovered territory.
What desire would draw me to take such a journey into the unknown?
What sense of purpose is sufficiently potent to propel me on my way?
As I write, Tim and a couple of friends are in the Axarquia area, hiking the route from El Robledal up to the 2,065m peak of La Maroma. One of the guys has hiked it before, but it is a new trail for Tim. New journeys mean the way is unfamiliar, we don’t know exactly what to expect of the route. We may have some idea of the elevation to be gained, or terrain to be navigated, but only when we are on our way do we really discover the level of difficulty, the views to be enjoyed, and the energy or fatigue we will experience.
The Magi, to return to those enigmas of Christ’s earthly arrival, set out on a long journey, along a route that we can assume was completely unfamiliar to them. They had certainly never before been where their journey led. Their motivation was not just to follow this unusual star, surely, but to respond to a thirst in their hearts for the promise the star predicted: a king and a kingdom, such as they’d never known.
Adventures of this kind are life-giving and energising;
but they can take us to the end of ourselves, beyond our natural capabilities.
Am I ready for the surrender this year’s pilgrimage will require?
There are four things I am keeping in mind as my own journey gets underway:
- Any serious sojourn requires a support crew.
Sometimes we travel with others, sometimes alone with our supporters at a distance. The Magi somehow found one another, companions with a shared desire, a common purpose, who were willing to pool resources to make this trek possible. The company of others strengthens us when we are taking strain, empowers us in ways we wouldn’t experience alone, and helps us to stay on track when we risk losing our way.
Who will be my journeying companions, this year, I wonder? How can I invite them to venture on together more closely than before?
2. Every quest is unpredictable: keep your wits about you.
This morning, as Tim and his buddies descended from their overnight camping spot, the mist closed in and suddenly visibility was severely reduced. The Magi must have faced many similar obstacles before they encountered Herod, the grand unpredictable challenge that meant they had to recalibrate their intended route. We all face these moments when it would be so easy to lose our way; I know I do.
How can I grow in discernment this year? What rhythms will help me to keep my wits about me as the journey unfolds?
3. The best of treks have both ups and downs.
As I think back over my most memorable hiking trails, the moments that especially shine are the uphill portions. I love gaining elevation and then finally realising a vantage point, from which I can appreciate the progress I have made and the beauty surrounding me. When I think of the descents, I mostly remember stepping down hard onto tired knees, toes jamming into the front of boots, that loss of large horizons I enjoyed at the top. But the descent is a homecoming of sorts.
How can I recognise the ups and downs of my journey for what they are: temporary perspective-adjusters, only appreciated in the context of the whole route?
4. Frequent stops to rest and refuel are vital.
Any experienced hiker knows that you need to eat before you are really hungry; drink before you are really thirsty; and rest before you are really weary. If you leave it until you’re too much of any of these things, it is often too late … the food, the water and the rest you’re able to take may not be enough. You’ll feel like you can’t get going again.
In hiking as in life: this Christmas vacation is a case in point. The two weeks off were many months overdue, and even then we had to fight hard to prevent work and other demands from encroaching on family time. And when we did stop? Every single one of us went down with flu, each one crashing hard. We had waited too long without adequate rest and we came to a complete standstill.
How can I learn to pace myself for the next leg of the journey? To slow down as often as necessary so that I can enjoy the moment, even while keeping the wider horizon in sight?
And you? Whether it is a way you have never before been, or a familiar trail, where will the path take you this year? Along all the ups and downs, may you keep your wits about you, and your travelling friends close.