The Holy Way is Essex
This Easter, Ben Ryan will be leading the liturgy on the Essex leg of Student Cross, a pilgrimage to Walsingham during Holy Week. Here he shares why Student Cross continues to draw students across Britain to pilgrimage.
This Holy Week I will be walking Student Cross (SX), a 66-year-old pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk. Initially a Catholic pilgrimage, SX now has a strong ecumenical flavour and attracts current, past and future students from a huge variety of backgrounds and traditions. In a nutshell, eleven different groups, known as Legs, walk from different parts of the country across Norfolk to Walsingham, with the ’full’ legs walking around 120 miles over seven days. Kind-hearted parishes provide food and accommodation along the way, and each Leg carries a large wooden cross as a witness to the people they pass.
The climax of the week is in Walsingham, a centre of pilgrimage for many centuries. Here all the Legs meet up from Good Friday to celebrate the Easter liturgies of the Triduum – Jesus’s death and resurrection - over the Easter weekend, culminating in a vibrant all-night Paschal Party following the powerful Easter Vigil on Saturday evening.
Why do I keep going back? Here are a few reasons...
1. The ridiculous amount of tea and cake
Not the most important part of the pilgrimage, but a definite plus! Every day we have a number of ‘tea and cake’ stops (average 4-5, plus a lunch stop) where we have a 20-30 minute break at a parish hall or church somewhere along our route and are fed a wondrous variety of homemade goodies by the generous parishioners, who are all too happy to see us every year. Student Cross is the only time you could walk for 120 miles and still put on weight by the end of it.
2. The chance to try something different
I love the Easter celebrations at my home parish in Sheffield, but to leave what I know and experience something completely different has been amazing. For those panicking about exams, this can also be a good thing. The peace brought about through the walk far outweighed any stress I encountered due to time taken away from revision.
3. The depth of relationships built
It’s impossible to spend six days of walking with the same group of people and not build up some very strong bonds with them. I began the walk in my first year not expecting to know anybody on my leg, and finished with a remarkable number of close friendships. Under any other circumstance, these friendships would not be possible.
4. The music
If, like me, you’re an avid musician, Student Cross will stir up those passions. The Triduum services in Walsingham with 200+ enthusiastic students led by a number of very talented musicians make for some incredibly moving liturgies. During the week I’ll be leading the music on Essex Leg, and would love to encourage any budding musicians amongst the leg to get involved with it.
5. The impact we have on the people we pass
A group of 20+ pilgrims in hi-visibility jackets walking down a country road carrying a seven foot wooden cross and singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ inevitably attracts quite a bit of attention. In my first year an old lady came out of her house which has been on our route for 40 years and told us how she always looks out for us now. The same goes for the parishioners we share food, rest and worship with – for them, Easter wouldn’t be the same without the pilgrims to look after. More commonly, we have inquisitive passers-by wanting to know why on earth we’d want to do such a thing – and we’re quite happy to tell them. We’ve been told we’re an inspiration to Christians and non-Christians alike for following in the footsteps of Jesus in the run-up to his death. Simply being there means the chance to evangelise in powerful ways.
6. The ecumenical spirit
Despite its beginnings as a Catholic pilgrimage, Student Cross is now increasingly ecumenical, with a number of legs having both Catholic and Anglican chaplains with them. Essex leg, which I will be walking this year, is particularly diverse – in the first year I walked, neither our group leader nor our liturgy secretary were Catholic, and this year I’m in charge of the liturgy and will hope to ensure every member of the group is comfortable and involved. As a liturgist and someone fairly active in promoting Catholic/non-Catholic understanding and tolerance, hearing and experiencing different types of worship has shaped what I do outside Student Cross.
7. The social life
The whole experience has been described to me as ‘spiritual retreat meets pub crawl’. The buildings, communities and individuals we pass stir up a sense of shared divine history. Over the course of six days, it is also good to explore the local pubs (and their speciality beverages) and hold singalongs (kazooalongs if I get involved) while we walk. We also usually stay up all night after the Easter Vigil for the ‘Paschal Party’, which is followed by rushing to the top of the hill at 6am to watch the rising sun (because it’s Easter Morning – see what we did there?).
8. The incredible spiritual experience
Though it may be different for each pilgrim, the most outstanding moment for me is consistently the Easter Vigil Mass at Walsingham. For me, it constitutes a magical, mysterious night where the event marking the whole basis of Christianity occurred, somewhere in a tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Walsingham celebration begins in silence and darkness at 11pm, with a roaring fire in the gardens outside the church. Candles are lit and the light of Christ spreads until it shines from every pilgrim, who then process in jubilation through the village singing Taize chants with one voice. Combined with the struggle to walk the distance and carry the cross to Walsingham, this celebration will always be a joyful occasion as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.
If this has inspired any of you, and you feel like doing something truly incredible (and truly impromptu!) this Easter, you can sign up through the links on the website (look at the ‘Legs’ part), or get straight in touch with me if you want more information. The Essex Leg (which I will be walking) meets in Colchester this Friday evening (whilst other legs begin all over the country at the same time).
I hope you all have a blessed Holy Week, wherever you may be.
Pax et bonum!
Ben will be tweeting throughout the Essex Leg, follow @essex_leg or tweet using #sx2014 to get involved. For more information about attending the Essex Leg, you can email Ben directly.Tags: student crossessexpilgrimage