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Trekkers lean on the physical and the spiritual during 100-kilometre pilgrimages

Camino Nova Scotia's walking retreats offer participants a rich sense of community and a quiet sense of reflection.

There’s a time to walk the walk and to talk the talk.

Dozens of people have been combining both during 100-kilometre pilgrimages along the province’s picturesque coasts this summer, all sponsored by the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax.

“There is an incredible sense of community through people undertaking this challenge together,” said Nicole Uzans, an Anglican priest serving the North Shore who jumped at the opportunity to co-ordinate the program of four Camino Nova Scotia treks this summer.

“And then just cooking and eating together and enjoying each other’s company.”

The third Mahone Bay-to-Halifax trek began Monday and will wrap up Saturday. The School of Theology promotes it as “a special opportunity in our lives to reconnect with nature and with God.”

“Camino Nova Scotia is designed specifically to provide times for personal growth and spiritual nurture, even in the midst of a physical challenge.”

The physical challenge begins on Monday mornings, with participants being shuttled to Mahone Bay. From there, they set out on their trek, making the first overnight stop Monday evening at St. Martin’s Anglican Church in Martins River. The group of 12 to 15 pilgrims then stops overnight at churches in Chester, Hubbards and Upper Tantallon, before trekking back to the school's campus Friday. After a Friday night banquet and a short gathering Saturday morning, the pilgrims take their leave.

 “Pilgrimage is wonderful because it is so open to what each person brings to it,” Uzans said.

“Almost always, there is an aspect of some kind of spiritual search. But it’s certainly not confined to any particular religious tradition or any particular strain of Christianity. What we bring to it from AST is a nurturing Christian framework, but we try to keep things fairly open and permissive.”

For participant Keith MacPherson, the long trek reinforces his faith in humankind. 

“For me, it’s about community and sharing your story,” said MacPherson, pastor of a small United Church congregation in Murray Harbour, P.E.I., who made the late June pilgrimage on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. “I am always struck by how a group of people who are really strangers can come together and form a community so quickly. The caring and concern for one another and the willingness to help one another along the walk, I find that deeply spiritual and meaningful.”

From strangers to confidants in a week is no small achievement, Uzans said.

“Some people really thrive on just the sense of accomplishment, the confidence that they can do something like this. Those are often people who go on to do another pilgrimage somewhere in the world. The other thing that people get out of it is a general experience of being in a loving community of fellow travellers. That’s come over and over again from fellow travellers, that people who at the beginning are strangers by the end of the week have helped them through some real challenges, have shared real stories of heart as they’ve been walking along the trails. There is an incredible sense of community through people undertaking this challenge together.”

The challenge involves walking at a pace that is comfortable for each participant depending on their age and fitness level.

“We set out together at the same time in the morning but almost immediately people spread out along the trail,” Uzans said of the group that ranges in age from university students to people in their 70s. “There is this natural rhythm of finding a companion to walk with for a time and then drifting apart, maybe finding someone else. There is a rhythm of companionship and solitude along the way. There is no expectation that everyone is going to finish at the same time of the day, so people will stroll into the church any time between three and six in the afternoon.”

On the South Shore, the pilgrimages followed the trails along the old rail line and the North Shore walk in early July, new this year, meandered along a mix of Trans Canada Trail and secondary roads from Pictou to Pugwash.

For the modest sum of $800 for the week, participants are ferried to the starting point and their overnight gear of sleeping bags and air mattresses, the buffet breakfasts and the packed lunches are moved along to each overnight location.

“In the evenings, we have a variety of meals, anything from tacos, to baked potatoes to lasagna — whatever we can make in the kitchens that we find along the way,” Uzans said.

Shower facilities can be found at campgrounds along the route, but bathroom breaks can pose a challenge.

“They improvise. That can mean a trip to the woods, but I know there are people along the route who have had a number of people knock on their door and ask ‘Would you mind …?’ ”

The pilgrimages are primarily advertised by Facebook and by word of mouth and the meetings along the trail provide good local publicity.

“That’s been really fun, actually, to encounter people along the trail in various ways. People are always curious to hear about the walk when they meet up with us. As people were walking into Halifax (in the June pilgrimage), I got an email from someone who had met some of our people along the trail asking if there were still spaces in this year’s walk. It’s good advertising just to be out there.”

And it’s good for many things that ail the participants.

“Before I began the first walk this summer, I was pretty nervous,” Uzans said. “There are a lot of details about organizing this pilgrimage and I wasn’t entirely sure how it was all going to hold together. But even by the first afternoon, that all melted away. It was incredible to me how much other people brought to the entire week. That meant people, even after a long day’s walk, were willing to pitch in and help with supper or help with the dishes. Certainly, the level of sharing of people’s personal stories both from their lives and the experiences of these long days of walking, that was so rich.”

MacPherson, who has taken part in several pilgrimages, including Old World treks in Europe, said the experience is so rewarding that he would like to give it a go in his parish in southeastern Prince Edward Island.

“It is intriguing,” said MacPherson, who went back to school later in life to attain his master’s degree in divinity. “I think it could work in so many locations, in so many parts of the Maritimes. It’s a wonderful combination of the physical, the walking, and the contemplative, the spiritual.

“I think people are yearning for that connection with nature and connection with one another that they don’t always get in day-to-day living.”

Pilgrimages come in all lengths and descriptions. Earlier this year, former Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter participated in the Camino de Santiago, a 799-kilometre hike from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago, Spain.

Uzans said the walking retreats are all about the journey, not the location or the destination.

“It confirms to me that there is a real thirst for spiritual depth among people today. People are willing to go outside of some of the conventional avenues for finding spiritual nourishment and what that has meant is digging into some ancient traditions. That’s something that certainly confirms for me the relevance of the Christian tradition and also the creativity that is possible within ministry today. It doesn’t have to look like putting on your Sunday best and sitting in pews. The spiritual richness can be found in far messier and more intimate ways.”


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