Pathways, Songlines and Footsteps
Come follow Christ in the footsteps of St Chad
Reflections on ‘The Songlines’, Bruce Chatwin, 1987.
When I first heard the new Diocesan invitation above, I was immediately struck by thoughts of pilgrimage, of travelling on a journey and of following in the footsteps of others through the ages. For this journey we have the Bible for our map and the examples of Jesus and the Saints to guide us. I found myself thinking about a book I read many years ago about people who traverse their land whilst I was travelling in Australia. The book was ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin, the prize-winning author, who sadly died far too young.
According to Chatwin, there is a, “labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’”. The Aboriginal people move around the land, following contours delineated in song, ‘the song and the land are one.’ ‘Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.’
I was struck by the powerful resonance of this wonderful book with the invitation to ‘Come’ and ‘Follow’ in our Diocese’s exhortation to the wider world. One that echoes the Songlines, not just by referencing music and song, but by encouraging us to follow in prayer and study in the footsteps of an early Celtic Saint; to ‘go walkabout’, to ‘follow Christ’, to journey from where we are to where we could be; to join in fellowship, and find God.
This idea of travelling, journeying, alone or together, is embedded in our religious past, just as it is an integral part of the Aboriginal culture. As Chatwin points out, pilgrimage was an important part of Christian life in Britain from its earliest days, whether it was the ambulare pro Deo, ‘to wander for God’ in imitation of Christ or Abraham who left Ur to live in a tent; or ‘the ‘penitential pilgrimage’ in search of redemption for sin.
But there is more to this journey, this way of life, than the concept of pilgrimage described above, so much more. ‘By spending his whole life walking and singing his Ancestor’s Songline, a man eventually becomes the track, the Ancestor and the Song.’ (Chatwin). Or, here, in another hemisphere, at another time, in our Christian faith, we too were exhorted to travel, ‘The Wayless Way, where the Sons of God lose themselves and, at the same time, find themselves.’ (Meister Eckhart).
The countries of the United Kingdom are marked out with sacred sites; pilgrimage destinations that call to those who wish to go on a journey to find God, to find forgiveness or just to find themselves. In Lichfield Diocese we are surrounded by a religious and cultural history so palpable it is as powerful as an Aboriginal Songline. There are ancient pilgrim ways, Saxon crosses, Celtic Saints and churches that resound with theology and song. Above all, there is a community of saints and a family of church. They beckon us on the journey:
Come follow Christ
in the footsteps of Saint Chad.
Revd Karen Davies is Rural Dean of Ellesmere
and a member of Diocesan Synod