How to find your purpose
In February 2011, Alice Warrender was knocked off her bicycle in London. She suffered life-threatening injuries, including a severe blood clot on her brain. However, the London Neurological Department at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington operated successfully. Alice was released a week later to convalesce at her parents' home in Ayrshire, Scotland.
Before her accident, Alice ran a digital business, lived an independent life in London and regularly ran along the Thames. Unfortunately, her vitality, as well as her lifestyle and business, disappeared with the accident. Her doctors told her it would take two years to recover fully.
However, after four months of convalescing, Alice felt partially recovered. She was walking short distances and painting. Around this time, she conceived the idea of walking the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, a journey she would later call her accidental jubilee (a jubilee is a pilgrimage to Rome to obtain an indulgence in the Roman Catholic church).
Alice set out on her journey in July 2011, intent on saying thank you for her life, proving that she could do it and working out how to spend the rest of her life.
Pilgrimage, by definition, is challenging. However, Alice's story, told in her book An Accidental Jubilee, proves not only how tough it can be (the story of her journey to the top of St Bernard's Pass is a cliffhanger) but also how kind and compassionate others can be, even those she did not know and will never meet again.
That Damascene moment
Crucially, Alice achieved her goal of working out how to spend the rest of her life, which can be a difficult challenge for many of us. A third of the way through her pilgrimage, during which she walked in pain and rain sustained by the kindness of others, she arrived in Besançon, France. She writes that:
"During Mass in Besançon I cried a lot and felt so woozy that I could not stand up for most of it, but I knew from the moment I walked out that I would write a book about this walk and then I would pursue life as an artist."
This is a significant moment in Alice's book (not the only one by any means). I find myself asking how she can go into a church and come out an hour later, knowing exactly how she will live the rest of her life when many of us spend our entire life wondering how to live with meaning and purpose. I wonder what led her to this moment and what we can learn from her.
The transformational power of a journey
I suspect that Alice's near-death experience and the powerful realisation that life is precious had much to do with it. But, of course, this is not a readily available option for us and certainly not one we want to take voluntarily.
However, accepting a challenge such as Alice's three-month walk along the Via Francigena is the next best thing and is open to us all. Indeed, this takes us back to ancient mythologies and the transformational nature of a hero's challenge.
It does not have to be a thousand-mile walk, of course. My regular annual Lourdes pilgrimage, although nothing to compare with Alice's walk, serves the same purpose for my fellow travellers and me.
Alice's contact with so many people (both kind and indifferent) on her journey and her close contact with the natural world (she tended to avoid maps and roads and is scathing about using GPS) will also have done much to change her outlook on life.
Then, of course, there is that moment of quiet and peace in the church, a moment of relief from the struggle of the road, where these Damascene moments happen. But, of course, it does not have to be at mass in a church (although I find these occasions can be deeply inspiring). Just taking time to walk, read, and take a reflective step back can be just as inspirational. It happened to me once on a ski lift. The mountains' silence and beauty inspired me to change course. I handed in my notice, sold my flat on my return home, and went off in a new direction.
A new future
So, did it work? It seems so. Alice put herself through art school and now sells her paintings through Hobby Horse Art, a slightly unconventional and dynamic art dealership. Alice has also written a trilogy of crime novels and a book about her pilgrimage.
It often takes a challenge, either a surprise or planned, to kick us into changing the direction of our life, as Alice's story exemplifies.
Soumei Baba - Flickr: Col du Grand Saint Bernard from Italia side, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23506979
Warrender, Alice. An Accidental Jubilee. Settrington, Stone Trough Books, 1 Sept. 2012, p. 71.
Taking it further:
The Via Francigena: https://www.viefrancigene.org/en/ or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_Francigena
Alice at Hobby Horse Art: https://www.hobbyhorseart.com/collections/alice-carter
The Susie Mahl murder mysteries (Ali Carter): https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/17929883.Ali_Carter
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What do you think?
Your views are important, and your fellow readers would love to hear your opinion, so share your thoughts in the comments box below, and thank you for your time and generosity.