This article was originally published in Edition (16) of Prayer Magazine, Jan 2009.

Canterbury to Rome Benedict Protheroe endured torrential downpours, blistering sunshine and an Alpine snowstorm on his pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome this year, writes Fiona  Rutherford.

The 28 year old, who works in the TV production industry, left his Covent Garden home to begin the odyssey on April 28 and reached St Peter’s Cathedral some three months and 1,200 miles later. He raised almost £33,000 for Practical Action along the way.

Fundraising was a secondary aim as Benedict’s principal objective was to perform an act of prayer. “I was very aware that the whole trip was a big act

of devotion to God and an act of penance. From that point of view I was almost constantly aware of the spiritual aspect of what I was doing.

“I would have whole days, hours on end, talking aloud to God and really opening up in that way; other days much less so. I would spend periods of time praying in churches and devotional chapels, lighting candles and doing all that and other times I would just be in a field or a forest and having a chat.”

Angels En Route

A product of this constant prayer was his sense of security. Far from being frightened when he was alone in the wilderness, he felt fully protected. “It was incredible the number of times when I was down and tired and sore and exhausted and an angel would appear in the shape of someone with five minutes for encouragement or food or suggesting a place to go and sleep. It had a real sense of the providential about it.”

Benedict, the son of Robin Protheroe, Canon Emeritus of Bristol Cathedral, is one of about 30 people who will trek the traditional route Via Francigena in any given year. Local people, used to the passing pilgrims, are quick to offer food, shelter or just directions to the nearest campsite.

He was often deeply moved by acts of hospitality, some of his hosts even going on to the Practical Action website and making donations after providing him with food and lodgings. “The last thing I would have expected was a financial contribution in terms of sponsorship – that happened a couple of times.”

Human Revelations

In fact, this discovery of people’s innate goodness became one of the greatest revelations of Benedict’s trip.

“When I was in Laon Cathedral in France they had a well known icon of the face of Christ and near it was a printed quotation talking about the Pentecost of Faces – the idea that we experience Pentecost through the faces of our fellow man. It’s to do with the incarnation of God in Jesus. This idea became a recurring theme for me in my reflection as I went along.“When you do what I did, you become an Everyman character. You strip away all the trappings of life until there is a blank slate for them to write on and the way people chose to write on that slate was often incredibly beautiful.”

“In our own way, we’re all made in the image of God and I felt that the Holy Spirit was revealed to me through the people I met. Through brief encounters and longer meetings.”

“I almost felt that it gave me faith in humanity which is a very wonderful thing. It’s definitely changed my view of human nature.” One of his most moving encounters was with a beggar in the Italian town of Lucca.

Benedict had adopted a policy of giving money or food to anyone who asked for it during the pilgrimage and this led to his falling into conversation with Meiti, a homeless 26 year old from Bosnia.

“He had had a frightful time of it. He had seen his three year old brother and mother shot in front of him. He’d been in Italy for 15 years, regularly being beaten up by the police. He had a withered hand and was lame so he couldn’t work.”

Meiki insisted on taking Benedict for a coffee. “It’s probably quite demoralizing for people always accepting the charity of others. I guess he wanted a bit of normality.” They managed to share stories, despite the language barrier, but Benedict was blown away when Meiki asked him to take a picture of a street performer and give him money.

“I got such a sense from this guy that he really cared about other people. It would be so easy to get wrapped up in your own problems but he seemed to accept his lot and remain outward looking. He said, ‘If I was rich I could help all the poor people’. He railed against the church and said the priests were preaching about Rome and the church and not about the poor people.

“It was tremendously powerful. I was really left very moved.”

Finding Strength

Benedict is still processing all the information he took in over the three months but is already aware of reserves of strength he never knew he had.

“When you have been rained on steadily for three weeks, fought your way up a mountain path in a snow storm – climbed every mountain and fallen into every stream – you do demonstrate to yourself some degree of perseverance.

“Part of me would love to do it again. There’s still Compostella to think about or Jerusalem, there’s lots of possibilities.”

To read Benedict Protheroe’s blog over the three months, log on to http://www.practicalaction.org/ Anyone wishing to make a donation to Practical Action, a charity which uses technology to empower communities worldwide, can follow the links.

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