Scallop shells and pilgrimage
The end of the school year, like other stages of transition, can be a bittersweet time of both looking back and looking ahead, with wistful goodbyes and hopes for the future. Reminiscences and regrets can blur. This idea helps you to celebrate the positive, place the negatives in some helpful context and focus attention on going forward.
Have you ever seen one of these? It’s a scallop shell. If you live near a beach, you might see them washed up on the shore. Scallops are small creatures - molluscs - that make delicious seafood. Their shells can be used for all sorts of things; Christians use them as a special symbol for making a journey.
In the past, pilgrims to holy places like Jerusalem often made long hazardous journeys lasting many months or years - and that usually involved travelling by sea. Anyone making the journey back would probably bring souvenirs of the trip, and the scallop shell is a sign of someone who had made that special journey, that pilgrimage.
You can see the symbol on some old gravestones in churches or on modern souvenirs, such as the key ring pictured. It says that this person was a pilgrim; they journeyed with God.
Sometimes, when someone is baptised as a Christian, the priest will pour water on their head with a scallop shell to show that this is their first step in making that long life-journey with God.
Have a look at this picture of some candles in a church in Sussex. Look closer. Can you see the necklaces hanging underneath?
These were made by children in a local school. It was all part of a church project about pilgrimage, because the building is close to an old pilgrim path. The children made about 200 of these scallop shells, some for the children to wear when they visited the church and some to leave behind.
Each candle and shell is a kind of prayer. If someone was making that kind of journey, I wonder what they might be thinking as they placed that scallop shell around their neck as they began their journey, or when they lit their special candle at the end of it?
Today, we’re all coming towards the end of a stage in our life-journeys: it’s the end of the school year. You will have had your successes, and you might have faced difficulties too. School isn’t meant to be easy. If it was, we wouldn’t bother, and nobody would get any smarter! But we’ve all tried our best to give you the education you needed, and we hope you’ve made the best of it.
And it’s not all about subjects like numeracy, literacy or science. This year, you’ve all had a chance to grow a little more as a person, to try new things and connect with other people in different ways. Again, some of that won’t have been easy. But we’ve all got here together. We’ve all made the journey. Some of us will be going to a new school, others will be heading off to new classes and new teachers. Change happens, and that’s good.
This scallop shell is a sign that says we can always discover new things and new people, and you don’t get that by staying where you are.
But Christians believe God is with us on the journey, through all the tough bits and the getting lost and the finding our way back again. Sometimes, getting lost can be very scary. This year, did you feel a bit lost in your numeracy? Did you ask for help? It’s all part of the journey. In your writing, were there some things you found difficult to learn and had to really persevere with to get right?
It’s all part of the journey. But at the end of the year, we do have a choice. We can remember the difficult bits and be cross with ourselves. Or we can remember that this is what learning from our mistakes and growing up is all about, and be thankful.
Long ago in the Bible, God said:
I know the plans I have for you... They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, NLT)
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29, NIV)
And if you’re feeling a bit tired with life’s journey, hear Isaiah’s promise for God’s people.
He gives power to the weak
and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:29–31, NLT)
So, at the end of this part of our life journey, let’s now be quiet. In the silence, try to think of three good things that happened for you in school this year - and maybe one bit you still feel a little sad about. Imagine holding the three good things in one hand, and the sad thing in the other. I’m now going to pray a prayer.
Father God, we remember all those feeling surrounded and besieged because life is difficult. Help us to be a good friend if someone is feeling like that. And when life gets tough for us, thank you for promising to be our friend too. Amen
Finished? Everybody wave their hands in the air! (A classic song for finishing might be ‘One more step along the world I go’.)
This scallop shell idea comes from St Michael and All Angels church in Berwick, Sussex, who were working with the staff and pupils of nearby Alfriston primary school. During the project, each child made two shells from a porcelain mould provided by a local artist. One shell was worn for a ‘mini-pilgrimage’ across the fields walking to and from the school, and one was left as an offering in the church when they left. Each of the more than 200 shells is initialled by the child that made it.
Photos © Chris Hudson