Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Day of Silence

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The practice of silence is a way of opening up our ears and eyes to fresh and new awarenesses.  By quieting our tongue, we are able to listen in profound ways and by engaging silence; we are agreeing to listen to the still small voice of God.

Our Day of Silence invited our group to intentionally draw apart from one another and choose the quiet as a companion to our day.  The white, soft sand of the North Beach, inviting meditation benches, ancient pink walls of the Nunnery, and rocky, surf beaten shores of Iona’s southern side provided places in which we encountered the inarticulateness of ourselves and of God.  Following such an intense day of walking and reflections, this day of being alone with the elements was a welcomed respite.

Our normal lives are filled with amplified sound coming at us from all perspectives.  There are the very real noises of planes, trains and automobiles.  Then there are the myriad of subtle sounds-cell phones, text messages, Instand Messaging, and other modes of media. The demands of relationships can also offer up their own version of needy-noise.  We make pilgrimage to leave behind the normal structures of life to engage the Holy; we also must leave behind the noise so to better hear God.

Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon [God] in yourself.
-Teresa of Avila

rock northbeach2 Northbeach

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Island Journey

Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Bless to us, O God,
The earth beneath our feet,
Bless to us, O God,
The path whereon we go,
Bless to us, O God,
The people whom we meet.
Based on an old prayer from the Outer Hebrides

The pilgrimage around Iona visits places of sacred significance and historical importance on the island.  There are 18 sites in all and can take nearly all day to get to each one.  Our group broke the pilgrimage up in a few days-hitting the Abbey’s specific spots while we did our tour and hiking up Dun I on a quiet afternoon-so that we could enjoy the heft of the hiking down to the south end of the island to really spend some meaningful time at St. Columba’s Bay and enjoy the reflections at holy sites along the way.

Columba's Bay

Looking south towards Columba’s Bay

I watched our band of pilgrims prayerfully hike the path that Columba, his followers and 1450 years of seekers have sojourned.  While not adorned in the medieval garb of the traditional pilgrim (full length tunics, broad rimmed hats, staffs and satchels), their water proof pants and jackets, knit caps and thick ankled hiking boots carried the seeker-spirit of modern day pilgrims on this Sacred Isle.  While not barefoot, our blistered, bone-tired and boot-sore feet carried us over sacred pebbled beaches and peaty bogs.  We jumped and leapt from rock to rock, attempting to keep out of the muck, as we made our way to the 17th century remains of the Iona Marble Company’s marble quarry, a site that demands acknowledgment of humanity’s exploitive behaviors and pleads for a change in global values and lifestyles.

Scripture verses that speak of Christ as our rock became more than just metaphor as we discovered that we very much needed the consistent presence of the rocks to keep our feet out of the mire.  This island journey was clearly emphasizing and highlighting Celtic and pilgrim-ways of seeing.  Without the physicality of the outside world to underscore these Biblical truths, these Christian metaphors would be weak words and flimsy fables.

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Port a’Churaich (the Harbor of the Curragh) pebbles

The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world.  Every tree, blade of grass, and wild gooses cry was imbued with the Spirit of God and spoke to the character of the Creator.  These “theophanies” –God showings—were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries.  The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things, “…therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon-The Division of Nature, 749D).  All of the created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator.  Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed–the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.

The historical significance of Iona was underscored as we hiked this island pilgrimage; sacred sites emphasized how very near the works of God are all around us.  We were also reminded that we walk the pilgrim path together; we are not alone as we seek God’s guidance in our lives.  The road is filled with pilgrims who are seeking after inspiration and transformation, seekers who long for and are called by the saints who have gone before us.  And, as a mutual company, we are challenged to live forward in ways that bring about restoration to others and our earth.

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Walking the labyrinth

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Hiking through heather towards the Marble Quarry

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: When in Rome…

A fundamental aspect of pilgrimage is to engage the local culture of a site.  It is paramount to experience with your senses the place where you are.  This means intentionally involving the sight, sound, smell, savor and sensations of a place.  It is advisable to not just find a McDonald’s or Starbucks when you are hungry or thirsty, but seek after local cuisine and appreciate it for the expanding understanding it gives you for a locale.  It means taking out the earbuds and listening for the unique melodies that are native to a particular place; this could be the sounds of the sea, regional birdsong, or the lilt of a distinct accent.  And it is certainly seeing the sights that enhance the definition of a place.

When one comes this far away to Iona, it is always recommended to try to get off and away for a boat tour to Staffa Island.  Staffa Island is renowned for many features, one being its unique basalt columns; similar rock formations can be found in Northern Ireland’s Giant Causeway, which, between the two, legends of giants and hurling stones have emerged and been told for generations.  This is also the summer breeding ground for the Atlantic Puffin, a clown-like looking bird that comes ashore to lay eggs in the island’s thrushy and rocky outcroppings.  And lastly, there is the celebrated Fingal’s Cave, a notable cavern renowned for its unique structure, incredible acoustics and naturally formed rock walk way along the side of the of cave.  It is here that Mendelssohn received the inspiration for the “Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave}” that continues to provide the world a stirring reminder of this natural wonder of the world.

Our little group was very grateful to the elements for aligning, and to Gordon Grant Marine’s crew who delightfully navigated our boat, so that we could pull up alongside the small docking area and disembark.  It was an absolute delight to walk up, down and around this small Hebridean island, watching the puffins swoop and swoon over their nests, and even be able to make our way far into the reaches of Fingal’s Cave.

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“…one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it …composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.”
Sir Walter Scott

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Lectio Divina with Wind & Stone

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Lectio Divina is an ancient contemplative prayer practice used to allow scripture to speak to our hearts and to help us to discover the multiple ways God dwells there. It means “sacred reading,” and this practice can be extended beyond just the reading of scripture or inspired poetry. In the Celtic Christian tradition, the created world was seen as a revelation of God, and could be “read” to learn about and experience the Divine. Lectio Divina is a wonderful way of engaging the natural elements around us by inviting the “rocks to cry out” and the wind to whisper (or in the case of being on Iona, EXCLAIM!) to us the things of God.

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Our group had an intimate time of reflecting on Acts 2:1-2 yesterday morning. I was deeply moved by the thoughtful sharing around this scripture; images of violent wind, fire, community, movement, resting and empowerment all came through this text. To further explore this Pentecost Wind, we moved out into a field near Iona’s North Beach and spent time in stillness and silence listening deeply to the stirring of the wind all around us. As the wind whipped and whistled, we allowed our senses to engage this element as a sacred text. It was a personal time that ended with laughter as we flew a kite. This playful partnership with the wind underscored metaphors that we were all seeing with the wind as Holy Spirit in our lives.

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We continued our Lectio Divina with nature with an afternoon of learning about the rocks of Iona. Fiona Menzies, a local community member of Iona, holds a Ph.D in geology with a specialty in Iona’s unique rocks. Through our lecture and beach combing, there was a combined sense of awe at the grand-scape of time and the Creator that holds even this mind-blowing expansiveness within the cup of his hands. The rocks told us stories of millennia, ages and eras, life and death, in-breath and out-breath. Ultimately, countless volumes of sagas containing adventures of ice and tropical heat, deep pressures and forceful thrusts created these rocks of such exquisite beauty. This sacred time studying these rocks was likened to reading a sacred text and it allowed us to value these pieces as God’s movement on this earth.

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Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: A Mirror of Questions

pilgrims going to the abbey

It is in the spirit of Quest that we walk towards an answer, a hope, an ache, towards healing, while on a pilgrimage. It is the desire to seek and find. While we are walking, while we are looking for the answer, creates a constant state of expectancy, which raises our spirits and lessens much of the “normal” stress or fatigue of everyday life.

The Pilgrim’s Path requires you to look at all exchanges, all events, all emotional reactions with fresh eyes; always looking for the divine to show up, expecting a synchronicity, expecting an answer. We must stay aware. The stranger is often such a deliverer of the divine response. We see this pilgrimage possibility as early as the book of Genesis, in which Abraham and Sarah greet three strangers in the desert, who actually turn out to be angels. But Abraham and Sarah are unaware of this sacred presence; they are simply practicing an ancient law of the desert, honored among the nomadic peoples of the Near East, which required that if a stranger appeared at your tent, you were to welcome them, and share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival. It is still practiced among the Bedouins today and seen along the Pilgrim’s Path, even here on Iona. It is a way of extending yourself to Other, acknowledging the ever-present possibility of the Divine showing up and the sacramental sharing of a meal or a moment of time.

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As a way of attuning our eyes and ears to the possibility of angels and answers, our group is using the following “mirror of questions” to center in on the God-given value of each day. This is in line with the Jesuit tradition’s of The Examen, which was believed to be a method to seek and find God in all things and to gain the freedom to let God’s will be done on earth. Honing in on the daily experience is a way of discerning the movement of the Spirit in our lives; in this critical accounting, there is revealed answers for authentic expressions and guidance to personal quests and conflicts.

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing? What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me? Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel the most myself?
What reached me today? How deep did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence, why was I given this day?

-From John O’Donohue’s Benedictus, A Book of Blessings

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Solviture ambulando

walkingHere on Iona, where it is often stated in promotional material that sheep outnumber people and cars, everyone walks.  There is but a single road and upon that one walks to get to the ferry, get to the Abbey, get a cup a tea.  It is both a means to a destination and a value in and of itself.  By walking, I get in tune with my body.  I am aware of what feels good, and what is creaking more than it used to.  I become attuned to my overall health and well being: am I out of breath?  Do I feel strong?  Do I need to stop, slow down or speed up?  Taking such stock of myself, I’m also more aware of others.  Incredibly different than when driving within cars, when I pass someone on this solitary street, I am significantly aware of their presence, even when they are yet yards and yards beyond me.  I sense them really; because I am removed from my insular vehicle, my soul feels the life of what is around me. So not only am I aware of others walking the road, but I hear the kerrx-kerrx of the Corn Crake nesting in the farmers’ fields.  I hear the bleating cries of young sheep trying to find the warmth and milk of their momma’s.  I feel the wind whipping about me and the moist mist accumulating on my face.

Because I can trust the undulation of my walking, I can also look about me without worrying about crashing (hopefully!).  I watch the ferry crossing the Sound of Iona.  I note the craggy height of Dun I.  I look for the turquoise hues in the sea.  And if I do happen to bump into another person during my perusals, it mandates human contact, and always elicits laughter and communication, despite language barriers.

That’s really it, I think.  Walking removes barriers.  Issues of class and status don’t exist on a road of pilgrim pedestrians.  There are no BMWs or Mercedes Benz.  There are no pimped out wheels or self-defining bumper stickers.  There is no road rage as we all are relying on the same bi-ambular locomotion.  We are just simply, ourselves, on our two feet, walking the way we were designed.  And we appreciate our fellow roaming creatures as well.  A leveling effect takes place even between us and the sheep, us and the cows.  I see these creatures a bit differently when we are on the same plain, looking at one another with only a fence between us.  As I look into these creatures eyes, as we both stand on our feet, and I witness the lamb bumping up into his momma’s udder to drink her milk, and I think, “We are not all so very different, you and I.  What can I learn from you today?”  Walking teaches us about things that matter and things that don’t.

As my feet walk this road, I find that my life is slowly set back in order.  Priorities fall back into place.  I cannot rush to get somewhere and pack more into my day.  For I simply can only do what my body is capable of and where my feet can physically take me.  I cannot squeeze in one last Target errand, while rushing to get children to baseball practice and swim lessons.  In walking’s simplicity, a gift of simplicity is given back to me and how I choose to live my life.

Augustine was onto a great truth when suggesting that we have the answer to our problems in our own two feet as he said, “it is solved by walking.”

sheep

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Arrival-Hospitality

coffee

The warm invitation that this island, and its people, extend to new comers is quite profound.  There is a very real sense that there are no strangers in our midst.  In the context of the single road, the hostel or the beaches, there are ready smiles to lift yours, gregarious laughter rushing out to include you, and generous invitations to share tea, a meal or a bit of chocolate.  One Swedish pilgrim noted to me today how, even though he just arrived yesterday, he has felt like he is with family.  There is a sense of general community and conviviality that spans generations and gender.

In my short time on the island, I have been lovingly embraced by a group of British women staying at the hostel.  I had opened the door of the hostel’s common area to review some receipts and in a manner of seconds was instead drawn in to their circle with stories of shared faith, red wine and chocolate.  There is a very special feeling when surrounded by a group of wizened women who claim themselves with a mesmerizing confidence.  Since the late hour last night when we first all met, we have continued to enjoy countless conversations about our different countries and mutual faith.

Once again, I’ve been reminded how these journeys challenge the best of us to put our agendas away and embrace the gift of humanity right in front of us.  This type of soul journey is inevitably tied to how we connect and commune with others.  Their very presence reminds us of the absolute value of the most precious gift: life!

The vibrancy of this island is seen all over, from the colors of the sea, to the crashing waves, to the delightful hand-made signage.  Walking the streets and trails on Iona, while the wind bustles you about, truly brings one back to a fullness of life!

columba's bay waves

Crashing waves at St. Columba’s Bay

Iona Hostel

Welcoming sign to the Iona Hostel, voted best eco-hostel in Scotland

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Labyrinth at St.Columba’s Bay with green stone searching on the beach, the same beach where Columba is said to have landed on the Day of Pentecost in 563.

Martyr's Bay

Martyr’s Bay-In 806 a violent massacre happened on these shores when 68 monks were slaughtered by marauding Nordic vikings.

Nunnery

The Augustinian Nunnery was built in the 13th century, and stands as a reminder of the offering of a beautiful balance between the masculine and feminine in the Celtic Church.

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage-The Pilgrim’s Path: Its All About the Eyes (May 9-10)

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I’m well on my way and so far, all of my connections have been seamless.  The seven hour flight to Iceland’s Reykjavik is a drowsy memory mixed with some knitting, a book on labyrinths and a bit of the Lord of the Rings.  Customs went on a bit longer due to me forgetting to have a printed copy of our lodging on Iona.  (NOTE: do bring printed copies of all reservations in your carry on bags.  The hope to bring up the email accommodation confirmation on your phone at the customs desk will be thwarted.)  I got a bit of local currently (Scotland uses the GSP) and headed outside to Stand One to board the City Center bus to Queen Street Station.  While I made that connection with five minutes to spare, I fear I peeved off the driver with my large bills.  Had I time to get a coffee and break a 20 note, I would have.  However, making that bus so to make the 12:20 train to Oban was a priority.  He grumbled at me as he handed me change and I quickly sat down, out of his rear-view mirror eyesight, wanting to blend into the fabric of the bus’ seats and Scottish people.

The quick drive into Glasgow reminds me of magic time travel.  While in the industrial outskirts of the Glasgow airport, you could be almost anywhere in the modern world.  Grey anonymous boxes housing industry and ribbons of smoky highway weave together to create a rather uninspiring landscape.  However, soon the drab right angles begin to boast of ancient terraces and sacred spires.  Downtown Glasgow rises steeply on either side of narrow streets, beauty and awe etched into the classical architecture.  The bus driver tells us when to alight for Queen Street Station, and once again, I am within a 15 minute window of the train’s departure.  I have time to get a latte and then its boarding time.  This transition always makes me smile; people rush the platform to board this multi-coach train and Scottish brogues and humor abound.  Men are calling strangers mates and clapping each other on the back, telling stories that are taller and taller tales of days gone by.  All eyes seem to twinkle on this train and I caught my fair share, which always feels like a priceless gift.  To me, these are souls on the lookout, and oft are the ones to ensure that me and my bags are exactly where we should be.

It’s the eyes that are important-both the lifting of our own to gaze at the green-washed landscape that whips past the train’s windows, and the willingness to meet the eyes of others.  Even in this romanticized countryside, everyone has their devices at which they constantly paw, sucked into the technological, social media vortex that offers them connection with people worlds away, but stunts awareness of the soul within reach.  We have all heard the saying that the “eyes are the window to the soul” but I’ve also recently come across a belief that the eyes are the icon of God.  When we gaze into the eyes of another being, we discover an essence of the eternal. There is something of the Ancient of Days within the design and movement of our eyes and it is something, that when pairs of them unpresumptiously connect, we become deliverers of grace, one to another.

A fundamental way of travel for the pilgrim is to be open to engaging others.  The pilgrim’s posture is one of openness and receptiveness-open to the opportunity for conversation and receptiveness to the gifts that a place or a person may give.  There is nothing that is happenchance or coincidence any longer.  Moments are charged with meaning; it is the pilgrim’s charge to have the ears to hear and the eyes to see these opportunities of blessing.

While on the train from Glasgow to Oban I sat near two English men with accents as thick as marmalade.  Their humor and laughter filled the cabin and fellow passengers soaked up their smiles as their own.  We caught eyes and I chatted with them a bit but fatique cajoled me to put my head against the window and close my eyes to sleep.  However, I could hear their crowing cadances through my weariness and it warmed my soul.  I felt safe and content on this train filled with such joy and laughter.

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This morning in Oban, the seafood capitol of Scotland, as I awaited for a couple hours to pass before boarding the ferry to Craignure, I happened upon these same two men on a seaside sidewalk.  We exchanged morning greetings and I was offered gifts of Rollos and a quirky postcard of a golden eagle.  And then, in a spontaneous moment, Graham-with Spanish-soil skin and sea blue eyes, invited the three of us to get a pot of coffee together.  Had I hesitated and recalled all the little souvinier shopping I wanted to accomplish, I would have quickly and graciously denied the offer.  However, I decidedly chose the pilgrim’s path and spoke up with a simple yes and off we were to find a place to share time and stories.

3 cups of coffee

It soon became evident that these men were more than just jokes and jests.  They were in Oban for an annual international gathering for AA (Alcoholics Anonymous); dinners and dancing, caring and sharing were on the agenda for their weekend retreat.  Our synergy gave way to me sampling a bit of what these two are truly about and why this weekend is so meaningful to them.  Over the warm steam emerging from our cups, stories were told of the Spirit and sobriety.  Graham told of a bright beam of light that bore into his heart the day he was in a hospital bed-given 24 hours to live due to his system failing because of alcoholism.  He was watching the news with reports of Michael Jackson just dying and in that moment, cried out to God to help save him.  That light, that moment, infused him and Graham hasn’t had a drink since.  Five years of sober living have given him grace and peace and a way of living that inhabits every moment and allows for a contagious abundance of joy.  His eyes twinkled with mindfulness while the deep grooves in his face spoke to sorrows innumerable.  His journey paralleled aspects of pilgrimage and we quickly were aware of our shared spirituality and belief in God, who guides and provides.

Dan-O, Graham’s boisterous travel companion, was full of one-liners and what between his accent and tendency towards tall tales, I didn’t know what end was up with his stories.  This, however, seems to be this one’s modus operandi and it maintained the laughter throughout what would’ve been a conversation marked with goosebumps and tears.  Dan-O’s story of addiction landed him as an overweight, bearded vagabond with self-defecated pants, wandering the beaches near the southern reaches of England.  With a soul knowledge that he was at his lowest, darkest point in life, he waded into the sea and let out a primordial scream; this ancient cry was one of complete surrender.  He stayed in the water, allowing the grace-filled waves to wash his pants, and his soul.  He hasn’t had a drink in seven years.

This time together ended with three souls connected, encouraged and recreated.  I could have spent those two hours shopping for material items to bring home that would have lost value over time.  Instead, mindful of the way a pilgrim is encouraged to journey, I was invited to engage an even greater gift.  The gift of conversation, authentic stories and friendship.  And I am reminded that this sort of relational adventure needn’t be reserved for overseas pilgrimage treks.  There are people in my own home-city who are desperate for connection and a sense of community.  If I embrace the challenge to live as a pilgrim everyday, perhaps I will be all the more willing to lift my eyes and engage those of another, and in so doing, being present to the very eyes of God.

Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage-Departure: Fire and Fear (May 8)

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The last load of laundry was finally folded and last minute pre-travel errands run.  Whispered prayers and silent repetitons of the “do not forget list” infused rain gear, woolen layers and inspirational books as they were packed tightly away in the suitcase.   Today I departed for my pilgrimage to Iona and I couldn’t be more eager to get past this stage!

The pilgrimage’s archetypal stage of departure is wrought with tension and conflict.  While our souls are desperate for this life-giving journey, our egos are inherently set against anything that would bring about such unity and peace for ourselves.  Traditionally, this struggle against Self– to get over and through the leaving threshold– is represented by two great sphinxes that stand guard and strike fear into whoever would dare bypass them.  The only weapon that can defeat the sphinx is self-assurance and the ability to see through their fear tactics. To garner the strength to acknowledge the ruse of dares and distresses they throw at the pilgrim, is to seek strength from our Sacred Source and boldly call out to these foes that they are but a distraction from our destination.

I’ve studied pilgrimage for years and yet am always surprised at how very real and strong these archetypal stages are.  The events and occurrences that lead up to the departure are absolutely hallmarked by despair, and lead one to second guess the need to go on such a soul journey.  This particular pilgrimage has been no different and the sphinx have sure been doing their dandiest to scare me away from the day’s journey; it has been a nonstop onslaught of attempts to waylay and mislead me.

Beyond the leading-up weeks of fluish fevers, car problems and financial woes, we almost had a house fire last night.  Seriously.  To commemorate my departure-and Seattle’s brilliant May weather-we decided to grill a salmon and enjoy our family’s meal outside.  I decided to leave the grill on high heat to burn off the residual fish skin following dinner…and promptly forgot about the outside oven as I packed and put the children down to bed.  Late into the night, after my husband had swept the kitchen floors and laid the shaken out kitchen rugs on top of the grill, which is inches from a bakers rack containing shoes, coats and outdoor miscellany that stands against the 100 year old wooden paneling of our home (!!!!!), I smelled burning smoke through the kitchen window I just happened to open earlier in the afternoon to get a cool spring breeze through the house.  I opened up the back door only to find the kitchen rugs in flame atop our gas grill!  Grabbing an un-torched corner, I flung the rugs to the ground and rushed around looking for water to douse the firey inferno.  The flames were inches away from our house…I still shudder to think about what would have happened if I had gone to bed at my regular bedtime, and not been awake fussing about my packing.

That incident behind me, I anxiously laughed in the faces of the sphinxes; “Oh you archetypes!  Trying to get me all afraid and what not!  Nope, I’m getting past you and continuing on with my soul journey!”

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It was time to leave for the train, which runs just a block away from our house, to get to the airport in time to catch my flight.  My husband and two of my children were home to walk me to the station.  The sidewalk to the station takes us past a nuisance property where felons, prostitutes and drug addicts are want to hang out.  Typically they are active in the wee hours of the morning and are rarely out and about during the bright sun-filled days.  However, just as we were about to make our way to the train, a handful of these unsavory household guests gathered on the sidewalk.  Their presence induces silence and fear; and as their eyes bore through my own, I desperately just wanted to turn back home and forget this whole pilgrimage affair.  Strengthened by the innocence of my children, and my bold husband, we walked past these people who had become apparitions of fear itself, daring me to be strong enough to pass by them.  With an exhale, I tightened my grip on the hands I love most and felt joy returning as we made our way quickly to the train.

However, the sphinxes weren’t through with me yet.  It appeared they wanted to throw one more thing of fear at me to see if I truly dared pass them and engage the heart of this pilgrimage journey.  We stood waiting at the street’s crosswalk-just beyond was the train station-and directly across from our little family was a man, who with one glance, made my skin crawl and move around me like a snake.  His ogling eyes didn’t ask permission as they seemed to look through my clothes, his jeering toothy smile centered on my son and his lips moved with unheard incantations.  I clutched my children, for in the urban wilderness, these are the types from which we are warmed to stay far away.  Through pursed lips, I whispered to my husband to remember to lock all our doors and stay vigilant; indeed, I was scared!  The pedestrian crossing sign changed and we embarked across the street, brushing shoulders with this man as we passed.  The snakes swarmed in my stomach, but were released as soon as we made it safely to the other side of the sidewalk.

A beacon of welcome seemed to embrace my safe passage through the threshold of departure: just feet away from me was a transit sign displaying a dove, sacred symbol for the patron saint of the Holy Isle of Iona-St. Columba, for whom this particular Seattle station was named.

Coincidence?  I think not.  Grateful for this sign of affirmation, my heart leapt past the fear and foreboding; and eagerly boarded the train for this pilgrimage journey.

The Labyrinth: Stepping into the Sacred Path

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The labyrinth is itself an astoundingly precise model of the spiritual understanding of the universe. Not only are the exact cosmic rhythms built into it, but as well, the other sacred measures that represent our relationship to the “journey back” to our spiritual wholeness.

Keith Critchlow

Today is World Labyrinth Day! Did you even know such a day existed? Such a designation joins the ranks of days, weeks and months dedicated to a cause and a purpose. And hopefully, such an emphasis does indeed bring a broader awareness to an ancient tool that can be used to facilitate spiritual growth and awareness. World Labyrinth Day, a project of The Labyrinth Society, is a day “designated to bring people from all over the planet together in celebration of the labyrinth as a symbol of a tool and healing for peace.” (The Labyrinth Society 2013 promo materials)

A powerful symbol, labyrinths are usually in the form of a circle with a meandering but purposeful path, from the edge to the center and back out again, large enough to be walked into. Each labyrinth is unicursal, that is to say it has only one path (whereas a maze is multicursal-they offer a choice of paths, some with many entrances and exits), and once we choose to enter it, the path becomes a metaphor for our journey through life, sending us to the center of the labyrinth and back out to the edges via the same path. In this way, it becomes a microcosm of a pilgrimage or a sacred journey. We journey inward to discover more of ourselves, to encounter God, and even to receive healing or answers. And like a pilgrimage, after we go, we must return back home, bringing back the “boon” and the blessings that we received at the center. The labyrinth is a spiritual tool meant to awaken us to the deep rhythm that unites us to ourselves, to our collective community on our earth and in the cosmos, and to the Divine Light that resides and calls to us from within. In choosing this ancient winding path, and surrendering to it, the soul discovers healing and wholeness.

Labyrinth at Columba's Bay, Iona Scotland

Labyrinth at Columba’s Bay, Iona Scotland

Lauren Artress, author of Walking a Sacred Path (1995, The Penguin Group), writes about how this ancient symbol and method connects us to the greater community of things:

Based on the circle, the universal symbol for unity and wholeness, the labyrinth sparks
the human imagination and introduces it to a kaleidoscopic patterning that builds a
sense of relationship: one person to another, to another, to many people, to creation of
the the whole. It enlivens the intuitive part of our nature and stirs within the human heart
the longing for connectedness and the remembrance of our purpose for living.

We see this pattern repeated all around us in nature-the unfolding curls of the fern, the spider’s web, galaxies spinning outwards from themselves. And when we engage this shape, with our eyes, with our fingers and with our feet, we are connecting ourselves to the Creator who manifested this sacred symbol and we come away with a sense of release, illumination, and union to God and ourselves.

A group of women walking the labyrinth at The Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, WA

A group of women walking the labyrinth at The Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, WA

While people are universally drawn to this symbol and its rich metaphors, surprise at the inevitable soul-work is a common response after participating in walking the labyrinth. I recently convened a pilgrimage retreat for a group of women in the San Jaun Islands where we walked a labyrinth to further explore the archetypal stage of transformation. Many of the participants had never walked a labyrinth before and, while curious, were doubtful they would be moved or have any kind of soulful experience whatsoever. It was a thing of divine mystery and beauty to witness the unfolding of personal discovery, even while walking the path together.

One woman expressed how she was dubious of the whole process up until reaching the labyrinth’s center. However, at the moment she reached the center, which was met with surprise as the long, winding path can seem so long and delusory, she was moved to tears. Relinquishing herself to a posture of kneeling, she remained at the center for quite some time experiencing a sense of release and profound clarity. Another woman scoffed at the potential for an emotional, spiritual experience, and she too was taken off-guard by what she believed to be a very clear message from God for her life.

These women, and people around the world for ages, have expressed how empowered they feel after walking the labyrinth. This sense of union provides a grounding effect that allows the “seeker” to integrate what they experienced at the center with their exterior life, which was, in a sense, left at the threshold of the labyrinth. People desire a transformative spiritual experience that will energize their lives in such a way so to live forward in authentic, integrated ways. We want to serve the world with compassion and self-awareness, believing we were created for a unique purpose that only we can fulfill. Walking out of the labyrinth empowers the seeker to move back out into the world, renewed, inspired and directed. This is what makes the labyrinth a particularly powerful tool for transformation.

Watercolor labyrinth by Peg Conley

Watercolor labyrinth by Peg Conley

Solvitur ambulando…It is solved by walking…-St. Augustine

May this day extend an invitation to your soul–an invitation to get up and go and engage an ancient practice that facilitates relinquishment, illumination and insight. This process is a gift to our souls and to our surrounding world as it nurtures in us a call to live forward with wholeness and authenticity. May you be blessed as you step into the sacred path!

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Further resources for learning about labyrinths and discovering how you can incorporate them into your spiritual practice:

Want to find a labyrinth near you? Use the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator!

Christine Sine’s Godspace blog

The Labyrinth Society

Veriditas