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.
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.
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.