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.

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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