The Treasure: How Pilgrimage Cultivates a Connection to Place through Permanence


I am thrilled to be preparing to deliver a paper at William & Mary College next week at their annual symposia on Pilgrimage Studies. In many aspects, this opportunity feels very much like a pilgrimage journey in and of itself. A couple years ago I received an invitation to submit a proposal for this particular academic gathering, which very much felt like the call, the requisite summons of any meaningful pilgrimage. However, life circumstances prevented the manifestation of that opportunity until now. And so I have the opportunity to seek the wisdom gained these past couple years as I have journeyed through the descent, the time of darkness and disintegration that occurs when a journey is truly leaving its indelible mark on you, and prepare for my arrival. 

In this setting my claim will be my belief that the act of pilgrimage is a practice of profound place-making. Using Uri Shulevitz’s children’s book, The Treasure as my primary text, I argue that pilgrimage doesn’t set our longing heart in the direction of far-off sacred spaces to find resurrection within a celestial kingdom; rather, it roots us even deeper into our homescapes as the return requires creating meaningful places for the community to connect. While the journey is indeed important to return to a posture of collective provision within one’s community, it is critical to note that that within this story (and very much like in our own lives), the protagonist Isaac could not have even made the journey without a deep knowledge of, and connection to, his place. Because he knows where he is, he is able to get to where he needs to go, and ultimately, to return.

We too must know our local landscapes well enough so that when it is time fulfill the call of a dream, we know how to navigate the land and engage with strangers in such a way as to not get lost. Engaging in regular practices of listening in place, where you unplug from your device and hear (really hear), and see (really see) the people and places that surround you and create the fabric of your home-land provides the most elemental conditions for co-creating places that provide for deep and meaningful community connection. For these are the very places and people who will receive the boon of your journey, the great gift that is given in exchange for the courage to respond to the call. Your community will receive the gift of your permanence.

If you do not have this book in your library, I encourage you to get yourself a copy. It is simple, delightful, and profound. And I hope your own copy of The Treasure, along with the following abstract for my paper, will inspire how your journeys will ultimately root you deeper into your neighborhoods.


The Treasure: How Pilgrimage Cultivates a Connection to Place through Permanence

 While the practice of pilgrimage is undergoing a resurgence, church authorities haven’t always been enthusiastic.  Critics, like Jerome, thought it ludicrous that prayers offered in one place could be more effective than prayers offered elsewhere: “Nothing is lacking to your faith though you have not seen Jerusalem.”  However, what if in the very leaving of our houses to engage the Divine, we actually return back to it not only more connected to our Sacred Source, but also more invested in our place on this planet through a commitment to faithful permanence?

Uri Shulevitz’s Caldecott Honor awarded book, The Treasure (1978) provides the archetypal stages of pilgrimage in a condensed child-friendly, but enormously profound, way.  However, what makes this story unique, and its great gift to us as readers and practicers of pilgrimage, is the invitation to see that the true treasure for which we are seeking on pilgrimage is always back at home, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.  Isaac, Shulevitz’s primary character discovers that the treasure about which he has dreamt, and for which he has searched, resides in the essence of his home: underneath his hearth-place.  This finding compels him to invest further in his community through sharing his treasure with others near and far. 

By looking at the ancient practice of pilgrimage through the lens of The Treasure, we can gain new insight on how this practice actually encourages one to become more rooted and connected to personal home-scapes: the neighborhood, local communities, and regional ecosystems.  Patterns of narcissistic consumption of places and relationships have resulted in transitory lifestyles.  Impermanence—a result of the provisional value of things accorded by the evanescence of social media—is valued over the tenacity required to remain. Isaac embodies the sort of rootedness, which is an outcome of the journey, that can effectively transform an ambiguous and meaningless space into one of deep meaning and wisdom.

The difference between a space and a place is the difference between a house and a home.  Isaac leaves his house seeking; he returns to find his treasure has always been there and testifies to that wisdom by building a place of public worship; a place of deep and significant meaning that invites others in his community to be welcomed, to return, and to tell others about the wisdom encountered there.  This is a true place, a home created and maintained by the initial dream to journey away-from.

In Isaac’s initial poverty, one can find themes of how impoverished the Western world is in our normative independence and isolation.  Soul-less technology, especially screens and social media, further this distance from ourselves and one another.  Through the journeying out to the places that call to us from our deepest dreams and psyches, connection with others is found.  This connection and sharing of dreams is what can spur the return back to whence we came, rediscover meaning, and re-engage in practices that powerfully connect people to one another and their place.


Rewilding Prayer: How Caim Invites Protection for All of Creation

Rewilding Prayer Caim

This week my youngest son started pre-school. And while his mornings will be spent within woodland walls and upon forest floors at a nature preschool, both he and and I were experiencing a deep anxiety around this fundamental shift in our daily rhythm together. I awoke early on his first day of school for a time of meditation and prayer practice on our behalf and for personal preparation.

My spiritual practices come from the Celtic tradition. The Scottish Highlands are in my blood through my maternal line and I grew up with a father who worshipped in the many steepled sanctuary of the mountains. Seeing the natural world as sacred, a fundamental feature of Celtic spirituality, is written into my DNA; it is a cellular response for me to see the numinous within nature. So on this particular threshold morning, I began with an embodied, ritualized form of prayer, the Celtic circling prayer.


Circling prayers, also known as Caim prayers (from the Irish gaelic meaning ‘protection’), are used to create a ring of safety around one’s self and their beloveds. It is a way to pray within the physical dimension as it requires the body to actively participate in the supplications of the heart. When one participates with and prays a Caim, the invocation begins with an arm extended outwards, pointer finger set towards the ground tracing the shape of a circle. This intentional act creates a sacred sphere, a space within which the pray-er invokes the protection of the divine. When I pray a Caim, I extend these boundaries beyond my personal reach to include my whole house, my neighborhood, the community in which I live, and the world at large. I encircle a space much larger than myself as a way to include the vast and diverse community of life of which we are fundamentally a part.

By extending the Caim protection beyond my person to include the plants, trees, birds, and other wild-life, I am doing something different than invoking a defense against that which is forbidden, dangerous, or out of control; instead, I am inviting that wild world in, bringing the more-than-human community of life into revered relationship and attunement. I am inviting a way of seeing the wild as wonderous, and in the most ancient of meanings, seeing myself within its ward. Encircling prayers that cast the boundaries beyond our domesticated borders initiate a way of moving through the day that is expectant of mystery and magic as the whole of creation is considered to be within the Caim circle. In this way, Caim becomes an eco-centric way of praying.

And so I prayed a Caim the morning of my son’s first day of school, which would be situated on the wild edges of an urban parkland. I chose a prayer befitting the day, knowing where my son would be. This prayer of blessing is one of the earliest known Caim prayers that is attributed to St. Columba, founder of the Iona Abbey:

“Bless to me the sky that is above me, Bless to me the ground that is beneath me, Bless to me the friends–furry, feathered, or fronded–who are around me, Bless to me the love of the Three Deep within me and encircling me and the greater community of life. Amen.”

(emphasis my own personal eco-centric addition)

I said these words as I circled, intentionally creating an expectation for the sacred wild to be within our midst this day.

Here is where this day’s prayer practice became quite extraordinary. We are fortunate to be able to walk to this sweet outdoor school, but every step away from home towards this new experience was causing my son anxiety and tears. Our route leads us through a wondrous three city-block sidewalk that has mature chestnut and maple trees planted on either side of the path that creates a wooded passage; we have since named it the Tree Tunnel. While walking along this way, a squirrel appeared before us on the sidewalk. While that is not uncommon, we did expect the normal behavior of it scampering up a tree as we drew closer. However, this squirrel did not. Instead, it carefully and slowly approached myself and Cannon who was seated in his stroller. With a steady gaze directed at Cannon, the squirrel continued straight up to him and gently put his paw upon my son’s foot. The silence that surrounded these two beings was sacred, a holy moment marked by their communion. This is interbeing, what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about as that recognition of the connectedness of all life, a way of being that must be reclaimed and protected now more than ever. This is Caim.

After a full minute’s pause, the squirrel scampered away, and Cannon turned to me with a rapturous face, exclaiming his empowered readiness to go on to school where the squirrel would be to watch over him, protecting him until my return.

Every day thereafter this week, that squirrel has been awaiting Cannon in the Tree Tunnel and the same ritual ensues. Squirrel appears before Cannon and as we slow to a stop, it approaches him and places his paw upon his leg. Cannon quietly receives this blessing from the wild, a lesson he is too young to have yet unlearned. He inherently knows that nature is not something from which we need protection against, but a relationship in which to be cherished and engaged, a relationship that is within our sacred circle.


Rewilding Practice

Find a place outside where you can practice in the embodied form of the Caim. Back yards, front gardens, public parks, and even sidewalks will do!

Center yourself by taking several deep breaths, tuning in to the sounds of the natural world all around you. You will likely hear human-made sounds too. Don’t ignore the anthrophony. Instead, receive these sounds as an invitation to include them in your Caim too.

When you feel ready, position your body facing north. Breath deeply and feel the air within and around you. Stretch out your arm in front of you with your pointer finger extended and pointed to draw a metaphorical, expansive circle that includes the natural world. Slowly turn your body in a clock-wise rotation–going from the cardinal direction north, to east, to south, to west and back again to facing north while saying this simple encircling prayer, adapted to include the greater community of things with whom we live:

  • North, “Circle us Spirit, Keep protection near, And danger afar.”
  • East, “Circle us Spirit, Keep light near, And darkness afar.”
  • South, “Circle us Spirit, Keep peace within, Keep evil out.”
  • West, “Circle us Spirit, Keep hope within, Keep doubt without.”
  • Back at the North can finish your prayers with:
    May you be a bright flame before us,
    May you be a guiding star above us,
    May you be a smooth path below us,
    And a loving Guide behind us,
    Today, tonight, and forever.





Trials and Trails that Wound: How We Learn from the Dragon


We are coming into the season of Michaelmas, the ancient festival time of St. Michael who is connected to myths and lore around harvest abundance and more prominently, dragons. St. Michael is an archetypal representation of our inner light and courage that is called forth when scarcity is nigh. This scarcity and its corresponding fear is our dragon, one that we all must meet.

Since the birth of my fourth child, Cannon, and the years in his wake I have found I’m asking how I befriend the dragon–the one that lives in the dark woods of our innermost journey, the one that can claw and snatch. It feels that within the realm of the feminine, there is an invitation that goes beyond conquering to that of kinship. I spoke about this idea at my graduation ceremony, very much having this archetypal myth in mind.

Yes, dragons and the dark woods within which they live, can scar us. But instead of killing the beast in return, can we learn to ride the dragon, and see our scars as sacred?

Learning from the Dragon’s Fiery Fury

We each accepted the call to come here, and with this acceptance in many ways we disappeared from the world, descending into the mysterious, archetypal dark wood. This is the stage of the journey where the epic work of self-reflection takes place with the purpose of renewal and discovery.

This is the time of tests and trials, which serve as fortifiers as we learn to rely upon companions as well as our own developing abilities to move to and through suffering. This requisite stage brings one into the darkest chamber of the heart, a place filled with trauma and treasure, a place through which one must trod to manifest the deeply held desire for transformation.

This is the stumbling along the hard, dark path-time. The descent is disorienting, destabilizing, and in a word: deconstructing. This isn’t just the stuff of legends. This is life well-lived, and it is a quest of meaning-making and discovery. And like any good transformative adventure, there are dragons.

Joseph Campbell would say that this is the part of the journey when dragons emerge from the shadowy wood and must be slain…but this isn’t the way at The Seattle School. Here we have gained knowledge and tools to encounter the dragon. How will we engage its various forms, listen to its terrifying tales, and learn from its fiery fury? For only when we begin to reconstruct together new ways of being through the recovery and discovery of lost pieces of ourselves will we find that the dragon actually becomes a vehicle towards our well-being: here we learn how to train, and ride, dragons.

But first we must find the unknown path, an endeavor that requires much.   This is the way of walking through the woods—an arduous journey winding through unfamiliar territory, trying to find the way through, all of which requires endurance, stamina…and inevitably, brokenness. Our brokenness becomes the path back into being.

Here in the dark woods, we trip and fall—scraping, breaking, bruising our way through the requisite phase of finding.

This is the sacred Holy Saturday time where the woods keep silence and watch.

I thought that I met my dragon when I began the work of confronting my story four years ago in the first year foundational course Faith, Hope and Love…the thing that I would primarily fight and wrest…and while that did indeed occur, it proved itself to be more of an entrance to an even darker wood, a longer labyrinth, and one that demanded that I find out who I truly am when the demands of the journey turn treacherous. This is what I now know: the forest forms you.

In the dark of my winter term of my first year at The Seattle School, I became pregnant with our fourth child. This pregnancy proved near fatal for both me and my then-baby who, born too early, was dangerously close to death. As I lay in my own liminal life-shadow, he needed resuscitation, and was placed in NICU for weeks.

We lose much of ourselves during our passage through the dark—in many ways this must occur for the gifts of the transformation to have space to become. 80% of my blood was lost during the emergency birth and replaced with other people’s blood during my reconstructive surgery, creating a much longer and more wearisome journey back to health.

Shortly after I was learning to live with my new wounds, my husband got mono and could barely get out of bed for a month. Then he lost his job and the security of our family’s primary income. By now I remember wondering when this wandering would end—every hard and painful path seemed to be dropping out from underneath us to reveal yet another rocky road.

One dark summer night, with only the street lamp assisting with light, I was harvesting my lavender, hustling it to help put food on the table. While wielding a brand new scythe—and not fully present to its power—I cut a significant portion of my finger off and ended up back in the ER only to begin another long, slow and painful journey to healing. This pain, this part of the dark woods, taught me deep truths about regenerativity—especially as I witnessed my finger literally grow back. Hope indeed is forged in the forest.

I have had to ask the question and face the answer of who would I become after facing such fierce dragons who seemed to cut and jeer in the face of my becoming. How could I befriend the foe and their fire?

It has been said that the wise one limps. You will know wisdom not by one who walks upright, whole, and strong, but one who walks humped and slumped, scarred by the trials and trails that wound.

We gather today, robed with honor, distinction, and wisdom. These robes would say to the world that we are now wisdom-bearers. Ones who have risked much for priceless gain. These robes become your story to steward, not to hoard. May these hoods continue to call forth courage, for this dress required a fight with dragons that will forever remind us of what we have been through, the deep woods through which we have come.

Keep alive the memory of the woods for they have proven to be the greatest of teachers. For deep roots are reached through the forest. And don’t forget the dragon’s fire, fashioned now into foresight. Don’t let it slip from your heart, for that which wounded us has also healed us.

Lest this become a tale forgotten, finger your scars as a reminder of your journey in the case the limp you now bear does not.

May you learn to love your limp and see your scars as sacred as you leave this place, wise from your time in the woods.

Watch the video of Mary DeJong delivering this script at the 2017 Seattle School of Theology & Psychology Commencement ceremony here.


Guidance & Wisdom from the Sacred Wild


I feel like I’ve been walking towards today for years. It was four years ago that my work with Waymarkers was put in the vault as I left to pursue my Masters in Theology & Culture with a focus in eco-theology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.

This journey took me through some of the most wildest of woods where I was taught again and again of the revelatory quality of the natural world, and that the woods are indeed the wisest of teachers. I reflect on themes experienced in these last years during the commencement speech I was asked to give during my graduation ceremony.  You can listen to that here.

Today feels like an emergence from the woods. In many ways I feel like there are open vistas of hope and opportunity before me, inner-landscapes that demanded the requisite journey through the woods. Today I offer my work of Waymarkers anew, infused with the theory, theology, and practice gained in the last four year. Waymarkers is a sacred guidance venture that provides support and frameworks for cultivating connection and communion to and through the natural world.

Waymarkers’ hope is to guide others toward a holistic and harmonious inter-connected life with the more-than-human world through restorative rewilding rituals and pilgrimage practices that recover a way of seeing the sacred in the soil, the stars, and, even in our neighborhood streets.

With Celtic spirituality and sacred ecology providing the framework, Waymarkers offers guidance and support for those who are ready to respond to the call to wander into the sacred wild, seeking wisdom from our interrelated web of life. Without this kind of spiritual formation, there can be no authentic ecological consciousness, because there can be no true sense of the interdependence of all things. We must see the natural world as a sacred Thou, no longer an objectified It. Cultural historian Thomas Berry eloquently insists that “the world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” To participate in this communion is sacramental, and the elements are all around us, awaiting our participation in our backyards, neighborhoods, our cities and parks, and the hinterlands beyond.

We are placed with a purpose. To not know this is to be without waymarkers, to be displaced.  Waymarkers will journey with you to a way of belonging, to a renewed sense of solid, sacred rooting in the land where you live.

Let’s journey together and discover the wisdom that is rooted in the woods, and wind our way to a place of belonging!