The Pilgrim’s Path: Seeing the Sacred

If the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous.  Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren’t trembling as you approach the sacred,                     it isn’t the real thing.  The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion.

– Phil Cousineau

As soon as you mark your journey as a pilgrimage, you are drawing a line in the sand transforming how you move through the world-how you see, hear and taste the world around you.  And inevitably, because of this manner of intention-and because the Powers that Be know what you’ve done (that whole line in the sand act)-there will be things that go wrong…terribly wrong.  That is simply the nature of the Pilgrim’s Path; no longer can you just simply curse at an inconvenience or change in plans.  There is Some One speaking to you now through the chaos.  There is a Force that will derail all your best laid undertakings and ideals for this journey just so you will see things anew, afresh; just so you will see the Holy, the Mystery that is present.

The purpose of the pilgrimage is to ultimately make life more meaningful.  It is regarded as the universal quest for the self.  Though the form of the path changes, one element remains the same: renewal of the soul.  The essence of the sacred way is “tracing a sacred route of tests and trials, ordeals and obstacles, to arrive at a holy place and attempt to fathom the secrets of its power.”[i]  The act of listening is emphasized here.  The way of the pilgrim is one of an inner-quiet, an inner ear tuned to the subtle sounds of the Spirit while on the sacred road.  And every road is sacred, as is every sidewalk, every aisle, every stoplight.  You have chosen to listen and to see the life that moves around and through you, no longer overlooking the beauty and the blessings that surround every minute of every day.

Once the acts of intention and attention are completed, the pilgrim is ready to cross the threshold.  The threshold is more than an architectural detail; it is a mythological image that evokes the spirit of resistance we must pass through on our journey from all we’ve known to all that is unknown.  It is the first step toward renewal.[ii]  Once on the other side, Pilgrims move from ordinary time and space into sacred time and sacred space.  In this reality, the meanings we associate with our normal everyday experiences are turned upside down.  This isn’t necessarily to over-spiritualize everything; I mean, you may really have run out of gas simply because YOU didn’t fill up the tank.  But, maybe…just maybe…you did run out of gas because that person who helped you…needed you as much as you needed them.  Or maybe that call from a friend, or the bank, or the doctor, or the school, while inevitably inconveniencing you to whatever extent, is an augury- demanding that you slow, stop and SEE the Sacred that is on the move in your life.

Every encounter, every eye contact, every handshake is now imbued with the potential and possibility for a sacred encounter–and rarely does God disappoint. The structures we use to define who we are in ordinary life become irrelevant.  Pilgrim space has no regard for class, race, or social/economic standing.  There are no more random run-ins with strangers; there are no more lucky or misfortunate moments.  In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny; every contact attests to some greater plan.  No encounter is without meaning.  There are signs everywhere, if only we learn how to read them.  Peculiar people turn into much-needed messengers.  “From now,” advised Epictetus, “practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘you are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’” Use the powers of your sacred imagination, the old Roman sage is saying.  See behind the veil of things.  Listen to the message that is between every spoken word, every gust of wind.  Everything matters along the road, but what matters deeply is what is invisible and must be seen with the inner eye.[iii]

In August 2009 I, along with about 20 undergraduate students from Seattle Pacific University, were pledged to make pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland.  We had departed from SeaTac airport with ease; the sun seemed to be shining upon us and our ventures.  In fact, I rode the light rail to get to the airport and the station where I embarked, Columbia City Station, had an icon next to the station sign that, while overseen many times, I finally looked and it spoke to me: the image was that of a dove.  Columbia  City…Columbia…Columba…Colum Cille…”dove of the church”…and patron saint of Iona.  Could an omen be any clearer?  My heart was thrilled to begin this sacred journey!  However, as it has to be with pilgrimages, this ecstasy was relatively short lived.  For while we were to have but a brief layover in Philadelphia prior to our Transatlantic flight, we were stuck on the turmac for HOURS as Hurricane Bill raged all around us; lightning rods reaching from the dark sky and striking the black asphalt upon which our plane sat.  Throughout this drenching downpour, our luggage sat, open to the skies…uncovered.  When we picked up our backpacks in Glasgow, they were soaked, as were their contents.  As were my meticulous memorandas for our retreat.  Every paper of pre-planned retreat material?  Saturated. Could I have cried tears of frustration?  Sure!  But I knew that there was a message for me in those great winds and in between each of those heavy drops of rain.  I chose to laugh, and begin to listen.

Part of the importance of the road are the ones whom you happen upon along the way.  It is critical to understand that while you may be on a personal pilgrimage, that you may be doing something ever-so-unique-to-you-alone during Lent, you are surrounded by others. These friends and family, yes, even these strangers will be the harbingers of many important messages to you on your way.  You are not journeying alone.  Shoulder up to these voices, these presences, and seek their wisdom and response.  Undoubtedly they have something important to pass along your way.  They may be sent to redirect you, to provide you new instructions.  But you must first be able to extend a hand, make eye contact and then, listen.

Since last week’s writing and sharing of my Lenten intentions, there has been something being proclaimed-nay, SHOUTED-in my ears; and quite honestly, I welcome any help from you, my journey-partners, in deciphering what I’m already supposed to be seeing.  For, soon after I wrote of my love and need for the impartation of ashes, my middle son -River- became ill.  Our youngest, Anna, was quickly at his heels.  By our rice and bean dinner time, we were making home-made ash from remnants in our fire pit for our own house-ritual and rubbing troubled tummies at the same time.

The flu had landed at 2809 and was merciless.  By Friday, Orion, our eldest, was head to toe covered in hives as his body battled the virus.  By Saturday, it was evident that River had become severely dehydrated and needed to be taken to the hospital.  Anna, clung to me in her lethargy, and whimpered whenever put down.  It was as if a hurricane had hit our house and was pummeling us with all its worth.  Sunday had us over its knee in exhaustion; this was supposed to be our Feast Day and I hadn’t once worked out for 30 minutes since Lent began!  This wasn’t what I had intended for the start of my holy-journey at all!  Despite the counters laden with crackers and cures, Joel and I had continued to eat our rice and beans and, heck!  I was frustrated, tired from the unceasing vigils, and ready to feast and I had absolutely no energy to put into anything except warming up the vat of Lenten victuals in the fridge.

And then there was a knock at the door.  Our associate pastor was on our porch with prayers and Pyrex in hand: hot, home-made Beef and Broccoli in Oyster Sauce was being brought to us for dinner.  He extended us his hand, he looked into our eyes.  He blessed River and attended to Anna.  He brought care and concern from our congregation. He was a messenger. Look for the Sacred.  Listen for the Message.  Tears streamed down my face as love was ladled onto our plates.  I leaned into the strength of someone else in my kitchen, someone else standing at my sink.  I ate.  I was nourished-oh so very fed!

I am freshly struck with how we just simply cannot get by in this life on our own.  We cannot be parents, parishioners, pilgrims or priests without a community of care around us.  This network IS our guide.  These hands, these voices, these hearts, help us find our direction when the way has stormed over.  When our backpacks have become too heavy from the torrential rains of the Pilgrim’s road, we must find relief from other’s who are sharing in this journey with us.  They are here for this reason.

God has placed them on our path to provide and point the way.

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Does the road wind uphill all the way?                                                                                     Yes, to the very end.                                                                                                                 Will the journey take the whole long day?                                                                                     From morn to night, my friend.                                                                                                 -Christina Rossetti, 1867


 [i] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 96.

[ii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 83.

[iii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 98.

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The Pilgrim’s Departure

Today the Lenten journey begins. Today is a day of ancient rituals. Today is a day where our foreheads bear ashen crosses, marking this sacred season of separation and simplicity. Today is the day where we carry our commitments and convictions forward and through a soul-season.  Here we announce that we are going to intentionally set ourselves apart from some thing or we commit to a practice that brings life and establishes an order of justice and love. This is a declaration of intent and it is no trivial thing.  With it, we are saying, “I want to touch and be touched by something holy.  After this experience, my life will be different.  I will be different.  Because I have taken this pilgrimage, I will feel more connected with myself, with others, and with the Holy and creative source of life.”[i]  By declaring your intention for this pilgrimage, this season of Lent, you are proclaiming the purpose as sacred.  Whether you are intending to refrain or rejuvenate, these declarations are designated differences for your journey.  From now on, there is no such thing as a neutral act or meaningless day.  The daily contemplations surrounding your intention will begin to align you with God and center your journey.

Before one departs on a pilgrimage, it is essential to participate in leave-taking rituals.  These separation rituals mark for yourself the place from where you are departing; they represent your current state of mind, your current situations, and your questions.  They also prepare you to cross a threshold from the known to the unknown.  Our Ash Wednesday impartation of ashes serves as a symbolic entrance into the unknown Lenten landscape.   Imagine all the different ways you can prepare for and mark Lent (or any journey for that matter) as a serious soul-season.  Rituals vocalize your openness to being touched and changed by a power that is holy and transcendent.

As our culture has become more computerized, confined and cosmopolitan, our comfortability with regular rituals and sacred seasons has shifted from standard to strange. Participation in ancient acts is often met by others with a look askance or a presumption of  strange spirituality.  However, rituals have marked seasons and a life’s development for thousands of years.  Our human nature needs to be able to behold and acknowledge our lives within the grand chaos and cosmos of all that surrounds us.  Rites ground us in our humble lives while associating our souls with the divine order of creation.  Our internal rhythm relishes these benchmarks, these touchstones, that confirm and affirm our presence and passage through periods of import.  A journey, a pilgrimage, is one of the most ancient of rituals practiced to bring about, or acknowledge, a change in one’s life.

Poet and author, John O’Donohue, speaks about our collective need to recognize thresholds in life with rituals and blessings.  Life is a journey and ultimately the best metaphorical example of a pilgrimage.  We cross thresholds throughout our life, but without the sense of the sacred in these crossings, they can become meaningless, disheartened stages.  We engage the practice of pilgrimage, with the declaration of intention and leave-taking rituals, to acknowledge our surrender to the Spirit, and to “reawaken our capacity for blessing.”  O’Donohue shares with us:

A threshold is a significant frontier where experience banks up; there is intense                  concrescence.  It is a place of great transformation.  Some of the most powerful thresholds divide worlds from each other; life in the womb from birth, childhood from adolescence, adulthood from middle age, old age from death.  And on each side there is a different geography of feelings, thinking, and being.  The crossing of a threshold is in effect a rite of passage.

Our culture has little to offer us for our crossings.  Never was there such talk of communication or such technology to facilitate it.  Yet at the heart of our newfound wealth and progress there is a gaping emptiness, and we are haunted by loneliness.  While we seem to have progressed to become experts in so many things—multiplying and acquiring stuff we neither need nor truly want—we have unlearned the grace of presence and belonging.  With the demise of religion, many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life.  This is where we need to retrieve and reawaken our capacity for blessing.  If we approach our decisive thresholds with reverence and attention, the crossing will bring us more than we could ever have hoped for.  This is where blessing invokes and awakens every gift the crossing has to offer.  In our present ritual poverty, the Celtic tradition has much to offer us. [ii]

Your statement of intent and leave-taking rituals that allow you to declare your hopes and fears are a part of the separation stage of pilgrimage.  The sacred journey is not just about leaving the ordinary rhythms and places of life.  The process is much more and involves stages of moving from ordinary space into sacred space and then back again.  The stages of pilgrimage-as of any life threshold-are important because they are more about what occurs within the pilgrim than about the physical process of leaving and returning home.

We set out from our normal rhythms, our home-cadence, not just for the journey itself.  We leave so that we may return; when we return we are changed and therefore, so are our homes. We have grown, emerged, developed and the former walls of familiar thoughts and theory may no longer contain us comfortably.  What has challenged us on the road has changed our routine.  We set out only to try to settle back in…but we find we cannot.  And this is the Spirit’s work.  Yes, the journey absolutely is contingent on the destination, and today we are especially mindful of the Cross that meets us at the commencement of Lent.  But these heart-felt intentions that we take with us for the duration of the journey shift our home-life; they transform what was normal, into sacred…and then reconstructs that into our new perspectives upon homecoming.

For example, say you are participating in a Lenten carbon fast, or eating only organic, local, sustainable, fair traded foods during this season.  Maybe you are abstaining from alcohol or refined sugars and giving your savings to charity. While these may have been originally decided upon because they separated you from your norm, after Easter you may find that these very same things have become your new home, your new way of living.  I truly believe this is how God works; God intervenes and then interweaves change and difference into our lives until they become our new mode of being.  Relinquishment is transmuted into right relationship.

Today, as you mark your journey into Lent, with the smudged markings of a cross, may you be open to the transformation that is before you.  Believe that the Spirit resides in the unknown landscapes that reside between now and your arrival-your Easter.  May you give yourself over to the mysteries of ritual and the gifts that only threshold crossings can bring. May you meet angels every step of the way on your pilgrimage journey!

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ps. So, what am I “giving up for Lent” you might ask?  It is hardly lofty and has nothing to do with awaking earlier (can’t afford that what with three young ones still clamoring for momma at all hours), going without caffeine (can’t do that because of the sleep, or lack thereof), or going without alcohol (remember those three children I mentioned?  they are all six and under, which means a glass of wine at night truly is a gift from God!).  I have two intentions with which I am crossing the threshold into this year’s Lenten journey:

1) I am committing to raising my heart rate above resting for 30+ minutes a day; yes, this means exercise!  I am seeing this as an intentional act of moving myself more towards the created being God intended.  I am a better wife, partner, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor and more inspired to boot when I get out and move this body I live in.  That means I can be better for my world if I do this.  So there it is–intention numero uno.

2) Between the hours of 4:00-7:00pm there is a sharp-tongued beast that emerges from my deepest parts.  It is curt, impatient and hungry…and not very nice.  I am tired during these hours, we are all awaiting Joel’s return from the workday, and little ones seem to need me more.  And.  I have the singular responsibility of making dinner (no blame here; this is how our responsibilities shake down here at 2809 because…well, I’m a better cook!).  While a warm meal is typically on the table for us all to gather around and eat together, more often than not, I’m peaked.  I don’t feel like “being the change I want to see in the world,” and that makes me sad.  I wanted to do something this season that was on the “bringing life” side of things, and for me, the challenge was in figuring out how to make time to do so.

So, with the combined inspiration of a friend of a friend’s blog and the call of Joel’s current reading of Simpler Living, Compassionate Life , we are eating beans and rice for dinner through Lent (excluding Sundays, which are feast days throughout Lent).  What will that do?  Well…I’m hoping to gain three-hours of family time; time where I’m not relegated to the kitchen, but can be together with the whole family and time when I’m not maxed chopping, roasting, grilling and wiping all at the same time.  I’m hoping to learn with my children the consumption reality of the majority of the earth’s people; a very small population has the privilege of perusing recipes and procuring listed items every day.  If we are going to learn to live on behalf of Other, at some point, we’ve got to eat like them too.


[i] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 10.

[ii] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, (Doubleday; 2008).