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.
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
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.