On Pilgrimage: Destinations Of The Soul

front-st-brendanIt has been said that a pilgrimage is a physical journey with a spiritual destination. A “mystic,” from the word “mystikos,” means “to see with the eyes closed,” and at times, and in places, we are called to a blind wandering of sorts. The ancient Celtic Christians called this wandering, this pilgrimage of the soul, a perigrinatio. A perigrinatio is a journey, a wandering, whose destination is not primarily a physical location, but rather is a Person.

In following a Person, the trajectory is not always a straight path from one point to another. There is seemingly erratic movement when one is following something as unpredictable as a Personality. There is the revisiting of old places, the discovery of new places in the same neighborhood, the encountering of the Person in places we would never expect to find them. From an aerial view, this kind of “journey,” would look less like a straight line drawn across the map of a life, but rather would look more like a dance, in which one follows, and the Other leads.

A few recent pilgrimages, physical journeys with spiritual destinations, spring to mind for me. At present a group of students from St. Stephen’s University is on a pilgrimage to Asia. We sent them out in a beautifully crafted Sending service, replete with laughter, music, eucharist, prayers from the senders, prayers from the goers, private prayers exchanged between the two, challenges to the leaders and the ordination of all to be followers on a sojourn on which we are guests – the guests of God, the guest of countries, and the guest of people and cultures whom we have never encountered before. Another friend is preparing to visit family, hoping to see old places with new eyes. My wife travels back and forth to her job teaching young children – a journey occurs every day for her that may be more important than either of us realize.

Preparing For Pilgrimage
Just as in each of these physical journeys mentioned above, there is preparation that is also necessary for the spiritual journey that accompanies the one we trek with our feet.

In preparing for a journey, and in seeing it as a pilgrimage,

  • Packing is important. Clothes are necessary to meet the climates, cultures and challenges of the trip. Maps, event calendars, and basic instruments of hygiene are also needed. Likewise, journals, scriptures, books, sketchbooks, blogs and reflective aids (a candle, music or images, perhaps) are just as necessary for a pilgrimage to be embraced to its fullest.
  • Prayer is important. Requests for safety, divine appointments and ease of travel are the content of vital dialogues one should have with God when one embarks on any trip. Many have experienced the miraculous enriching and easing of simple journeys seeming to be the overflow of even simpler prayers. Likewise, corporate prayers, meals, conversations and embraces (gestures of affection and shared life) are vital components not to be forgotten in preface to a pilgrimage.
  • Perspective is important. There is listening to be done prior to an excursion of any length. Study, discussion and research form a vital trinity of perspective-givers before one leaves for a physical destination. Others who have gone before us may have insights that will keep us physically well and heighten the adventure. Likewise, a pilgrimage may demand that we engage voices that are silent until a book is opened, an image considered, a reflection is meditated upon. If we carry with us only the perspective we have acquired to date, to a new situation into which we have been invited by God, we have fewer gifts to both offer and to receive when we arrive.

On Being Drawn To A Pilgrimage
Students often come to our small university community, to attend programs from around the world, because something about the “thin place” that is St. Stephen draws them to this place “on the margins.” We live in the most economically poor county, in the most economically poor province, in Canada. And yet, there seems to be a reason to live, learn and even stumble here in our small portion of the world. Friends of mine travel to various places in Europe on pilgrimage, often to places rich in Celtic spirituality, at the beckon of God. A few years ago, my wife and I were in the same country (Turkey) in which her Armenian grandmother was born and in which her family greatly suffered – for us, it was important. For still others, an event, or a gathering, draws them to a location. Pilgrimages of the heart occur when we crack open a book, step onto a street, attend an event, or open the doors of a museum – every day of our lives.

Whatever the reason, pilgrimages – physical journeys with spiritual destinations – will whisper to us throughout our lifetimes. These journeys should be considered with the aid, support and direction of those around us. Our hearts are tricky and fickle, and spouses, spiritual friends and respected guides can help us to tease apart our motives for travel. The financial and time implications of a trip should always be considered as well, as the practical challenges may themselves be an indication from God that a desired trip is to be deferred to another time, that a state of our hearts to be considered, or that our reasons for traveling may be convoluted.

Yet, a portion of those destinations may actually be in your heart because an invitation has been issued. God may have whispered, or a person may have been prompted to welcome you, and one should never be quick to dismiss the inclination to move when an inner voice seems to compel us. Even if the journey is not to be, the fact that our souls are drawn toward it tells us something of the interior workings of our own spirit in conversation with God. There is more than one way to travel. A favorite quote says “The art of travel is not in seeing new places, but is in seeing old places with new eyes.” Sometimes the liminal locus, or the threshold place of experience, is no farther from us than the ground beneath our next step – often in very familiar surroundings.

We Are All On Pilgrimage
We are all on a pilgrimage. Life is the classroom, someone has said, and love is the lesson. I find myself increasingly agreeing with this vision of the human journey we all share as I age. My home will always, on some level, be a place I have been privileged to visit. As a guest, I regard my wife’s invitation to friendship with all due respect and afford it the etiquette due between those who seek to dignify and honor one another. My brief journey to my office today I will consider likewise, as a moment within what is a very brief span of life to be regarded as an invitation to transformation, holy and pregnant with possibility.

In the spirit of pilgrimage, walk today as one whose destination goes beyond the see, taste, touch, smell and hear world to which we limit ourselves. Listen to the interior Voice, the whispering, indwelling Spirit of God. Peer, with your eyes closed, into the moments that remain a gift, a present, from the God who loves you. To see our moments as such, as physical journeys with spiritual destinations, will ultimately result in a life that becomes a generous gift to God and those to whom we have been sent.

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24 thoughts on “On Pilgrimage: Destinations Of The Soul

  1. Excellent post. And yes, I’d concur that there is something special about St Stephen, and of course the people there (the locals I met as well as those connected with SSU). I’ve said before, and this is in no way demeaning, that God has always used the least, the smallest, the poorest to achieve the greatest. On the aspect of journey, I think if we exercise the courage to actually embrace the journey and step out in faith then God really honours that. Darn it Dan, you got me all thinkin’ and inspired again! 😀

  2. Wonderful post here Dan. I love how you emphasize the pilgrimage in our daily lives. The simple things. Last night we were returning from a lovely dinner out. I was all dressed up. Went to walk our ramp onto the boat, slipped, and fell overboard. It was a short, cold, and a rather rudely awakening pilgrimage. In light of your post here, I am reminded that pilgrimage is often not what we imagine. It goes beyond our expectations and can often interrupt our previous held beliefs. Shaking us to the core. Luckily, in my case, there were strong arms around me to help pull me up. Note to fellow pilgrims: hot cocoa goes a long way towards a more pleasant journey. Love to you guys–you sojourners.

  3. Kim,

    My dear Sojourneying friend. We miss you, and your prose is always a welcome snack on the pilgrimage of life.


    Graeme, rich words. See you soon at the Hill.

  4. Good post Dan. Here were the things that stood out to me.

    “A perigrinatio is a journey, a wandering, whose destination is not primarily a physical location, but rather is a Person.”

    This is a good way of describing the mysterious nature of peregrinatio. For it is only when following a living person that you look like you are wandering and are not. There is another word that is close to peregrinatio but is not; it is Gyrovag (tinker/wanderer) and Esther De Waal explains why St. Benedict drove an important distinction between the two:

    “Benedict castigates the gyrovag, the aimless wanderer, the person who is never at rest but goes on continually seeking, drifting, living off other people, hoping for something new. This is not the Celtic way, and the openness of the peregrinatio should never tempt me to forget that without the still centre, the journey, whether inner or outer, is impossible.”

    This distinction could also be voiced also in terms of the difference between Tourist and Pilgrim. For a great description of our culture’s gyrovag, see matt wiebe’s post, http://mattwiebe.com/2009/01/rebellion-as-staying-put/ where he resists the tourist/gyrovag by contemplating stability. (i would make that into a prettier link, but i don’t know how, ha!)

    Dan, I also think you did a great job of describing the smaller pilgrimages. From you and your wife’s time in Turkey to the SSU travel study terms, I think you expressed the nature of pilgrimage very well. i especially liked the advice for interpreting circumstance as God’s way of pushing you into an experience of pilgrimage or of holding you back until another time.

    One question I had was about the last paragraph. It seems like you spend the whole article keeping pilgrimage to a physical movement with a spiritual destination/reason; so i didn’t understand it when you spoke of our lives as a pilgrimage. i’m not sure what you meant by this. If you meant life as a collection of physical journeys, large and small, then I’m there. If what was meant was a spiritualizing of a very physical Christian practice, then I would question that. I may be a bit sensitive to the latter, having encountered so little good Christian writing on pilgrimage as I did research for my wee booklet. The “pilgrimage in your heart with Jesus” theme is remarkably popular and remarkably boring, to me.

    I really enjoyed this article. Peace of Christ in all things


  5. Joel, thanks for this. On this topic, you are more the guru than I, and I’m grateful for your wisdom and insight.

    Regarding your last paragraph, you were correct in the first instance – I am speaking of both, a walk to work as a pilgrimage, and a walk with my wife in marriage as aided by using the term pilgrimage as a metaphor.

    I would not want to diminish the language of physical pilgrimage by poorly spiritualizing it. I embrace the physical pilgrimage; I find the metaphor useful when applied to intangible journeys.

    I wrote once in a song – “the hardest journey is the one we trek inside.”

    And yet, it is the trekking outside that aids the trekking within.

    Embracing dirt, dust, blood and bone,


  6. Dan,

    It is interesting how you tie ancestral places to our spiritual walkabout. A year or so ago, I was moved to recover some of my Mennonite roots (my grandfather was Mennonite, from near Carlisle, PA). I visited my father’s cousin, who is the pastor of a small Mennonite community, to ask him about their worship expression. He gave me their hymnal entitled, “Hymn’s and Tunes”. For the next couple months, the book accompanied me to the office and a lunch time I would go for a walk, reading the liturgy of my grandfather. God was restoring to me, some of what He revealed to my grandfather! There was a sweet connection in that season.

    One of my favorites is #202 “Worthy Praise to Immanuel”. I ended up adding my own music and chorus to it. The praise to God of my ancestors became my expression of praise, in my day, to God.

    O Great Immanuel,
    We bow beneath Thy throne;
    Thy worthy praise we fain would swell,
    And make They glory known.

    Praise, praise, worthy praise to Immanuel
    Praise, praise, worthy praise to Immanuel
    Praise immanuel

    Exploring our own spirituality through the worship of our ancestors is a worthwhile pilgrimage and we can gain back perspectives about God that our generations have misplaced and forgotten.


  7. O Great Immanuel,
    We bow beneath Thy throne;
    Thy worthy praise we fain would swell,
    And make Thy glory known.

    * corrected “Thy” in fourth line….

  8. dan,

    I don’t think you’ve diminished it; those last words were not for you but for those whose books I found while researching for my booklet on travel spirituality. sorry for the misunderstanding.

    By the end of my last paragraph, i was already realizing how you were embodying embodiment, the pilgrimage of life being many journeys, small and large, through which God teaches us in body, mind and soul. I find your description of pilgrimage exciting because it makes physical movement a necessary component.
    It reminds me of my friend Ned’s phrase, that sometimes we need to “act our way into a new way of thinking.” There is also the wonderful Zulu proverb that sings, “When you pray, move your feet!”

  9. Mmmmm Good. As a busy mom of 6, who often doesn’t journey much further than from the kitchen to the laundry room and back to the kitchen, this has been a good reminder to embrace the small moments of pilgrimage as well as the larger, more obvious ones. The Lord has been catching me on all sides, reminding me to live in the moment, to serve being wholly and completely present, to value to seemingly insignificant things in my day as well as the larger ones. Your thoughts help to broaden my vocabulary to express a work God is doing in me and through me. I love your last sentence: “To see our moments as such, as physical journeys with spiritual destinations, will ultimately result in a life that becomes a generous gift to God and those to whom we have been sent.”


  10. Whoa.
    Dan, thank you for sharing this with us. I was just questioning to God -again- on why I’m at my mom and dad’s place. (My husband and I moved here a year and a half ago, w’ith our three kids, at the beckon of God, and at the drawing of my heart).
    But it’s been really hard at times. You have just put into words, what’s been going on! I now have some undrstanding to hang my faith on – just like this entire course has been doing!
    In this case, it has been the “trekking outside that aids the trekking within”. I felt cut off or separated from my parents and the daily workings of their lives, and longed to work on my relationship with them, so we moved there to live with them. That may sound wild or drastic, but I guess I needed to be forced into a situation where I would actually face myself, and the transformation that I so desperately needed (and still need).

    What you spoke about in preparing for a pilgrimage spoke volumes to me as well.
    My husband and I both have been longing for travel since we arrived at my parent’s place, and we’ve been forced (again – LOL) to be checking our motives. Nothing ever seems to fit as to where to go and what to do, and on when. Is God trying to tell/show
    us something? LOL We just want to get out of here and be done with this hard work of learning “lessons of love” and character forming, in the “classroom of life.”

    And indeed, through all of that, God has been giving us new eyes with which to see old places. And I’m sure seeing a lot of familiar places in the old neighborhood! Incredible. The timing of your post is, well, timely! Thank you, thank you. I can rest a little more now! Ahhhh……


  11. Joel,

    I’m also thankful for your comments on the other kind of traveller or pilgrim – the ‘g’ word.
    I have come to realize in all my attempts at trying to leave here and just go anywhere else, that the unrest that is in me will just follow me there. And so I have not gone anywhere else – far away anyway- but have tried to focus on allowing God to address the unrest in me.
    The part of the definition that gave me pause was, the living off of people, in their constant seeking and drifting. Ouch. Could this be true of me? And if it is, hopefully it is less true of me today than a year and a half ago? Hopefully I’ve been growing. Even though it hurts to face that this is perhaps me, it can only be to my benefit to bring it before God and allow Him to search my heart and let me know. Thank you. i think I will be grateful for it later. Ha, ha, ha….


  12. Guys, thanks for the input here.

    Interesting Joel, Thursday morning in my Introduction To Spiritual Formation class I was teaching on pilgrimage themes from Esther De Waal’s “The Celtic Way Of Prayer,” and we spent some time on the “gyrovag.”

    Gypsy, vagabond ideas splashed up and against the peregrini of Celtic ideal, and we found ourselves seeing the gyrovag in ourselves, as we saw the true “wanderer toward a person” in ourselves as well.

    Great thoughts, too, Mark, Heather and Melissa. Bless your current journeys.

  13. Thank you for the encouragement Dan,

    Since accepting the love, salvation and fellowship of God, my life has definitely been an adventurous journey or as you’ve put it, pilgrimage. I remember, after being overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit presence in my life, borrowing some words from an old song which described how I felt back then…”I’m on my way, I don’t know where I’m going. I’m on my way, I’m taking my time but I don’t know where” (not that the rest of the song would be at all appropriate) We don’t really know where we are going except the destination is a Person. In view of how amazing our God is, that is an exciting thought full of possibilities.

    I like your analogy of the journey being like a dance. I once had the opportunity to dance with a very skilled partner who led me around the dance floor in such a way that I felt like I knew what I was doing and could dance with ease. I think that’s the way it is with life, as we submit to God’s lead we will dance through life with style and grace.

    Thanks again,


  14. The idea of a spiritual, not by sight, journey is intriguing. A journey toward a person has so much more attraction than a journey toward a place. It seems on a less spiritual level this is true. When we go on travel to visit family or friends we see some fantastic physical places, but the people are what warm our hearts.

  15. Dan,

    I like the idea of a pilgrimage as a journey to meet a person. I could never relate to the concept of pilgrimages until I took a trip to the UK for the first time 4 years ago. I study 19th-century British lit, and to actually be in England where all my literary heroes and villains lived and walked was amazing! I especially was moved by going to places where Charles Dickens and George Eliot lived (and seeing their graves). And seeing the “Bird and Baby” where C.S. Lewis and the Inklings met was great fun! Then my husband and I took a trip this past summer, and we stopped at the Lake District to see what they call “Wordsworth country.” We visited Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, and hiked around Lake Grasmere, and saw the field of daffodils they Wordsworths planted in memory of their daughter. Wordsworth famously talked of “spots of time”–a metaphor that encompasses both time and space–that he could revisit time and again in his memory (and then write about to add another layer of reflexivity). I think a pilgrimage is like that. It is a “spot of time” in which we find a Person that has gone before. In the UK I found Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Eliot, and Wordsworth; in my life as a whole I find Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who has gone before us. I like the idea of being present to God who has gone before me on the trip I call my life. I don’t usually think that way – but right NOW, Right HERE, God has gone before me, and I am joining Him in this spot of time.

    I don’t know if that makes sense; but it’s good to be challenged to think about these things in a new way. I’, looking forward to continuing in the E*r course!



  16. Hi Dan,

    Great article. I love your poetic way with words and the way you relate our physical journey preparation to our spiritual journey. I’ve had to do a lot of travel to different cultures, particularly Asia, doing God’s work. There are a lot of preparations to be made before each trip, but ultimately, we are all on a journey with God and need to prepare. I love the fact that each person’s journey is different but there are ways we can all prepare ourselves in that will help us!

    Thanks for article.

    Wendy Wells

  17. Hi Dan,

    This is beautifully and elegantly written.

    You have sketched the canvas, painted a picture, framed it and hung it on the wall for us all to see.

    You speak about the vision, journey and calling, yet also highlight the practical aspects of packing, prayer and perspective.

    Thankyou for the time and thought you invested in this post.


  18. I could personally relate Dan to your picture of us being on a pilgramage. Last year, I sensed God calling me aside for some time, which ended up being a three month journey both physical and spiritual. Many times I felt that my physical environment was reflecting my spiritual state. The peace I know now is beyond understanding.

    I think of when one goes on a holiday, you often come home with more than you went away with. Laden down with souvenirs that, once the lustre of the holiday has passed, gather dust on the shelves. I don’t want my pilgramages in life, with God, to be like this. The journey God had me walk with Him late last year had me discarding things to make space in my heart and mind for the souvenirs, new patterns and truths, that God lovingly deposited along the way.

    I loved the line you spoke of in one of the songs you wrote: “the hardest journey is the one we trek inside.”

    Oh how true this is but how lovely the fruit that comes to bear after the journey is taken. I praise God for that.

  19. A friend recently introduced me to the idea of The Way of Saint James. Reading your post, it made me realize just how much spiritual preparation I’m going to have to do before I make my first physical footstep (regardless of the path I choose), even as much as my feet will lead me in said spiritual journey in the end, and that preparation will be as much a pilgrimage as anything else!

  20. Thank you for writing that this pilgrimage of the soul, the “peregrinatio” is about following a person, not getting somewhere. It does look like wandering aimlessly, sometimes, and sometimes the goal seems so clear. But is it a goal or a step on the way of that journey that is meant to leave us looking so alike the one we are following?
    The practical advice about preparation, prayer and perspective, I also welcome them. The message gives me hope.
    I might end up going on an actual pilgrimage, one of those days. But right now, I will try and enjoy more the one I am living.

  21. What a great analogy…

    I should say that I’ve never called this journey a ‘pilgrimage,’ but as I read on it made so much sense.

    What a journey this life has been… for me and probably for most of us. Yes, It has been a mystical experience, yet a vulnerable one also.

    It’s funny how caught up we can be in our ‘circumstances’ to the point where we end up going nowhere fast… I love the three points made in the body of the text, which is a great reminder of the bigger picture which we are heading for.