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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