Travel was ingrained in me as a value from a young age. When I was growing up in New York City my father worked for the United Nations and we had the privilege of traveling back to Austria where he was from, as well as other European countries and once as a teen through Asia.
Image provided by Christine Paintner. Used with permission.
As an adult, I began to see the journeys I took as having the potential for deeper meaning. I saw a difference between travel as a tourist, and making a journey as a pilgrim. I often define pilgrimage as “courting holy disruption.” We go on a soulful, intentional journey to break ourselves open in new ways. As a tourist we want everything to go according to plan. Pilgrims welcome the opportunity for changing course and perspective along the way.
Pilgrimage is an inner journey in response to outer movement. Sometimes the journey doesn’t involve any physical relocation. We might embark on pilgrimage because of illness or transition in our lives, and find that we are moving into new internal territory. The old structures no longer hold. This is the practice of hearing the call—whether it was a call we desired, or came unbidden—when we respond and assent to the journey it takes us on we become pilgrims. When life beckons we can resist at every turn, or recognize that things are changing and our invitation is to open ourselves to this.
The journey calls us to pack lightly. We discover that the old ways, habits, and patterns no longer serve us. Perhaps we feel an impulse to simplify our lives so that we have more room and resources for the new that is emerging. Travel is easier with light bags. We ask ourselves what hat do we want to carry forward.
We then cross a threshold, which is a space between. The old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged. Thresholds are sacred places in the Celtic imagination where the veil is considered thin between heaven and earth. When we open ourselves to the liminal and stop grasping at the way things were, we may discover a variety of unseen presences supporting us along the way.
Embarking on pilgrimage may tempt us to seek the well-worn path, but the essence of the true inner journey is finding our own way forward. The poet Antonio Machado says that “the way is made by walking.” We put one foot in front of the other and the next step is revealed only as we are in movement. This demands a great deal of trust from us and listening for the whispers of the divine along the way.
The Latin root of the word pilgrim is peregrini, which means stranger. We go on pilgrimage to become strangers to all that is familiar, to break out of our routine vision of the world and discover something new. This requires that we stretch, that we travel to wild edges, and risk being uncomfortable. It is in that discomfort that we encounter new dimensions of our own capacity and new faces of the sacred.
Along the way we will encounter our own limitations again and again. We will find ourselves resisting or forgetting our spiritual practice. In the monastic tradition there is great value placed on “beginner’s mind” and honouring our humanity. When we stray too far from our own deep desires of the heart, we are issued an invitation to always begin again.
Ultimately the pilgrimage journey asks us to embrace mystery, to walk into unknowing, to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control. In that process we allow ourselves to be broken open to receive gifts far bigger than our own limited imaginations could ponder.
And finally the journey always calls us back home again with renewed awareness. Even if we never left home physically on pilgrimage, but made the deep inner journey, we discover that home is a deep abiding presence within us and we see the familiar in new ways. We return with the gifts that we were offered along the path.
These eight practices of hearing the call and responding, packing lightly, crossing the threshold, making the way by walking, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home are all part of an inner pilgrimage of discovery, where we may not even travel past our own neighbourhood, but by seeing our experience with new eyes we can find ourselves and God in new ways.
Christine is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual global monastery offering resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the issues Christine raised in this post, then make sure you check out her book The Soul of a Pilgrim. Also, make sure you have a look at her brand new book The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women, and the range of other books she has authored around the themes of contemplation and creativity. – Tim