Pilgrimage "is the practice of intentional travel to a holy place, with the hope of experiencing a blessing: an encounter with God, with one’s faith tradition, or with those who have gone before us,” writes Anglican priest Rev. Lynne McNaughton in Touchstone journal.
Paul Simon puts it more poetically: “Poor boys and pilgrims with families. . . . We all will be received in Graceland.”
Among the pilgrims who have gone before us are Sarah, Abraham and Hagar, and Moses and Miriam: biblical ancestors who trusted God on the journey while also setting out to discover God anew.
These days, many people embark on pilgrimages, often to trace ancestral roots or to mark anniversaries. I suspect that pilgrimage is a way to make spiritual sense of our lives.
When I was working as director of the Five Oaks Centre, a United Church retreat facility in Paris, Ont., I made a pilgrimage to the island of Iona, Scotland. It was one way to mark Five Oaks’ historical relationship with the Iona Community, an ecumenical group of Christians with roots in sixth-century Irish monasticism. The island is often described as a “thin place” where the membrane between heaven and earth is as porous as it could possibly be. I began the journey skeptically: “How can some places be ‘thinner’ or more sacred than others?” But as I shifted my expectation toward blessing, I experienced a sense of coming home and an encounter with the Holy.
Do you have a place of pilgrimage? Think about it. Pilgrimage doesn’t always mean long-distance travel or medieval churches. Your place of pilgrimage may be a favourite trail, camp or retreat centre. The labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral in France was created for people who wanted a pilgrimage but couldn’t manage a trip to Jerusalem. Your own backyard could be another Chartres.
For many people, journeying to celebrated holy places — such as Iona or Jerusalem — may add an extra level of meaning. Praying in places already saturated with the prayers of pilgrims who came before us gives us the sense that we are participants in the mysterious thinning between heaven and earth.
Kathy Galloway, a Scottish theologian and former leader of the Iona Community, writes that the value of pilgrimage is intrinsic. “It is something that is good to do because it is good to do. . . . And whether the context for pilgrimage is solitude or community, we will be drawn deeper into the mystery of God and the care of creation.”
Pilgrimage can also be about noticing points of connection between our inner and outer journeys. Tom Hunt, the maintenance co-ordinator for Five Oaks, was one of the first to respond to this column’s invitation in January to share one’s spiritual practices. He describes his daily rituals in caring for a place that also serves as a pilgrimage destination for others: “When I take time to walk on one of our trails along Whiteman’s Creek and the Grand River, I look around and simply observe my surroundings. I am always amazed when I sight a wild turkey, a great blue heron, an otter, beaver, deer and the majestic bald eagle . . . . I give my full attention and presence to this Sabbath time and become aware of God’s presence in nature and in me. My prayers are filled with gratitude and I am comforted by the knowledge that God’s creation is cared for by God and by my work.”
How are you an intentional pilgrim on your life journey? Where is your Graceland?
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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