Monday, November 2, 2009

What Is Pilgrimage?

When I tell people I went on a pilgrimage to Ireland, they often ask what that means. What is the difference in a tour or just plain old trip and a pilgrimage? For most of us the word “pilgrimage” evokes a picture of visiting a holy shrine at a certain season, perhaps to pray for blessings.

However in early Celtic Christianity, a pilgrimage was different. Early ascetic monks would leave home, exile themselves from family and friends, on pereginatio pro Christo, or wandering for Christ. From Ireland they went out into various parts of Europe, as well as to remote places in or around their homeland. They sought out places of solitude where they devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation to become closer to God and develop their relationship with God. They often took with them small communities of twelve others. As Oliver Davies tells us in Celtic Spirituality, “It is these wandering Irish monks in [self-imposed] exile who were responsible for bringing Christianity to large areas of western and central Europe.”

When, just over a month ago we set out on our pilgrimage to Ireland, we were going with particular sacred sites on our itinerary, but in another way, we were participating in a bit of pereginatio. Life is metaphorically called a journey, and sometimes it takes curious, unexpected twists and turns. We may find ourselves wandering about a bit in order to find where we need to be, just as those ancient monks did. So, when we left for Ireland in September, with an itinerary, we also had a mindset of being on a bit of a wandering around. Within the structure of the planned pilgrimage there was a place for individual time, silence and contemplation, and an openness to whatever might be evoked in us by our surroundings. The journey was not just about seeing places, but also about what we experienced, which often came in unexpected ways.

Pilgrims through the ages have taken time away from their day-to-day lives to make journeys to sacred sites, to renew something within them, to rededicate themselves spiritually, or to seek blessing or healing. The real challenge is in the rest of our lives when we aren’t officially on pilgrimage. That is to live with the idea of all life being a sacred pilgrimage in our minds. What would that mean? First, an openness to the unexpected. Balancing our to do lists with time to be present in the moment and conscious of what is going on around us that we might normally rush past and tune out. It may mean creating a space and time for being still and open.

This morning I lit a candle and meditated for a time. In the quiet I heard sounds that are around me all the time but that I normally do not hear. The steady rhythm of a clock nearby, a bird outside, a dog somewhere in the distance. There are times when I willingly tune out these sounds as distraction, but today, hearing them gave me a sense of being a part of a larger whole. For those moments instead of being busy manipulating objects around me, trying to be in control and accomplish something, I was still and calm, feeling in sync with the rhythms of all that surrounded me. When I take time to meditate like that, my day generally goes better and I am less frazzled at the end.

On the pilgrimage in Ireland we had quiet times to be open to what I experienced at home this morning. The real challenge has been to come home, create space for and keep the mindset of pilgrimage alive as we resume our normal lives. Pilgrimage doesn’t have to end. (The picture below, unlike those above that were made in Ireland, came from my own back yard.)

Bonnie McCarson