Virtually all cultures recognize that there are certain transition points in our lives when we are meant to attend more carefully to matters of the spirit. Adolescents entering adulthood, seekers arriving at midlife, and those entering the last stage of their lives are all ripe for pilgrimage. So, too, are those who have had a transition thrust upon them unwillingly by death, divorce, or other personal trials. All of these experiences can open our hearts and souls to the new insights to be found on pilgrimage.
What places beckon to you? What dream do you want to fulfill? What task does your soul seem to have in store for you? Listen deeply to the small whisper inside of you, the one that will guide you where you need to go.
As you make your plans, keep in mind that it is not necessary to travel great distances while on pilgrimage. Because a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for a spiritual purpose, its destination can be anywhere, as long as the trip is undertaken mindfully. No spiritual merit is gained simply by traveling to an exotic location, as the early Irish monk who penned the following verse acknowledges:
Who to Rome goes
Much labor, little profit knows;
For God, on earth though long you’ve sought him,
You’ll miss at Rome unless you’ve brought him.
Those on pilgrimage enter a liminal state, their identities becoming fluid amidst myriad possibilities. That threshold between worlds is sacred ground, and we are meant to honor it with ritual and prayer. Read and reflect before you set out on your trip, preparing your mind and soul for the journey ahead. While you are traveling, intertwine your steps with prayer. Be mindful of each moment. Practice the discipline of gratitude. Look for the grace that can shine through in even the most seemingly mundane of circumstances.
When you return, your re-entry may not be easy. The journey may have changed you in ways that those at home will find hard to understand. Nevertheless, pilgrims are meant to share their new-found wisdom and insights with others. And perhaps more than anything, they are meant to realize that our entire life is meant to be a pilgrimage, a seeking after the divine in moments both ordinary and extraordinary.
Finally, to be a pilgrim is to give up control so that the Holy Spirit can enter into the journey with you. In his lovely book The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, Phil Cousineau recounts a story about Joseph Campbell, the scholar of ancient myths. A woman approached him after one of his lectures and proceeded to tell him in great detail about her upcoming pilgrimage to Greece. Every last moment had been planned with care, including the exact time of day when she would visit each holy spot. At the end of her long recitation, Campbell took her hand and told her kindly, “Dear lady, I sincerely hope that your trip does not go entirely as planned.”
Campbell knew that a true pilgrim must leave room for grace and serendipity along the way. While we may plan the external details of our trip, its larger scope is beyond our control. We do not know the fellow travelers who will change us, the dangers we will face, and the mysteries we will encounter. We must be open to the unexpected, even if it means that we will at times be disappointed, frightened, or confused. To go on pilgrimage is to place ourselves in the hands of God, trusting that the way we need to find will appear before us.