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In Preparation for a Pilgrimage of Ancestry

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Next summer my husband and I will be taking a five-week trip to Ireland and Austria.  We saved up our frequent flyer miles for free tickets and without a dog at home to worry about leaving behind for that long, we decided to seize the opportunity.  (We will definitely get another dog eventually, but have decided to wait until after this trip).

Ireland and Austria may seem like an odd combination, but we each have roots in these places.  My father was Austrian and Latvian, he moved to Vienna when he was 12 years old during World War II to live with his mother’s family.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, he always identified much more strongly with the Austrian part of his heritage.  Perhaps because the Russians occupied Latvia and his family lost claim to any property and belongings they had there.  It wasn’t until the Berlin wall fell and Eastern Europe began to open up again that I heard him talk about the possibility of traveling back to Latvia to see his homeland.  He died before that happened.  He was always deeply proud of Austrian culture, art, and achievement.  He often sat me down to listen to the music of Mozart or the great waltzes.  My mother learned German after marrying him and often cooked scrumptious Austrian dishes like Wienerschnitzel and Sachertorte.

My father had worked for the United Nations and part of the benefits in addition to six weeks paid vacation each year included a trip for your whole family to return to your native country every other year.  Growing up we traveled frequently to Austria, spending time in the beautiful city of Vienna where we had an apartment until my grandfather died when I was 10.  Then we would take the train west to the Tyrolean mountains where we would often spend a couple of weeks at a pension, a family-run hotel that served all your meals.  I remember lots of long stunning hikes up above the tree line, past glaciers, to these great little huts where you could have a bowl of knodelsuppe or some other treat to nourish your body.  These are some of the most deeply etched memories I have of my time growing up.  Landscapes have ways of reaching inside of you and molding you like clay.

I attended the UN school while growing up and there was a lot of emphasis placed on nationality.  I always considered myself Austrian growing up because no one wanted to be just American.  We would often dress up in our national costumes, me in my dirndl, and bring food to represent our nationality and culture.  Unfortunately because of my childhood stubbornness my language skills in German have never been what they should be having been raised by a native German speaker.  Sadly the last time I was in Austria was my junior year of college, after spending a semester in Paris I met my mother for Christmas in Vienna which we celebrated with family friends.  It has been much too long indeed.

John’s mother’s family traces their roots back to County Mayo in Ireland.  He doesn’t have family there that he knows of, but we both are fascinated with Irish and Celtic culture.  He has never had the opportunity to go before and I am excited that he gets to connect with the land of his ancestry.

A pilgrimage is a special kind of journey, one taken to a holy place with the hope for an encounter with the sacred and the intention of being changed by what happens there and along the way.  We don;t go on pilgrimages to return the same person.   I believe we are profoundly connected to the land and culture and stories of our ancestors in ways we don’t fully realize.  Their experiences, their sorrows and joys are knit into our bones, woven into the fabric of our very bodies.  The impulse to discover one’s story often leads you to reach far back into history.  We can’t fully understand the impact of these connections until we stand on the land and speak the language of those who came before us and gave us the gift of life through our ancestors.

Pilgrimages take preparation.  There are of course, the practical details of planning our trip which include buying maps and guide books, making an itinerary and reservations.  But there is another whole level of preparation that also needs to take place.  I am reading lots of books about Celtic spirituality (some of the wisdom from that I will share here in future posts) to understand more deeply that way of being and praying in the world.  Through this I am discovering an amazing kinship with their relationship to the earth.  I have discovered that the ancient Celts even have roots in Austria, weaving the two lands together.  I am hoping in the spring to take a conversational German class to brush up on my language skills, both so I can communicate with others in Austria, but also because speaking another language enters you into a different way of looking at the world.  I am also making a commitment to continue my regular hiking and walking through the winter months and slowly increasing elevation gain so we can truly enjoy our time in the Austrian mountains and walking around the landscape of Ireland.

We are hoping the length of our trip gives us time to really savor the experience.  We want time to dwell in each place and listen deeply for its song.  Our trip is still seven months away, but I have such a sense of anticipation and excitement.  I know I will be transformed both in the preparation process and on the journey itself.  These next few months will be their own kind of journey that I look forward to exploring here.

I love the image and metaphor of pilgrimage.  We often talk about our life journey because it conveys so well the process of our spiritual unfolding.  There is a sense of movement to this image that honors the dynamism of God.  Pilgrimages also honor the power of physical places to change us and are thus deeply incarnational practices.  Oftentimes when I go for a hike, I imagine I am on a pilgrimage, a sacred journey to a holy place, a journey which transforms me.  We don’t have to go very far to respond to the invitation pilgrimage offers to us.

What are the stories and cultures of your ancestors?  Do you have ways of connecting to them?  What are the pilgrimages you have taken?  Do you have a pilgrimage planned or one you are dreaming about?  Are there sacred places near you where you might visit for a brief journey?

-Christine Valters Paintner

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8 Responses

  1. Never too late to comment Wendy :-)
    You have some amazing connections in your ancestry and to hear they showed up in your dreams is not surprising, yet so beautiful. Thanks!

  2. I’m kind of belated on comments here…

    Ancestry is such core stuff! My partner is an ancestry buff and we too dream of someday traveling to our ancestral homes. We are both descended from St Helen of the cross and also from Old King Cole and Strada the Fair, and we really love those common bonds. I am also descended from St Melangal’s protector the Prince of Prowys, and also from Pokahantos. He is also descended from Saint/Queen Margaret of Scotland, and from Robert de Bruce (connected with William Wallace/Braveheart) . Anyway, we really get into this stuff, and it showed up in our dreams long before we found out about it in ancestry. So I believe this stuff goes deep for all of us really.

    I hope your trip is amazing!

  3. Hi Me, Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful poems, such wonderful images. I especially love “the stiffening embrace of a winter wind” and “The south wind plays with tumbleweeds and floats plastic jellyfish from their breeding grounds in abandoned parking lots to unknown destinations.” You have wonderful photos, I understand what you mean about photography being an intuitive act, I feel freer in photos than I do often with other acts of art-making. Lots of good coherent stuff there. Many blessings to you! Christine

  4. Ancestory…I’ve never traveled to the homeland of my great-grandparents. I am Dutch…I have no calling to be Dutch…The land of the Celts calls me though – but that is another story.

    I was raised in Wester Kansas and that is where my mother’s heart lives and I think part of my father’s heart lives there too. I have only returned there four times since graduating from college as my parents moved away the year I graduated.

    There is a vastness to the landscape that invites exploration. And the movement of the wind seems to cleanse. I don’t write much about it in my poems – I’ve written memory articles but not much in poems but these two perhaps best describe the landscape of my youth:

    tired (Thursday, May 27, 2004)

    the odor of lilacs sickens her,
    a breeze lifts her hair
    but she desires the stiffening
    embrace of a winter wind
    rather than this softening in the sun

    Devolution (2/17/02)

    I stand on an abandoned railroad bed
    and listen to the wind. At my feet
    a small green brain drops from an osage orange
    tree. Tertiary memory is recorded in the wrinkles
    of its small hard fruit. The past marks the land
    with twisted fence posts that drag the remains
    of barbed wire restraints through yellow grass.
    In the distance, a meadowlark trills an inverted scale,
    a lilting descant that defies the jet flying above.
    The south wind plays with tumbleweeds
    and floats plastic jellyfish from their breeding grounds
    in abandoned parking lots to unknown destinations.

    My connections to the past in terms of my family come in two ways…the members of my family seem committed to writing their lives and memories and we share them. It is good.

    And another written record and one that I think actually binds us closest is recipes – the writing of, remembering of, using, discussing, the recipes of our life. I guess my family is a bunch of foodies.

    My hope is that someday soon, I will go back to Kansas again – this time with the ability to go places with my camera and write in my memory with it how I feel and the space it gives me. I think in photography is where I am most responsive to my world and where I least shape it by my own thoughts – it is an immediate gut response…

    sort of a incoherent ramble, I am afraid.


  5. Hi Zorra and Rich, Scotland is another place I would love to go visit as well, especially Iona. I wonder how far it would be to travel from Ireland there. What a blessing you were both able to connect with ancestry there. Rich, that is a very moving image of your mother dying when you were in the land of her birth, something very peaceful and yes, consoling about that.

    Hi Bette, Yes there are lots of wonderful pilgrimages to take where we don’t have to travel very far even. Although a trip to Wales and Sweden sounds wonderful. John’s mother was told that the Foy family has lots of members in County Mayo, so we may run across several of them!

    Blessings, Christine

  6. I could go on for days on this topic as you might guess from the name of my blog ( My earliest pilgrimage was to Scotland when I was 18.

    My folks had come to the US in 1948. I was born in 1952 and was the only member of the family not born in Scotland. While my mother’s side of the family had all come to the States, my father’s entire family (whom I’d never met) still lived in the Scotland. The experience of being picked up at the airport by folks you’d only ever seen pictures of or exchanged postal letters was incredible. I was escorted around all the old family haunts and could feel the places deep in my soul. Unfortunately, after 8 days away, we received a phone call that my mother had died. But, there was something consoling about being in the country of her birth at the time. After returning home and settling back to daily life and sharing the stories of my trip, my father decided that he, too, needed a return trip. So, one year later, I returned to Scotland with my father to visit relations he hadn’t seen in over 25 years. It was a magical time.

    Enjoy this time of preparation. You are stepping into liminal space. Seemingly magical events will occur. I know you’ll be prepared to notice them.


    P.S. I was on Iona for a week both in 2003 and 2004. After coming home in 2003 and being asked to guest preach at my church one Sunday about my experiences, I was privileged to be able to lead a pilgrimage of 7 additional church members the following year.

  7. Congratulations are in order! Your pilgrimage plans sound wonderful! Its nice that your husband is intersted in his heritage and landscape as well. Maybe he will locate family while you are there.

    I love this line you wrote, “Landscapes have ways of reaching inside of you and molding you like clay.” So true.

    My father’s ancestors came from England/Wales and my mother’s from Sweden. I was in England once but didn’t get to go to the places of my ancestors. Someday I will go to Wales and Sweden.

    But right now it is more important for me to be in nature… to be molded by my own landscape.


  8. That will be a wonderful trip. Last summer we visited the Scottish Highlands, hiked through the valley where some of my husband’s ancestors lived in the 1700’s and found the site of their home, which is still a working farm. We were also blessed to visit Iona, although our time there was too short. I hope to return to Iona and Mull some day.