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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