Dearest monks and artists,
Two years ago I published my book The Soul of a Pilgrim which developed out of my own lifelong love of journeying.
My father worked for the United Nations when I was a child and we had the privilege of traveling back to Austria where he was from, as well as other European countries and once through Asia.
As an adult, as I grew into my own spiritual practices, I discovered that pilgrimage is something that breaks me open to new discoveries each time. But I also found that because the journey is an inward one, in response to outer movement, that there were qualities and practices that could be cultivated in our daily lives. I work a lot with the creative arts and have long referred to creating as a pilgrimage as well, that journey made with intention and mindfulness and open to discovery along the way.
We might embark on pilgrimage because of illness or transition in our lives, and find that we are moving into new internal territory. The old structures no longer hold. This is the practice of hearing the call—whether it was a call we desired, or came unbidden—when we respond and assent to the journey it takes us on we become pilgrims. When life beckons we can resist at every turn, or recognize that things are changing and our invitation is to open ourselves to this.
The journey calls us to pack lightly. We discover that the old ways, habits, and patterns no longer serve us. Perhaps we feel an impulse to simplify our lives so that we have more room and resources for the new that is emerging. Travel is easier with light bags. What do we want to carry forward with us?
We then cross a threshold which is a space between. The old has fallen away and the new hasn't yet emerged. Thresholds are sacred places in the Celtic imagination where the veil is considered thin between heaven and earth. When we open ourselves to the liminal and stop grasping at the way things were, we may discover a variety of unseen presences supporting us along the way.
Embarking on pilgrimage may tempt us to seek the well-worn path, but the essence of the true inner journey is finding our own way forward. The poet Antonio Machado says that "the way is made by walking." We put one foot in front of the other and the next step is revealed only as we are in movement. This demands a great deal of trust from us and listening for the whispers of the divine along the way.
The root of the word pilgrim is peregrini, which means stranger. We go on pilgrimage to become strangers to all that is familiar, to break out of our routine vision of the world and discover something new. This requires that we stretch, that we travel to wild edges, and risk being uncomfortable. It is in that discomfort that we encounter new dimensions of our own capacity and new faces of the sacred.
Along the way we will encounter our own limitations again and again. We will find ourselves resisting or forgetting our spiritual practice. In the monastic tradition there is great value placed on "beginner's mind" and honoring our humanity. When we stray too far from our own deep desires of the heart, we are issued an invitation to always begin again.
Ultimately the pilgrimage journey asks us to embrace mystery, to walk into unknowing, to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control. In that process we allow ourselves to be broken open to receive gifts far bigger than our own limited imaginations could ponder.
And finally the journey always calls us back home again with renewed awareness. Even if we never left home physically on pilgrimage, but made the deep inner journey, we discover that home is a deep abiding presence within us and we see the familiar in new ways. We return with the gifts that we were offered along the path.
These eight practices of hearing the call and responding, packing lightly, crossing the threshold, making the way by walking, being uncomfortable, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home are all part of an inner pilgrimage of discovery, where we may not even travel past our own neighborhood, but by seeing our experience with new eyes we can find ourselves and God in new ways.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner