I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Lacy Clark Ellman’s reflection on pilgrimage.
I first learned about Iona while in graduate school. Even though I’d spent six months studying abroad in the UK in college, I never made it up to Scotland. Instead I savored my season as a small-town-girl-turned-city-dweller, fully immersing myself in the wonders of London and the community I found there.
It was a season of autonomy for me, and I enthusiastically shed what was old like a snake leaving dead skin behind. As it was my final semester in college, it was also a threshold season—a period of transition and a pause between what had been and what was to come.
Like any liminal space, that threshold season was ripe with new awarenesses of self and new experiences of God, and as I finished my semester abroad with a summer of travel, my intrepid journeys served as a backdrop and catalyst for the transformation that was already stirring within. As time passed and the number of stamps in my passport grew, I found that my travel experiences were impacting my spirituality—both my connection to God and my True Self—and my spirituality was in turn informing my travel experiences. Though I didn’t have the language for it at the time, not only was I falling in love with the practice of pilgrimage—I was fully immersed in it.
A few years later, however, I did find the words and was able to name the practice that had guided me in such transformative ways. They came to me through the passing comments of a mentor (don’t they always?), who was heading to Egypt for a week. It was a trip she had wanted to take for a long time; it was a journey she would be making on her own; it was a pilgrimage.
This is it, I thought. This is what I have experienced, and this is the way of being—of longing, of seeking, of transformation—that I know to be true.
It didn’t take long for me to pore over Phil Cousineau’s The Art of Pilgrimage (recommended by that mentor and the textbook for any pilgrim) and change my degree program so that the practice of pilgrimage could be my focus. As is common with the archetype of pilgrimage, soon other pilgrims and sage guides began to cross my path, and it was from them that I learned of the Isle of Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland.
A pilgrimage destination for centuries and a sacred site since St. Columba began his ministry there nearly 1,500 years ago, Iona is commonly referred to as a “thin place”—a location where the veil between heaven and earth seems thin, and human and divine meet in extraordinary ways. Its rugged, sparse landscape inspires peace and contemplation, making it feel as if you were at the edge of the world, and its Celtic heritage highlights the many ways in which the sacred can be found in everyday life.
Even the journey to Iona mimics the journey within, as if slowly peeling away layers of the soul until you finally reach its center. The voyage requires trains, two ferries, and a drive between them until you eventually reach Iona’s shores, in the end arriving not so differently than Columba did fifteen centuries ago. I was able to make the journey five years ago with my husband, and when the time finally came for me to lead a pilgrimage of my own, Iona was where I wanted to begin.
We returned from our journey just over two months ago, and to simply say it was a meaningful experience for each of us would be an understatement. I knew I didn’t want to just take this group of pilgrims to a pilgrimage destination—I wanted to facilitate a fully immersive pilgrimage experience—and our trip to Iona allowed us to do just that.
This means that our pilgrimage didn’t begin when we boarded a plane or disembarked on Iona’s shore, but instead in the moment that we each said “yes” to the journey—when we answered the invitations of the divine and responded to the longing of our souls. It means that even though our trip was months away, we fully immersed ourselves in preparations—mind, body, and soul—asking questions that would inspire our quest, seeking out guides for the path ahead, and sharing our desires and intentions with companions who could journey with us from afar in thought and prayer. It means that we ritualized our sending, blessed our going, and made our way to the island on the first day of our journey in reverence with silence and awe.
Once we arrived on Iona, we immersed ourselves in the pilgrim experience by moving slowly, committing time to practice and presence, engaging in both rest and play, and establishing regular rhythms of reflection. The pilgrim’s journey is not simply one of retreat, however, but of traveling beyond borders and exploring foreign terrain, and so we practiced this by welcoming the stranger, greeting trials with curiosity, and courageously traversing unfamiliar landscapes, both on the island and in the soul (including a few falls in the mud in both accounts!). Much like the story of Jacob in Genesis (whose grandfather, Abraham, was the first recorded pilgrim), we wrestled with the sacred in the wilderness, and in the end, we were blessed.
The pilgrim’s journey isn’t finished, though, once the pilgrim returns home, and so even after our time on Iona came to a close, I encouraged the pilgrims to hold the journey near as the revelations of the journey continued to unfold. And in the months that have followed, though many miles (and sometimes states) stand between us, we’ve remained connected through shared memories and conversation as we honor the journey and savor what remains, each pilgrim discerning how to integrate her experience on Iona into life at home in her own way. After all, the practice of pilgrimage is only a crucible; true change must be sustained in the everyday.
Now that my first pilgrimage is in the books, I’m eager for more. My mind is on fire with sparks of inspiration for future journeys—food and monasticism in Italy; intentional community in the Alps; new faces of God on Bali, the island of a thousand temples—but I’m most excited to extend the pilgrimage experience beyond the group setting and to accompany and guide pilgrims from afar through the launch of my new program, Journey Guide.
A step-by-step pilgrimage companion for the journey of a lifetime, Journey Guide is a multimedia resource for the pilgrim who wants to infuse her travel experience with spirituality and intention. Perfect for pilgrims traveling solo or individuals on group pilgrimages alike, Journey Guide makes it easy to ensure that the impact of your journey will last long after you return home. With reflections, prompts, and worksheets to personalize your experience and pilgrim resources, audio interviews, and meditations to inspire, you’ll be fully equipped to journey with intention and return home transformed. Journey Guide even provides the opportunity to work with me one-on-one so that you have a seasoned traveler and guide to journey alongside you each step of the way
Join me, fellow pilgrim, in the practice of pilgrimage on this journey of a lifetime? Whether you set off on pilgrimage to far off lands or journey with intention right at home, may your steps be blessed and your life be changed.
Want to know more? Lacy will be sharing about Journey Guide and her recent trip to Iona via Facebook Live on her Facebook page tomorrow, June 1, at 1 pm PT. Tune in live for a chance to win a pendant made from a stone collected at Columba’s Bay!
Lacy Clark Ellman, MA, is a spiritual director and guide who speaks the language of pilgrimage and is always ready for the next adventure. She is a lover of food, books, spirituality, growing and making things, far off places and lovely spaces. Lacy writes about spirituality and intention in travels and daily life at asacredjourney.net and creates resources for the pilgrim at home and abroad, including handmade and designed items in the Journey Shop. Learn more about Journey Guide, her latest creation and pilgrim offering and a step-by-step companion for the pilgrimage of a lifetime, here.