Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
There are many ways to practice pilgrimage. You can journey far away to a sacred site, but there are also options within reach of a walk or drive from home, or even within your own imagination. Keep in mind these three essential aspects to create your own pilgrimage experience:
- Begin with an intention and prayer or blessing for this time.
- Stay open to the ways God might break in through the unexpected.
- When you return, spend time in reflection on how this experience has touched you. What new discoveries or invitations did you hear?
- Walking is a wonderful way to get out of our heads and into our bodies. If mobility issues prevent this, know that imagining yourself walking to each suggested site can have the same impact. God is present to us in whatever ways we are able to receive the sacred.
Make a local pilgrimage
Chances are you live near a church or perhaps even several churches. You could choose to make a pilgrimage to your local cathedral. Using the three essential aspects, make it a sacred experience by blessing the journey there, paying attention for divine whispers along the way, and then reflecting when you return home. You might look up the church calendar to see if there is an upcoming feast day that feels especially appropriate for your journey and let that shape your prayer.
In a more urban area, plan a walking pilgrimage from one church to another. Research the churches and map out a route. Look up the various saints they are dedicated to and write a note for each of them. Offer a prayer to each saint as you make each stop. Spend 15 minutes in silence at each of the churches. Listen for what is offered to you. Remember that what can feel like interruptions or disruptions to your plans may contain the sparks of an encounter with the divine.
If you live in a rural area, still try this suggestion out, but you may need to drive between sites. Try keeping the car radio off to maintain an atmosphere of quiet reflection.
Begin your pilgrimage by reading the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) as a blessing for this time. Listen along the way for how the holy is being revealed to you.
Make an ancestral pilgrimage
One of my favorite forms of pilgrimage is to journey to ancestral places and experience the landscape of those from my bloodline who traveled the earth before I did. However, sometimes these places are far away and require a lot of time and expense to reach.
If you live near a family cemetery, visit graves of loved ones who have passed away with the intention of making it a pilgrimage. Hold the image of the communion of saints and the Scripture image of being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) as you make this journey. Feel yourself surrounded by the love of thousands who have come before you. Offer gratitude for all the ways they endured so that you might live. You could choose to make this pilgrimage during November, which is the month of remembrance of the dead, or on the anniversary of an ancestor’s birth or death.
If you have no ancestral connections close by, visit the local cemetery anyway. Pray for the people there and their families. Feel their connection to this place where you live and all the ways they may have contributed to making it the community that it is.
Make a nature pilgrimage
You might choose to make a pilgrimage to a nearby place in nature. This could be a local park that you love or even your backyard. Locate the closest forest, river, seashore, or mountain, remembering all of the holy landscapes in Scripture such as the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai.
Begin your pilgrimage by reading Psalm 104 and asking for the clarity to hear all of creation joining in an ongoing hymn of praise. As you walk let this be a time of contemplative listening for the more-than-human voices that surround you. Spend time with things that call to you along the way, whether a pinecone in your path, a smooth stone, moss on the trees, or a flower growing. Pay attention to the birds and animals that make this place their home, and call to mind the desert and Celtic saints who saw intimacy with animals as a special sign of holiness. Find a quiet place on your journey to sit for a time in silence and simply receive the gifts being offered to you.
This article also appears in the July 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 7, pages 12–17) and on their website.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner