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. Here are some suggestions:
Make a memory pilgrimage
This invitation is to make a pilgrimage through your memories and can be done sitting or lying down at home. The practice is inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola's Examen. Spend time in preparation by looking through old photos. Begin by reading Luke 2:19, where it says, "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." This is a pilgrimage of pondering.
Then find a quiet space, slow down your breathing, and drop inward into your imagination. Reflect back on your life and imagine that you are walking through each decade as if on a physical pilgrimage. Honor the journeys you have made. Pay attention to those moments of grace and ease when you felt a profound sense of consolation and love in your life. Let each God-kissed moment rise up, and spend time savoring it and offering a prayer of gratitude for it.
Then shift your awareness and walk through your memories again. This time pay attention to those moments of challenge and discomfort, perhaps even desolation. Let each moment rise up, and honor its role as part of your life story. See if there is anyone you would like to forgive for this experience, including yourself. Ask for God's companionship in this journey of tenderness and remembering.
To complete the experience, bring your awareness back to the present moment and notice what you have discovered about yourself by remembering these times of both grace and challenge. Take some time to name the gifts of this pilgrimage of memory.
Make a friendship pilgrimage
Choose three friends to visit and schedule time with them, either all in one or three days in a row. Let this be a time of reflection on the gift of friendship in your life and all the ways friends of various kinds have supported you over the years. Consider bringing each of these friends a small gift that symbolizes how they enrich your life or that represents a special shared memory. Spend time together talking about the pilgrimage of each of your lives and how you have become woven together through time. Ask for support and prayer in a situation of your life and ask how you can support your friend as well.
Begin your time of pilgrimage by reading the story of the visitation (Luke 1:39–45), when Mary goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, or the story of David and Jonathan's friendship (1 Sam. 18:1–4). Ask that your time with friends be blessed as a journey of the heart and that you might make new discoveries together about how God is calling you to be in support of one another.
The ancient Irish monks had a very unique approach to pilgrimage. They would set out on a journey for Christ, often by boat without oar or rudder, and let the currents of divine love carry them to the place of their resurrection. This is the place where their gifts and the needs of the community came together and they were able to serve fruitfully.
Instead of a literal journey by boat, you can work with the spirit of this pilgrimage experience by going for a contemplative walk without destination. Begin your pilgrimage by reading the story of Abraham and Sarah being called to leave their homeland in search of a new country (Gen. 12:1–2). Bless this time and release any desire for a goal or outcome. Take some deep breaths to center yourself and see where your feet take you. You aren't trying to get anywhere, just to be present moment by moment to the call of the Spirit. See where your attention is drawn, pause often, and linger.
Cultivating this as a regular practice helps us to open up to peregrinatio in our daily lives when we are called to release our grasp on the life we think we need and open to the sacred possibilities being offered to us.
Life as pilgrimage
Life itself offers up many opportunities to embark on a pilgrimage journey. Sometimes these are events that don't feel very welcome in our lives, such as illness or loss of a job or a relationship. When something challenging arises in your life, embrace the perspective of a pilgrim as a way of meeting it in a new way.
Begin your reflection by reading from the Book of Job 38:4–7, which begins with God's question to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" and ends with God's laying of the cornerstone "while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy." Taking a pilgrim's perspective means that in the midst of struggle we search for ways to see how we might be stretched open to new images of God. We might discover the divine abiding with us in ways we hadn't considered before, through the presence of friends, family members, or companion animals, through silence and meditation, or through being called to pare down your life commitments.
This article also appears in the July 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 7, pages 12–17).
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner