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Pilgrimage as a Way of Life
By Gil W. Stafford
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Gil W. Stafford
All rights reserved.
The Pilgrimage Begins before the Walking Starts
In order to acquire the "golden understanding" one must keep the eyes of the mind and the soul well open, observing and contemplating by means of that inner light which God has lit in nature and in our hearts from the beginning.
— Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
John Wiles, the leader of the musical pilgrimage, sent me an email. It seemed he was in one of those moments of existential crisis about the preparations for his singing pilgrimage.
I have started and stopped this email no less than seven times in the past five minutes. I have a personal concern about the trip and would appreciate your thoughts. I've been struggling with a nagging intuition that once I speak aloud my own purpose and goals for the [singing pilgrimage] trip, those very goals will become inherently unreachable. Today I was reading Merton and came across this: "I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate leisure — otium sanctum! There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation. Not that I must undertake a special project of self-transformation or that I must 'work on myself.' In that regard, it would be better to forget it. Just to go for walks, live in peace, let change come quietly and invisibly on the inside. But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification of mindfulness, or rather of no mind — a return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit. Hang on to the clear light!"
John continued, "I suppose my question, then, is how have you formulated your thoughts/expectations/goals/mindset for pilgrimages past?"
John's email plunged me into thinking about going on pilgrimage. I had to sit and ponder for a while how to answer him. His question stirred in me both the excitement of going to Ireland for another pilgrimage and the trepidation of entering into yet another personal alchemical process. Consciously or unconsciously, John was asking me to sort through my pilgrimage shadow work, those places of deep transformational work. How could I answer his question in a few paragraphs? I finally responded.
When I walked across Ireland, those first days, I thought I was looking for the divine. Eventually that turned into what I thought was seeking my life purpose. Then my thoughts evolved into realizing I was looking for my inner Self. My Self, I discovered, would be found in what the Irish call the thin place — the world between the seen and the unseen. I realized I was beginning a process, not concluding one. I imagine this work will last a lifetime — my life as a pilgrim, one who is on a continual pilgrimage.
John, your pilgrimage has already begun. You are in the first phase of the alchemical process, known as the cauldron of chaos, the moment of an existential crisis. There are three more phases and they spiral, all to be repeated at some time, many times during the pilgrimage and in life. During this place of beginning focus on what your senses perceive, focus on your experience. Don't let your feet get ahead of your soul.
Some pilgrims need an intention to walk with, a question. Others just want to wait and see what will emerge. I think a pilgrimage is like drawing a mandala. By deciding to go on pilgrimage, you've drawn the sacred circle of the mandala. Now sit with it and see what happens. In the end, because you are paying attention, you won't be disappointed. I have learned many things from your dad. One is to hold things lightly. All will be well. Thomas Merton wrote, "The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both."
There are many layers, cycles, and phases to a pilgrimage. Both the outer experience and the inner interpretation of that experience need space and time. Go slow. Breathe. Take your time. And let the pilgrimage emerge on its own pace.
Shortly after our email exchange John's group began to form. He was recruiting twelve professional singers. They had to be accomplished musicians, able to perform complex medieval music a cappella. Each person had to be willing to pay his or her own expenses. And they had to hike the strenuous Wicklow Way. He had a group ready to walk within a few weeks (although the composition of the group would change slightly over the next few months). All the while he was contemplating a name for the project. I hadn't named any of my pilgrimage walks, but I was intrigued by the possibility. When he invited me to a private Facebook group he set up for the pilgrims, I was surprised and moved by the name he had chosen — "Vox Peregrini." Years ago I had stumbled across the Gaelic word peregrini, the pilgrim — a word that has great meaning for me.
In 2004, the year before I was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, I traveled with twelve folks to Ireland for a pilgrimage retreat experience at Glendalough, the glen of two lakes, fifty miles south of Dublin. Glendalough is the ancient monastic community of Saint Kevin (d. 618), an ascetic who modeled his life after the Desert Fathers, especially Anthony of Egypt (251-356). During my monthlong stay in Ireland I had begun to discover the many ways that pilgrimage is a metaphor for life. One theme of pilgrimage is discernment — to carry a question while walking. At the time, I was pondering my eventual ordination. Was I hearing a call from God? Or was the fact that I didn't have a job driving my desire to be ordained? Was I really called to be a pastor of a parish? Or should I pursue life once again in higher education? Did I really want to take a vow to obey my bishop? I was at a loss for answers and it was a heavy weight to lug around Ireland. Yet, being on that journey, with a safe community of fellow pilgrims, in the ancient holy site of Glendalough, was the perfect environment for me to make some significant decisions about my future.
Then, in 2005, I was ordained. My first job was to be chaplain in charge of the Episcopal Campus Ministry at Arizona State University (ECMASU), in Tempe. Serving ECMASU was a natural fit. I had graduated from ASU thirty years earlier with a bachelor's degree, and a few years after that with a master's. While the campus, and definitely the students, had changed, I could at least find the Memorial Union and the campus chapel. My bishop thought I could handle the ministry even though some might have thought that, at fifty-two, I was a bit old for the job. I had just finished a twenty-four-year career in higher education at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. I had been the head baseball coach, held various administrative positions, and eventually became the university's president.
When I started my campus ministry work at ASU, the language and stories of pilgrimage felt like a natural way for me to connect with college students. They are on a journey, making many of life's serious decisions. I asked my spiritual director, who is an Irish priest, what the Gaelic word for pilgrim is. Peregrini, he told me. And that became the name for our student gathering.
After a few months of hard work, a spattering of students attended our Wednesday afternoon mass. One day, late in the fall semester, a professor showed up at the service. After worship I introduced myself. He promptly told me he was a linguistic professor and that the word peregrini was not Gaelic, but Latin. Further, the word did not mean pilgrim but rather was a demeaning term for foreigners. In his professorial tone, he suggested I immediately change the name of our group to something more fitting — a name that would not proclaim to the university my apparent lack of education. As an Episcopalian, he was embarrassed.
Well, of course the professor was right. Not about the uneducated part, though, I will readily admit I never studied Latin, which at that moment I deeply regretted. I am pretty sure the professor took pleasure in schooling a former university president.
The word peregrini is indeed derived from the Latin word perigrinus, which is a "stateless person," or "exile," or "alien." The Romans used the derisive term in their reference to the fifth-century Irish Christian monks who were wandering through Europe as missionaries. The Irish monks began referring to themselves as peregrinus pro Christo, "pilgrims for Christ." Peregrini made its way into the Gaelic language when the monks returned to Ireland. My spiritual director, fluent in Gaelic, was sharing a common Christian usage of the word. Despite the professor's insistence, I kept the name for our college group. After all, many of us, including college students, feel like aliens in a foreign land looking for answers to spiritual questions.
This little episode was a mini-pilgrimage all on its own. A linguistics professor, proficient in Latin, showed up at an Episcopal mass on a college campus in the middle of the desert attended by a half-dozen students, simply to correct a stubborn novice priest, who in turn researched the word to prove the validity of his Irish Catholic, Gaelic-speaking mentor, and who, though discovering the professor was partially correct, changed nothing but his resolve. Long sentence. Long walk. The way of the pilgrim and living life as a pilgrimage is neither simple nor clear. Like an Irish conversation, the pilgrim's path is erudite, poetic, lyrical, colorful, intimate, intense, messy, and hard to pin down, which often leads to more questions than answers. So, too, is the life of a pilgrim. I should have invited the professor to the local pub for a lively discussion over a Guinness. There, I imagine, the conversation would have been filled with personal stories, which would have added color and hue to the meaning behind our words. Over a pint of Guinness, or two, maybe a relationship could have begun.
John's choice of "Vox Peregrini" as the name for his singing pilgrimage made me feel I had arrived at a new place in my own understanding of pilgrimage — the past connecting to the future. The spiral of pilgrimage was moving upward for me. I was preparing for yet another journey. Joining John's group would take me on more than just another geographical pilgrimage. It would indeed lead me on another journey into my inner world — cycling through the phases of alchemy once again. Taking yet another wisdom walk.
Preparing for the Geographical Pilgrimage
It was the summer of 2012. "Why are you walking alone across Ireland?" asked the server, who set my second Guinness of the evening in front of me. "Are you doing it to raise money for a charity?" "Ah, no." I said. "It's a soul thing, I guess."
"Did you hear a voice or something?" she chuckled.
"No, I just feel like it's something I gotta do."
My 2012 pilgrimage across Ireland had begun years before. In 1996 my wife and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I was the head baseball coach at Grand Canyon University (GCU) with no idea that one day I would be its president. Our son was a freshman in college and our daughter a junior in high school. Given the age of our children, we planned the "last family vacation," settling on two weeks in the UK. Part of the trip included three days in Ireland, where we spent a few hours on a Glendalough tour. I told my wife as the tour ended that something was drawing me back to that holy monastery. I didn't know what it was or why, but I had to return.
By the end of 2003, I had left my job at GCU after twenty-four years, capped by a disastrous four years as president. The first six months of 2004 I was unemployed, severely depressed, and discerning a call into the Episcopal priesthood. That probably wasn't the best of circumstances for effectively discerning my future. But that was my reality. The priest of our church invited me and eleven other people to join her on an eight-day monastic experience in Glendalough. My wife thought it would be a good chance for me to get away, an opportunity to heal. Indeed, the experience was therapeutic. While in Glendalough, I met some folks who were walking the Wicklow Way. When I returned home I told my wife something was calling me to go back and walk the Way. By 2006, I was in Ireland again. My son and I walked the first half of the Wicklow Way to Glendalough and then turned west along Saint Kevin's Way, where we walked four days towards Kildare, the home of Saint Brigid. Before I returned home from Ireland I was already planning to walk the country coast-to-coast. Circumstances and life would cause me to wait another six years.
A year before I left on my solitary pilgrimage across Ireland, I started my preparations. Nearly sixty years old, my body needed daily attention. I'd stayed in reasonably good condition over the years. Having previously walked one hundred miles from Dublin to Kildare, I thought I knew what it would take to walk another 250-plus miles. Actually, while walking 353 miles across Ireland, I came to realize I had had little idea what the trek would demand from my body. Without my conditioning regimen, I could never have finished the journey. I also knew I needed to tend my soul and emotional well-being. I couldn't have prepared for or known, however, that my mother would die three months before I left for Ireland.
My grief triggered the realization that life itself is a pilgrimage in process. We are on a pilgrimage no matter where we are walking: at home, at the hospital, or in Ireland. Oftentimes, even when we think we are fully prepared, the burdens and questions we take with us on pilgrimage can weigh heavier than our backpack. None of us can know what tomorrow will bring. We might be presented with an opportunity, or a disappointment that will change our life forever. We may be preparing for a journey we will never take. Yet we can accept the journey of everyday life and prepare each day as if tomorrow is the day we will begin a pilgrimage, even an unintended one. We carry our past, while being present to the footsteps of today, and at the same time imagining the possibility of what is to come; the three are held together in one timeless moment. We can work the body, tend the soul, stretch the mind, recognize the unconscious, and surrender to the alchemical process that is working in our soul. To do so, we must be present to the ground we are walking on.
Everyone's pilgrimage is unique. We'll experience the path through our own senses. Each journey will be interpreted differently because of how we think about it. We might walk with someone a hundred miles, see the same sights and share similar experiences. But it's still our own pilgrimage, like our own dreams. We all dream. We may encounter animals, birds, parents, and even enemies, familiar places, buildings, a body of water, forests, and deserts in our dreams. While respecting the similarities in our dreams, we interpret them depending on the context of our life, our feelings. So it is with the geography of a pilgrimage.
But much of our processing of the pilgrimage is done out of the sight of our fellow pilgrims, in our imagination — the place where the art of the interior pilgrimage takes place.
Preparing for the Inner Pilgrimage
In October 2013, more than a year after my first coast-to-coast walk across Ireland, my wife, Cathy, asked me what I wanted for my sixtieth birthday. I told her what I really wanted was to the walk the Wicklow Way with my family. Cathy had been my support team on my solitary walk across Ireland. This time she wanted to walk the Wicklow Way with me. She contacted our two adult children and their spouses. Our daughter and her husband were in. Our son and his wife soon discovered she was pregnant and they decided they needed to stay home. We began planning the trip for the summer of 2014.
Later in October, our young adult group at church, called Saint Brigid's Community, surprised me with a birthday party. Someone asked if I was going to do anything special during my sixtieth year. I told them about our family plan to walk the Wicklow Way. Before long, some in the group asked me if they could walk with us. All the stories I'd told this group about pilgrimage must have created a desire for them to walk as well. Within a few weeks, we had a group of thirteen who planned to walk the Wicklow Way with us. Saint Brigid's was going on pilgrimage.
I spent a lot of time encouraging them to prepare for the geographical pilgrimage, get in shape, buy good boots, get a comfortable backpack, acquire some rain gear. "You do have a passport, right?" I asked.
Excerpted from Wisdom Walking by Gil W. Stafford. Copyright © 2017 Gil W. Stafford. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Pilgrimage Begins before the Walking Starts 31
Interlude Boots, Backpacks, Poles, and the Body 49
Chapter 2 The Long Days of Walking 53
Interlude Ahmad's Mecca Pilgrimage 85
Chapter 3 The Unexpected Experiences of Walking 89
Interlude Crystal's Annapurna Circuit Pilgrimage in Nepal 115
Chapter 4 When You Think You Cant Finish 121
Interlude Greg's Transgendered Pilgrimage 141
Chapter 5 Beginning Again, Always 143
Chapter 6 There Will Be Days Like This 161
Appendix-The Pilgrim's Companion 193