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PILGRIMAGE: Deepening your Relationships through Travel
by Puja Thomson • New Paltz, NY

When I find myself out of balance, losing sight of what’s really important, I know I need to take time out. The signs are clear– I’m like a bird caged inside too much busy-ness– too many nagging thoughts, too many old emotions, and life is oh-so-serious. I’ve neglected deepening my relationship with others, myself and the Divine. I know what to do when my life force runs dry. Slowing down, breathing deeply, meditating, praying, daydreaming, visualizing, listening to music, appreciating beauty, walking my labyrinth, or even sleeping more will restore my soul. These I can do at home.

Sometimes, however, a voice insists, "Take time away." It calls me to leave home for a retreat, perhaps, or to journey in the spirit of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is an inner journey that takes place within an outer journey. Whether Muslims to Mecca, Buddhists to Mount Kailash, Jews and Christians to Jerusalem, or spiritual seekers to Sedona or Stonehenge, pilgrims have traditionally journeyed to sites they hold in reverence. They travel not just with the curiosity of tourists, but prayerfully, expressing commitment and devotion. Upon arrival they often join others to meditate, kneel, bow, chant, as they worship God, revere a saint, honor ancestors, or ask for healing according to their intentions and tradition.

There are four phases to a pilgrimage experience. It begins when the decision to make a journey is made. Phase one, carefully setting an intention and attending to practical details and phase two, making the voyage with love and awareness, lead to a fuller experience of spirit at the site (phase three.) Finally, phase four, the journey home, offers time for reflection, integration and sorting out which blessings or insights may be shared with friends and loved ones.

People make pilgrimages of many kinds. They may go alone or in the company of others to a place of personal or spiritual significance or to one that radiates healing energy. Many set out to another country in search of ancestral roots and a greater understanding of their cultural heritage, or follow in the footsteps of a heroic figure, a favorite author or poet.

My curiosity about pilgrimages started a long time ago– above the mantelpiece in my father’s study, a motley crew of pilgrims on horseback looked down on us. The picture dispelled any notion I might have had about a pilgrimage being a somber affair– or being for men only. The artist had immortalized Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic fourteenth century poem, The Canterbury Tales. I came to love that painting even more when I read the Prologue to the poem. Chaucer zeroed in on the little and grand hypocrisies of this band of men and women.

My parents also loved the painting. Perhaps the parson was a role model for my father. My mother, proud that the suffragettes had succeeded in getting the vote for women, may have been encouraged by the image of women, who, centuries ago, took upon themselves the freedom to journey.

With the subtle blessing of this painting, our family embarked on mini-pilgrimages. We made outings by car and foot to ancient standing stones, holy wells, churches, abbeys or ruins within a day’s reach. Driving in our little Morris Eight, my dad opened our eyes to layers of meaning, blending nature, spirituality and history.

I experienced my first intentional group pilgrimage as a teenager on the island of Iona, off the West Coast of Scotland. It’s a mystical place, only 3 miles wide and 10 miles long. Its ancient rocks and green turf, surrounded with white sands and clear aqua water, became home to St. Columba when he landed in 563AD from Ireland. For over a thousand years it has welcomed pilgrims. In fair weather or foul, every Tuesday during the summer, young and old alike gather at the foot of the ancient carved St. Martin’s Cross near the rebuilt Abbey. Before setting out, they pray together, Bless to us, O God, the earth beneath our feet, the path whereon we go, the people whom we meet. A day of walking to twelve sacred spots follows. The intention of the Iona pilgrimage is to recognize the spiritual at the heart of the physical world in different ways. Like those who came before and after us, we gave thanks for new beginnings at the bay where St. Columba could no longer see Ireland. At the Hermit’s cell we appreciated times of solitude in silence, and at Dun-I, the highest point, we prayed for greater vision and for social justice.

I felt connected to all the island’s amazing layers– the Druid vibration from the far distant past, the ancient truths of Celtic Christianity, and the Iona Community’s contemporary practical application of Jesus’ teachings. The energy of those moments of great beauty and depth has been etched on my soul, like Iona’s great carved stone Celtic crosses with their patterns intertwining heaven and earth. I have continued to return to Iona before and after significant events in my life– I went in preparation for my ordination as a minister of healing in 1994 and after the death of my father this past summer.

Nature is one of my greatest teachers. My search for guidance, personal renewal or a sense of belonging in the cosmos has often taken place beyond the walls of churches or towns. I feel the presence of the Divine in solitude. On my first such tentative venture, I didn’t tell a soul that I was going alone to a little beach tucked away by the side of a forest, south-east of Edinburgh. Despite the cold November weather, I planned to remain overnight in the back of my minivan near the water’s edge, armed with blankets and flasks of hot tea. During the day I lost track of time watching the cold, sparkling formations of water, ever changing, light dancing with light. I felt my heart pulsating with joy, transported to another world. In sharp contrast, my fears of being alone came out to play as I lay awake that night hearing strange wind noises in the trees. With every sound I imagined an ogre arriving to test my resolve, until I centered myself with prayer and fell asleep.

Now each spring, summer, fall and, if accessible, in winter, I take a day to go to the top of a ridge in nearby Minnewaska State Park. By the time I reach the peak, I am thankful to have walked out of my worries into renewed clarity. From this, "my" holy site, I pray to the divine presence, Great Spirit, giving thanks to the keepers of the land. I honor the East, South, West and North and ask for guidance and help. I look down to my home, a small speck on the lower landscape and pray to reenergize a line of light connecting my home to where I stand, and from thence to the peaks of the Catskills and out to the universe. Each time I have the sense of being a link in a very old chain of life that has existed for eons.

I have visited many other holy places. When practical, I have chosen an unpretentious Bed and Breakfast near the site so that I could walk to the hallowed ground after dinner and before breakfast, to experience sunrise and sunset and spend unhurried hours, walking or meditating undisturbed.

The places that call to you may not be those that have called me. There are so many time-honored sites to choose from and any place may become sacred to you. Whether you choose a once-in-a-lifetime journey to unknown territory or frequent a well-loved path in many different seasons, being open to the mystery of life as you travel can delight you and enrich your life, your relationships and your understanding of what truly matters to you. The very act of traveling may reveal a new perspective. Perhaps you will find answers to your deepest longings and questions. Perhaps you will come home to yourself.

Excerpted with permission from Puja’s current writing, A Hundred Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground.

Rev. Puja A. J. Thomson offers work-shops, sessions &/or private retreats. She will lead a Creating Your Own Journey workshop on pilgrimage at Mohonk Mountain House March 19-21, 2004. Sign up online at www.mohonk.com or call (800) 772-6646. Contact Puja at: puja@rootsnwings.com or 845-255-2278.