The Heart of a Pilgrim

 woman on bridge

Each heart is a pilgrim,
Each one wants to know
The reason why the winds die
And where the stories go.

Pilgrim, in your journey
You may travel far,
For pilgrim it’s a long way
To find out who you are…

– Enya, Pilgrim

The only journey is the one within.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

In 8 days I leave for a two-week vacation in France. During my first week, I’ll be attending a photography retreat in Carcassonne, Postcards from France: A Creative Pilgrimage, hosted by my friend, the wonderful artist and teacher Catherine Anderson. The second week will be spent touring Provence with my husband.

I committed to this retreat eight months ago, and almost cancelled it in June, bowled over by work stress, a succession of new managers, and the uncertainty of constantly changing project schedules. On the day that I was to mail my letter of cancellation to Catherine, something stopped me. I crossed out the part about the demands of work (blah, blah, blah) and my regrets for cancellation, whipped out a check for the balance due, and stuck it in the mail before I could change my mind. I told her that my head told me to cancel, but my heart said YOU MUST GO. And on that day, I was listening to my heart.

This weekend I started thinking about a personal theme or intention for my trip. Some of you might say, What? A theme or intention for a vacation? For God’s sake, who the hell needs a personal trip theme to go to the south of France?! After having taken several classes with her, I can say that Catherine’s influence is often subtle, but pervasive, and profoundly spiritual; it makes you go deep. The retreat tag line, “A Creative Pilgrimage”, was something I had not noticed before in the trip materials. A pilgrimage? Was I going on a pilgrimage? And was I ready?

So good student that I am, I did some research and some pondering. Here is one of my favorite quotes I found about personal pilgrimages.

A pilgrimage is a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.
– Macrina Wiederkehr, Behold Your Life

My favorite line from the above quote is “….A pilgrimage is not a vacation, it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. “ I have been feeling very guilty about taking a full two weeks of vacation now, during a very busy time at work, where my extended team is slogging it out, day by day, to get a large new software platform to the state of going live. My new manager is a round-the-clock workaholic, and the subtle pressure is intense (or maybe I’m just imagining it). The concept of this trip – or at least the first week of it – as a pilgrimage instead of a vacation really resonates with me.

Some of you are probably chuckling right now, thinking, “Jeri, really NICE rationalization.” Tagging a trip to the south of France as ‘NOT A VACATION’ is pretty tough to swallow.

But hear me out.

Contemplate the essence of pilgrimage for a moment. Why do people go on pilgrimages? And religious reasons aside, is there a reason, in the modern day secular world, to think of travel as a pilgrimage?

From ancient times to the modern day, people go on pilgrimages for a variety of reasons. A quick list might include:
• To be healed
• To find inspiration
• To seek wisdom or meaning in life
• To seek purpose, to find a vocation
• To do penance
• To seek peace

For most pilgrimages, the destination is a sacred place – a place that is usually steeped in history, where something momentous happened, where people have struggled with life on this earth, where they have fought with their God or with their devils. Maybe they won, or maybe they did not. But their spirit remains in that place, a spirit that is a tangible essence lasting thousands of years. As a photographer, I can tell you, the very light is different in these places, the feeling is different. If you can only learn to listen and to see, it is an essence that has something to teach us very modern humans. As Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell knew so well, it is the lessons of archetypes we are all looking for. At their heart, all human stories, all human struggles, are the same. Walk the labyrinth of the Chartres Cathedral, or stand amidst the Etruscan tombs outside Orvieto, and then try to tell me this is not true.

In many of the writings, the journey itself is the purpose. The journey transforms. An open road leads to an open mind. The act of leaving the familiar behind, getting on the road – and being open minded during the journey – provides the opportunity to reach destinations of great emotional significance. And in the end, we wind up at the destination of our own personal “home”, but only by taking the long way around.

Surprisingly enough, the root of the word ‘travel’ is the old French word travail. ‘Travail” meant work, especially of a painful or laborious nature. Vocabulary.com provides a secondary definition of “travail” as “the concluding state of pregnancy; from the onset of contractions to the birth of a child.” A travail is therefore not an easy undertaking, but like birth, can produce something of momentous significance. A traveler’s journey was often long and arduous, where constant attention to one’s surroundings was required to stay alive. This is still true today – think of today’s AT or PCT through- hikers, where the placement of a foot on the trail can mean safety or disaster. For the true traveler, intense mindfulness is critical to the success of the journey, as is simplification. Step carefully, slowly, mindfully, and do not drag along that which you do not need on your journey.

Speaking of simplification, if any of you saw my suitcase for my trip to Italy last year, you will appreciate the lesson of simplification. After 20 hours of travel, lugging a monstrous suitcase though an airport, on two Italian trains, a funicular up the side of a rock wall, down the cobblestone streets of a walled city, and up the steps of a 16th century convent, you will know that I experienced quite a travail. It was a travail which I do not wish to repeat. My suitcase is smaller (although probably not small enough) this year, but my goals for this trip are just as lofty.

So, bottom line, I do consider at least the first week of my upcoming trip as my own sort of pilgrimage. What am I seeking? And what do I wish for my journey? I go back to that short and probably incomplete list above of why people do pilgrimages.

I seek healing, to be refreshed after months of 60-hr work weeks, where I have not been mindful of my body, mind and sprit’s needs. The body is a temple, and I have not been worshipping well.

I seek continued inspiration, for my photography and for my writing, which are critical to my soul’s creative life.

I seek wisdom, to see and feel the lessons of the archetypes found in sacred places; to learn the lesson of life’s road from fellow travelers.

I seek purpose, to continue to seek my true vocation for the second half of my life.

I will do penance for all the times I have not been mindful, have not been grateful, have not slowed down to be in the moment and take from it all that it has to give.

I seek peace from my personal demons- the demons of anxiety, of too much judging and too little curiosity for the world around me.

That is one tall order for a vacation, but not for a pilgrimage.

As Enya says, in our hearts, each one of us is a pilgrim, trying to find out where all the stories go, and who we are. We are all seeking meaning and direction for our path, healing of our wounds, inspiration and purpose for our future. And we all must do penance in our own way.

An outward journey is just a metaphor for the inner one. It has always been so.

How has travel been a pilgrimage for you?  What have you learned from your journeys?

5 thoughts on “The Heart of a Pilgrim

  1. Life is way too short not to do this. Work will always be there if you let it be there and the demands. I look forward to hearing more and seeing the magnificient pictures you will create and capture.

  2. You constantly blow me away with your entries. I feel so privileged to read about your journey — and look forward to reading more as you progress into this next stage of your life.

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