The Art of Pilgrimage Part 1 by Mary De Jong.

Today’s post is the first in a series contributed by Mary De Jong regarding her recent pilgrimage to Iona.

The article was first posted at Mary lives in Seattle, Washington (USA) and has traveled to Iona many times, both on personal pilgrimage and as a retreat leader for personal discernment pilgrimages and retreats. Her personal studies of Celtic Christianity have led her to pursue graduate studies in theology with an ecological focus, with the hopeful vision of sharing with urban communities about our inherent need for Creation and how to live forward in such a way that honors Other and the Future.  Mary’s first published title, Waymarkers (2011), is a unique pilgrimage journal specific to the journey to Iona; it has been received with excitement by pilgrims the world over and has been endorsed by many Iona Community associates.



article-new_ehow_images_a07_od_rc_crafts-welcome-signs-800x800We all go about the busyness of our lives; busyness consumes us and rarely do we have a moment to sit, to listen, to breath. And then one day we are awakened to a feeling of deep disturbance–something vital is missing in life.

Out of this absence a question begins to emerge. This question looms and feels too big for the typical, daily answer sources.  Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram…they just don’t seem to cut it; nor should they! These venues, along with anything else in life that doesn’t align with the deep longing that is now upon you, are but mere distractions. For these questions are rooted deep in our inner soulscape and demand a rigorous process that is befitting to the eternal stuff from which we are made.

There is restlessness and an urgency to come home to your true self, a deep longing for personal integration. This longing, this asking kick starts the seeking process, as it is inherently true that you cannot cultivate an integrated home-space for your soul unless you first have intentionally gone out and away from all that you know and are comfortable within

“All that is worthwhile,” says the great Jesuit scholar and paleontologist Teilard de Chardin, “is action.”  The soul needs us to respond to the urgent and irksome call with ardency. And nothing is more befitting than to respond with a get-up-and-go; to draw a line in the sand and exclaim, “From henceforth, I am a seeker! I am leaving what I know to be my collections and comforts of home, and I am going to hit the road on a pilgrimage!”   


Pilgrimage. What is it about this word that causes one’s emotions to stand on guard – both compelled and cautious at the same time? Indeed, it is a loaded word, packed with ages of political and parochial themes.

Even with the historical entrapping of this ­­­concept, there is a much more ancient restlessness that is deep within our collective consciousness to be on the move and to engage questions and the Answer in the process. Wasn’t even Jehovah carried in a box on the backs of a nomadic people?  Wasn’t Jesus of Nazareth, upon fully integrating his ministry with his divinity, also hitting the road and on the move?  Getting up and moving to the parameters of our life, to the absolute edges, is where we engage our senses and awaken our souls.

I believe that what agitates people when they first engage the concept of pilgrimage is that it literally unsettles them. The domesticity that ties us down to the perceptions of our lives begins to untie and unravel as this seeker-path begins its work of instigating a longing and a calling to go, to move, to discover the Divine in this ancient process

When you first hear of pilgrimage, whether it is the perspective or a place, it is as if something comes on to you that will stay with you, call to you your entire life until The Longing and The Call has been met and engaged.




There is a general unsettling that is upon people of faith these days. The traditional means and methods of creating and cultivating a spiritual practice appear to have gone stale. The weekly trek to church can be driven thoughtlessly as can the participation in the service’s rituals. It even seems, as the community that assembles for corporate worship are so compatible, that carbon copies seem a more appropriate designation.

Despite long standing connections, there is a need to go and shake things up! Vacillation results in inactivity and indecisiveness. Resolution and an intentional move to action initiates Providence to move.  You do not need God’s presence when sitting on the couch undecided. You are desperate for the Divine when you decide to go and commit to The Call. That is when the energy begins to flow and synchronicities start and happen all around you.

Each of us has an unconventional soul, yet we are taught to feed and nurture it by the most conventional standards. Pilgrimage, while as ancient as our bipedal designed bodies, is now seen as an unconventional expression in our culture. However, if we are going to give the soul the feeding it needs, we are going to need to go against the grain and go to where are souls are freed to search for, and find, God in fresh new ways. This path of discovery ultimately attunes us to our souls as well, and authentic expressions of our unique gifts and talents on behalf of a greater and common good is the result.

The response to The Call, which most often requires a leaving of sorts, is a certain kind of action that most often leads to transformation, most often fulfillment and freedom, and an alignment of our individual soul with the Divine Soul.  Pursue the place that makes your heart skip and your eyes shine for here is where you will find your Answer and God in disguise.




I convene pilgrimage retreats to Iona, Scotland and in the Pacific Northwest for individuals who respond to the call to engage this different mode of travel; all are desperate for a new way of moving through their world and discovering God anew. Every retreat participant with whom I have worked has felt the deep uprooting that occurs when the call to go is upon them and are relieved and refreshed by a practice and a place that will demand action, questions and a search for answers.

My choice to lead retreats to Iona is very intentional. It provides all the trappings of a good pilgrimage: historical significance, a saintly presence, a continuous line of faithful heritage, and a requirement to travel there with intention. Moreover, Iona is the historical birthplace of the Celtic Christian tradition and so by going here, I can also invite conversation and attentiveness to the natural world around us. One of the key themes of this unique expression of the Christian faith is that nature is revelatory.

The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world. Every tree, blade of grass, and wild goose’s cry was imbued with the Spirit of God and spoke to the character of the Creator. These “theophanies”  – God showings — were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries.

The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena, believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things, “…therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon-The Division of Nature, 749D). The entire created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator. Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed – the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.


By convening a pilgrimage process to Iona, Scotland, there is an invitation to integrate the natural world around us into our spiritual lens and live and move forward in ways that are holistic and healthy for both ourselves and the greater community of things, of which we are a part.  It becomes ridiculous to maintain a life-pace that disallows the seeing of the world around us.

Iona, and really any pilgrimage site for that matter, requires a slowing down, a waking up, and an ardent listening.What matters on the journey is this: how deeply you see, how attentively you hear, and how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul.

“Pilgrimage makes us vulnerable and different,” said Father Edward Murphy, a Roman Catholic priest based at the Yugoslavian shrine of Medujorge. “It gives us the freedom to step out of the ordinary and do something heroic and also to empty ourselves completely.” (quoted in Ian Bradley’s Pilgrimage201).

Aitareya Brahmana says it this way, “The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul growing and reaping fruit; and all his sins are destroyed by his fatigues in wandering. Therefore wander.”

The same language recurs throughout the millennia. Leaving things behind. Going to a new place where a new start can be made. Becoming renewed, refreshed, rejuvenated. And because there is a great cost associated with this decision to become a pilgrim, you begin to become different. The mall, your desk, your commute – all begin to feel strangely restrictive; your spirit has been summoned to go and go you must. You have become a seeker. And journeying a long road is bound to offer something, which you seek. But even if you have no great epiphanies on the way, there will be a lot more truth in your life than there was.





Personal reflections for this stage of longing…*
(originally used for Mary’s Thresholds of Awakening retreat)

What is your life story up to this point?
What themes are woven through your years?
Do you discern a pattern in the sacred story you are living?

Share your reflections in the comments below

*These are questions that require the presence of the Spirit – the One who has been with you since the beginning and who can remind you of your authentic expressions. Also, noticing where your heart wanders during these chambered, reflective moments will show you the direction of your true longing. 


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