Walking is For Naming

Iona pilgrims - Sarah Bingham

While I sat beside my mother lost week I read to her from the book In Search of Sacred Places: Looking for Wisdom on Celtic Holy Islands. She loved the story of Iona and Columba often asking me to keep reading even after my voice was hoarse and I wanted to stop.

One reflection from the book really stood out for me.

Everything on Iona has a name. each physical feature of the island has been part of a specific human experience and therefore thought worthy of bearing a name….

These many names are a testimony to the human scale of life on Iona. As the scale of physical size diminishes as one travels to the island-England, Scotland, Mull, Iona-the scale of individuals and spiritual significance increases. Walking is the maximum desirable speed for seeing things fully enough to name them. And when we name things we begin to value them. No wonder we want to be named and known. (37)

To really see and fully enter into the world around us we must walk not run or drive. And when we walk we want to name everything and everyone.  We say hello to the people we meet, we look at the flowers and mention them by name, we watch the birds and identify the species. We even like to give our own names to landmarks we pass and houses we enjoy.

To give something an appropriate name that reflects its nature, we must be able to see it fully. To continue appreciating it we need to slow down and notice, not once but regularly. Only in walking or in stillness is this possible.


The Art of Pilgrimage part 3 by Mary De Jong

In this final installment of our Pilgrim in Residence Series with Mary DeJong, Mary literally brings it home by painting a powerful picture of what it’s like to return from a journey and the impression our journeys have not only on our souls, but also on our communities and ultimately the world. Read Mary’s first post in this series here and her second post here.

If you’ve enjoyed her posts, you can learn more about her book or joining her on retreat or pilgrimage here and follow her blog here



-SELMA LAGERLOG (1858-1940)


It is in the going out that we discover what is really going on, both in our inner-heart’s landscape and in our physical home places. The journey away from home brings with it fresh perspectives and abilities to see our normal lives with a new sense of discovery and sensitivity. We return with a posture of being newly awakened — attuned to and aware of the Spirit all around us.

The daily challenge is to carry over the quality of the journey into everyday life. You want to integrate the new ways of being and thinking into your life as you move into the final stage of pilgrimage: reincorporation, or bringing back the boon.The intentional space created by a pilgrimage not only leaves a mark on our lives, but elbows out new permanent places in our spirit. So, while home once again, the hearth is not how we left it.  And it will stay in a state of strangeness until we are able to assimilate our lessons and experiences into stories of transformation and actions of justice.

Pilgrims return home with wisdom and the driving responsibility to share the truth gleaned from the profound experiences of the pilgrimage. The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.There is a universal code of sorts, which requires the pilgrim to “share whatever wisdom you’ve been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey” (Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage).

The challenge, and bitter truth, of coming home from a pilgrimage is that we soon learn that what is a pearl to us is mere pennies to others, especially if our epiphanies are conveyed as nothing more than novel curios. But how can we even begin to describe the depths to which our soul has traveled?  Ultimately, it is our changed life that must tell the story of our journey; no picture slide show or souvenir will scratch the surface of the truth found at the sacred center.

Because of this journey to the sacred center, and the perils experienced to get there, you are transformed. And because you have changed, so will your home. You have encountered the Holy-experienced God in a fresh new way, and as a result of your sacrifice and struggle, you will not relate to your world or those in it as you did before.

Your challenge is to now live into the new edges of your life, inhabiting the unfamiliar spaces created by pushing through the trails of your inner-soul landscape. These are the places where dynamic opportunities lay for you to share your wisdom and bring back the boon of your journey. You must create new ways of relating to your home – to those within it and surrounding it, which are imbued with the meaning of your journey.

In Joseph Campbell’s popular book of essays, Myths to Live By, he described something pertinent to our theme of sacred journeys: “The ultimate air of the quest if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.” This parallels the belief of the ancient wisdom teachers that the ultimate answer to the sorrows of the world is the boon of increased self-knowledge.

Interestingly enough, this responsibility resonates with Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It seems clear that the great value of a pilgrimage is to return with a knowledge of self that will enable one to engage the world’s needs in an authentic and passionate way.

Upon re-crossing the threshold home, the mystical methods of pilgrimage begin to unravel. The freedom from systems and modes begins to dissipate as sacred time quickly returns to linear time, and sacred space is replaced with vistas of cityscapes. It is all one can do to refrain from hiking the pack right back onto the shoulders and heading straight back out the door. It becomes evidently clear that there is real work involved in unpacking the gifts of the journey and relating them to our homescapes.


For years I have been challenged with the notion that ultimately, the pilgrimage calls us to return home and live forward on behalf of something other and greater than ourselves.  This idea that the road out actually causes us to be beholden to something back home is something that I’ve been personally working on for years. For our lives to truly reincorporate and reflect the stories of our journeys there must be effects behind and beyond our front doors; if there isn’t, the travels and travails of the road quickly get reduced to petty ramblings and narcissistic knock abouts.

Ultimately, the greatest influence we can have on ourselves, our families, and the world around us is to live out the effects of our sacred journey on behalf of Other and the Future.  I acknowledge that this could appear trite and formulaic; however, the notion’s simplicity allows for a focus of energy around a transformed state.

I believe that when Campbell talks about a “wisdom and power to serve others” on account of our wayfaring, he is getting at a fundamental aspect of the gift of pilgrimage. We go out on these personal, intimate soul-adventures to connect to God in fresh, inspired ways.  But if these encounters aren’t having a greater result on the world around us, they are worthless. I believe that by applying our gained wisdom on behalf of Other and the Future, we are re-gifting our communities and the earth with our God-given blessings encountered on the road.

Living on behalf of Other and the Future is a scalable metaphor; that is, it may refer to simply anyone or anything other than yourself and decisions that impact the future. In broader, and more challenging terms, “Other and the Future” is a way of embracing all of life, especially those that are without voice and marginalized in society, and intentionally orienting lifestyle decisions that will have a positive outcome on our earth and future generations.

As a result, our personal sacred journey is global in both scope and impact, and we are invited to transformative micro-practices that overhaul how we view our homes and home environments. Our return home requires us to leave the door open to the world just beyond its threshold, maintaining a posture of looking out for opportunities to give of our blessings.



We long for and are called to a journey that will not only renew and refresh us, but also transform the very lives of those around us. The gifts of the pilgrim’s path are ultimately not to be pocketed away and subsequently displayed like a well-traveled trinket or souvenir. The ancient call to go on pilgrimage is ultimately an archetypal instigator to recover one’s sense of self through God so that, upon returning home, the boon of the journey can be translated for the benefit of the greater good, for the common good, for all and for our future. Other and the Future become touchstones for our journey, tangible waymarkers to which we can apply our transformed lives.

Through the ancient practice of pilgrimage, we are challenged to live forward into deeper understanding of ourselves and our God-given talents and gifts. Because the inner-journey has righted priorities and passions, we embrace the gift of relationships in our lives — loving and respecting those who have been given to us to nurture. We answer the call to apply our gained wisdom to justice, knowing that however we employ our calling that it must somehow serve the Other – those surrounding us in need of a voice and advocacy. We respond to the realities of our planet with care, concern and conviction, knowing that if we don’t, our children’s earth-home will be one less hospitable and fecund. We leave home on our journey only to come back with a greater sense of it, with a greater impression of how to serve it, and an inspired way of how to live in it. We live forward with a renewed sense of knowing home.



Questions to contemplate about your journey…

How will home be different after I return?
How will I be different after my return?
To whom am I beholden and how can I live on behalf of these relationships
to revitalize my personal homescape?

Questions to reflect on in the comments below…

What were the waymarkers that truly transformed you?
In what ways can you continue living forward out of these places of transformation?

– See more at: http://asacredjourney.net/2013/07/mary-dejong-3/#sthash.PbKnaUHT.dpuf

The Art of Pilgrimage part 2 by Mary De Jong

In Mary DeJong’s second Pilgrim in Residence post, she shares stories from Iona, as well as more wisdom for the journey. Read my introduction of Mary and her first post in this series here. Mary’s final Pilgrim in Residence post will be published on tomorrow.


Bertil went to Iona from Sweden with a pack lighter than a feather and a prayer he couldn’t even speak. A retired vicar of the Church of Sweden, this thin, long-legged man was as genteel as tea, and diligently spoke in a bass of broken English with long spells of Swedish woven in. But for years this sonorous voice had been silenced from song, a gift that had been dutifully practiced and trained in choirs for over fifty years. Bertil had not been able to sing for quite some time, a strange phenomenon without a cure, according to consulted doctors and specialists. With a mute melody, Bertil decided he must go to Iona for Pentecost, prayerfully hoping that Spirit would blow through his caged chorus, renewing both his voice and life-wearied soul.

I met Bertil at the Iona Hostel, and we attended services together at the Iona Abbey. I sat and sang along with Bertil at the Iona Community’s weekly service for healing, a precious and powerful space dedicated to restorative prayer requests for loved ones all over the world. We laid hands on one another and repetitiously offered prayers on behalf of our mutual needs and for those surrounding us. Following this moving service, I commented on Bertil’s lovely singing voice, speculating that he must be in choirs and performing groups. He looked at me with wet eyes and told me of his story…and his healing, as fresh and new as the tears on his face.


People come from all over the world to Iona, Scotland – and have for almost 1500 years – to experience God in new and life-giving ways. Whether a person is carrying a question, a prayer, or a need for healing and refreshment, this Sacred Isle seems to release something of its prayer-soaked soil to its pilgrims. I met a woman from Germany who came to be soothed and sanctified and was surprised to discover that Iona’s plant life was the deliverer; she wandered the beaches and heathered hills discovering flora and fauna that, quite literally, appeared to be calling out to her. She reverently gathered these plants and for a week drank teas and made poultices, and felt closer to God than ever before, on account of this good earth.Another fellow pilgrim was returning to Scotland to reconcile a tragic accident that took the life of her father while visiting this land over thirty years ago. The stories of why they come are as varied as the pilgrims that carry them, but come they do, ardent to leave their homes and arrive on holy ground.


Pilgrims come to pray here, believing that the accompanying candle, lit in the Abbey, will hasten the petition. They come to this place searching for a change that doesn’t seem to exist at home. They come for a reason that appears abundant in Iona’s surrounding sea, but lacking from their own tap. And there is something to this ancient belief that going somewhere else will bring you closer to the Divine. History heralds the holy events and lives that were lived out in places like Iona; to be able to come to these places with our own feet and walk the same paths as these great saints truly does come with a sense of mystical import. While the arrival to these sacred sites is absolutely necessary in the pilgrimage process, it is the getting there that highlights and underscores the gifts that are received at the destination.

It comes down to this: Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. It is the tension that causes us to awaken to ourselves in the first place that subsequently requires an exit, a leaving of all that we have come to know and trust as our homelands. Here, in these comfortable places, it is a challenge to see God, the world and our lives with clarity; furthermore, it is difficult to be awakened to the needs of our communities when we are dictated by clocks and cubicles, consultations and concerns. However, when we choose to respond to the Longing and the Call to leave the familiar behind in search of answers found in far-away places, we are deploying our soul to interact and intervene with the surrounding environment, the result of which is an energizing and heightened awareness of ourselves, of Others and the Spirit amidst it all.  


This kind of invited alertness requires us to depart, to leave and to walk, to become intimate with the path upon which we tread, and others with whom we share it. The path that leads to the pilgrimage destination is critical for this process; for along this road, with no vehicular/insular walls to tune us out, we must tune in to the measured mode that invites contact, conversation and company. The structures we use to define who we are in ordinary life become irrelevant. Pilgrim space has no regard for class, race, or social/economic standing. There are no more random run-ins with strangers; there are no more lucky or misfortunate moments. In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny; every contact attests to some greater plan. No encounter is without meaning. There are signs everywhere, if only we learn how to read them. Peculiar people turn into much-needed messengers.  The natural world speaks candidly and profoundly. The road has been transformed into grace; it is now a place where souls are nourished and renewed.


Phil Cousineau, author and pilgrim, says that,



I remember sitting on the tarmac in Philadelphia awaiting our Atlantic departure to Glasgow in 2009. On pilgrimage to Iona, why should I have been surprised that we were grounded for FOUR hours while the winds and rains of a Hurricane Bill whipped around us, lightning lighting up the jet-black night outside our plane? What really brought the rigor close to heart was upon collecting our backpacks in Glasgow; is was evidently clear that our luggage was unable to be loaded on our flight during the storm, and also due to the extreme conditions, abandoned, not even covered against the torrential rains. My pack containing all my teaching materials for Iona was completely SOAKED, much of it rendered useless. All I could do was laugh knowing that indeed, I was on the road of a true pilgrimage!

The inevitable chaos that surrounds one’s journey to the place of their heart’s longing is set in place to distract and possibly even derail the most hope-filled plans. When one leaves on a pilgrimage, they are making an absolute commitment to a sojourn towards self-knowledge, which in Christian mystical tradition, is the understanding that knowledge of self and knowledge of God are one. And there are energies at play within and around us that are desperate to ensure that divine connection doesn’t occur. This happens in the guise of uncertainties and doubts, details unwinding, or appearances that even the weather is commiserating against you!

 The purpose of the pilgrimage is to ultimately make life more meaningful. It is regarded as the universal quest for the self. Though the form of the path changes, one element remains the same: renewal of the soul. The essence of the sacred way is “tracing a sacred route of tests and trials, ordeals and obstacles, to arrive at a holy place and attempt to fathom the secrets of its power” (P.Cousineau). Once again, the act of listening is emphasized here. The way of the pilgrim is one of an inner-quiet, an inner ear attuned to the subtle sounds of the Spirit while on the sacred road.


Ultimately, we choose the way of the pilgrim’s path to get somewhere. We aren’t electing to be sojourners forever. We prefer the pilgrimage because of its archetypal stages: Longing, Arrival, and eventually, returning Home. The Arrival stage is especially poignant as this is the location and/or place toward our heart has been bent the whole while. It is the place that strengthens our resolve when the going gets rough, or the road seems too dark and dismal. We cast our eyes upward and outward towards this place for which we have longed and to which we have attributed purpose and answered prayers. The required posture on the Pilgrim’s Path has prepared you for your arrival; you have practiced the necessary way of seeing and listening to the surrounding greater community of things. So it is that when you arrive to your sacred destination, you are equipped to receive that which is for you.


It is hard for me to say exactly what the Arrival stage looks like, as everyone absolutely has his or her own emotional experience and physical response to the day when you finally get there. I have witnessed people respond with tears of rapture and remorse, giddiness and gaiety, and silence and solemnity.  But common themes are woven through the lives that have risked much to respond to the longing and leave for a place beyond the hearth and home:  preparationsimplicity and offering are always present with a well prepared pilgrim at the point of arrival.


When I talk about preparation, I am looking beyond travel itineraries and packing lists. A pilgrim will immerse themselves in the poetry and prose of a place and/or region in an attempt to soak up the Spirit’s presence and inspiration in a culture. Intentional prayers and blessings will cover the time spent packing, journeying and will highlight the preceding minutes as one approaches the sacred site. This kind of preparation hallmarks the pilgrimage mode of travel as starkly contrary to the typical trip or vacation.

An easy way to practice simplicity is in how you pack. By packing light, you allow for the stranger to show up and supply a need. This posture positions you as open and ready to receive the Divine, guised as an Englishman at the Iona Hostel quite possibly! (Indeed, it has happened to me!)  It is also important to engage a spirit of simple expectations. Don’t expect WiFi, a Starbucks or cuisine de la USA at your destination; in fact, if it is available, spin on your heel and discover where the locals get their mid-afternoon cup of wake-up, and indulge in regional cooking. To a degree, it is a little like the “when in Rome…” way of thinking. Don’t make it complicated. Engage the culture of the ways around you; it will be apart of your soul’s salve and a reason for coming.

Lastly, be prepared to offer something. As you approach your sacred site and your heart leaps with the proximity of answered prayers, posture yourself in such a way so to give something back to this place. A pilgrim decidedly journeys not to pick up souvenirs and trinkets along the way, but to look for circumstances to see others’ souls, and give out smiles and kindnesses for nothing in return. I challenge my retreat participants to bring along a physical item on their journey that represents their reason(s) for making the pilgrimage. The idea is that this item can be placed on the altar, or given to someone at the place of arrival as means of engaging the offering. For we know that it is only when we give that we truly receive.

Your pilgrimage began long ago as the yearning to go relentlessly etched itself onto your heart. Because of, and out of, your preparation you have expectantly traveled toward this wisdom site with hands upheld to the One who is the origin of all things, including both questions…and answers.

Your posture is submissive and your soul is surrendered.  May what has been silenced in you for far too long, begin to sing!


How have you made meaning out of trials faced on your journey? or
Have you traveled to Iona? How did you prepare and practice simplicity? Were you able to offer something back?
Share your experiences in the comments below.

– See more at: http://asacredjourney.net/2013/07/mary-dejong-2/#sthash.ieNvUYwI.dpuf

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 asacredjourney.net 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. 


Anchors of Stability – Landmarks on the Way.


On the pilgrim trail

On the pilgrim trail

Anchors of Stability 

A couple of days ago I post about  The Stability of Practice and shared some of the practices that have provided stability for my life. There is another I did not mention – the gathering of rocks. I have shared previously about my rock collection where I commented: Collecting rocks has become an important part of my prayer life, because each time I hold them in my hand I am reminded of some aspect of my faith journey and I find myself praying in gratitude, in repentance or just in sheer joy at the faithfulness of God.

In my upcoming book Return to Our Senses: Reimagining How We Pray, (available for preordering next week) I talk about this in more depth and encourage people to incorporate the gathering of rocks into their prayer life. Display them where you pray. Pick up the objects regularly. Remind yourself of the stories they represent and the lessons they have taught you. Use them to focus your prayers and to build your faith.

The aspect I have not shared about though is the use of rocks as memorial cairns and this morning I thought I would share the section of my book in which I talk about this. You may not want to collect rocks as I do, but all of us need tangible objects that act as memorials to the loving relationships in our lives. We need objects that stir our memories and stop us forgetting the faithfulness and enduring love of God. These days most of us collect photos or video footage of those we love. When houses are destroyed by earthquakes and floods it is the loss of these items that is often most devastating to people. These memorials remind us of the love that surrounds us. They provide anchors and add stability to our lives.

Unfortunately photos are not an option where God is concerned, but there are other concrete items, like my rock collection, that encourage us to remember the acts of God in our past and the intimate moments of love we have shared. This is one important way that we connect to the acts of God in the present and learn to trust and hope for the promises of God in the future.

God understands better than we do how easily we forget and how destabilizing it can be for our lives. Numbers and Deuteronomy are full of admonitions to the Israelites to remember their God who brought them out of Egypt and faithfully led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness. Their memorial symbol was the tassels on their clothing, something they wore every day, always in their vision, reminding them of their great and loving God: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: Throughout the generations to come you must make tassels for the hems of your clothing and attach them with a blue cord. When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do. The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God!” (Numbers 15:37-41)

Collecting or making objects that help root our prayers in the faithfulness of God can provide important signposts that lead us onward towards the heart of God. Cairns of rocks have been used as signposts along paths of pilgrimage for thousands of years. They make us aware of the many who have gone before us. We are not alone. The God who has provided throughout human history is still a God of grace and mercy and love.

I was never more aware of this than when watching the film The Way recently. This powerful and inspirational story stars Martin Sheen who plays Tom, an irascible American doctor coming to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son. He decides to embark on the historical Camino de Santiago pilgrimage where his son died. On the Way” Tom meets other pilgrims from around the world, each with their own issues and looking for greater meaning in their lives: an overweight Dutchman supposedly trying to slim down for his brother’s wedding, a Canadian woman trying to give up smoking and an Irish writer who is suffering from a bout of writer’s block.

There is a tradition on the camino to bring a stone from home and rub all your fears, hurts and sorrows into the stone which you can place at the base of the Cruz de Ferro. Others pick up a stone along the way or write a wish on paper. They deposit them at the  cairn of Cruz de Ferro where a huge mound of rocks with their prayers, and hopes and suffering have accumulated over the centuries. This is a holy spot whose sacredness spoke to me even from a distance.

I have been intrigued by the Camino de Santiago ever since I read Phileena Heuertz’s moving story of her own pilgrimage along The Way, in  Pilgrimage of a Soul. Pilgrimage, memorials and anchors are so important in our lives.

Unfortunately in our highly mobile society where many families move every couple of years, memories, like everything else become disposable unless we make a deliberate effort to convert those memories into sacred memorials that can remain with us throughout our lives.

So my question this morning is – what are the memorials that mark your life? How do you preserve and build them so that they do remain as anchors of stability?


What Does it Mean to Walk as Pilgrims?

Therefore since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.  And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.  (Hebrew 12: 1,2)

I could not help but think about this today as I was reflecting again on pilgrimage.

Pilgrims prepared well for their journeys as they expected to be gone from home for a long time if not forever.  They wore a special costume, a brown woolen robe that was long enough to wrap around them at night to sleep.  This costume was regarded as both a penance and an honour.  It both identified the person as a pilgrim and helped them to beg alms on the way.  A cross decorated the sleeve.  On the head was a broad brimmed hat usually turned up to display the pilgrim badge and symbols of the shrines he had already visited.  Slung around the neck was a scrip with two days food and a large knife and a flask for water.  The pilgrim aso carried a long stout staff which was for vaulting over streams, climbing hills and as defense against outlaws and wild animals.

What difference would it make to our lives if we prepared for our Christian journeys in this way – recognizing that we are meant to be distinguished from the world around us with a very different purpose and a very different way of living?

A Sense of Pilgrimage

Tom and I are heading off to England this morning to work with Livability.  I am particularly looking forward to a few days relaxation in London between events.  Going to Britain always has a sense of pilgrimage for me.  On our honeymoon almost 20 years ago we visited Iona, for me my first trip to this very special island, and since then it has been the destination for several pilgrimages.  We have also visited Holy Island and other pilgrimage sites,  and so while we are away I thought that I would do a series of posts about pilgrimage.

Going to Holy Island for the first time, in particular, gave me a sense of my own life as a pilgrimage with the destination being “The Holy City of God” or in more modern terms – God’s eternal shalom world of wholeness and abundance.

I loved reading about how the pilgrims stopped along the way to pray and give thanks at shrines particularly designated for this purpose.  The pathways were often marked by crosses – wayside crosses – that gave an assurance that they were on the right track.  These wayside crosses also gave a sense that no matter how often the pilgrim stopped, they were always aware that the final destination, the holy city of God or in this case Holy Island toward which they were moving, still lay ahead.

Holy Island is still a popular place for pilgrimage.  And today as in the Middle Ages people go on pilgrimage for many reasons.  For many it is a true journey towards the presence of God and a recognition that all of life is a pilgrimage.  The journey’s end often culminates with a renewal of vows to God and a renewed sense of the kingdom of God as our final destination.

Pilgrimages that renew our sense of God’s purpose for us are very important and should be taken a regular intervals.  If we cannot go on a physical pilgrimage, activities that give us a sense of pilgrimage can be a good substitute.  As prepare for the celebration of Advent and Christmas, it is a great season to think about this.


Are We Walking a Maze or a Labyrinth?

Making finger labyrinths

This is the season when many urban and suburban families here in the US get out into the great outdoors at least for a brief time.  They visit pumpkin patches and corn mazes as part of the harvest celebration.  Kids delight in getting lost in the midst of corn stalks and straw bales – at least for a time.  And then they want to get out.  If their parents aren’t close at hand some of them panic looking for the exit.  Of course the aim of a maze is to get lost and have fun finding the one true path.

The aim of a labyrinth on the other hand is to follow the path that is already mapped out for you.  A couple of years ago our church installed a labyrinth and I enjoy the occasions, rare though they may be, when I have taken the time to walk the path.  Each year at our Celtic retreat we set up a labyrinth too and this year we even made finger labyrinths on wooden blocks, using glue and sand.

For me, walking the labyrinth is a very relaxing and calming experience, a good time to meditate on God and the way that God is working in my life.  In fact I often find myself reflecting on the experience for days afterwards wondering about how to align the experience with my daily activities and the struggle to understand God’s love and faithfulness in the midst of ongoing pressures and frustrations.

Building the labyrinth

In the Middle Ages people who could not afford either the resources or the time to go on pilgrimage, walked the labyrinth instead.  I suspect that many of them walked it on numerous occasions.   it is I have discovered a wonderful mini pilgrimage.

The twists and turns of the labyrinth, at one moment walking straight towards the centre and then suddenly turning towards the perimeter, reminded me that there are times well into our Christian journey when we feel we are back to our starting point.  These are the times when we feel far from God in spite of the fact that we have been followers of Christ for many years.  All of us experience them.  Part of what my labyrinth walk has taught me is that at times like this I don’t need to look back, I need to look forward to the next step, trusting that God has laid out the path I am walking.  Hopefully the next turn  will lead me back toward the centre.

Of course if I was building the path, I would make a straight line that moved me straight to the centre without any twists and turns, with no times of feel distant from God.  That I realize is not God’s way.  Standing back from a labyrinth or viewing it from above  one cannot see the whole path but we trust that it is there and that it will not lead us astray.  And so it is with God.  We cannot always see the path that God has laid out for us.  Sometimes it takes unexpected turns that seem to take us away from the centre just when we thought we were drawing close to God.  But it is not really so.  Every step we take is a step closer to the centre of the path God sets out for us and closer to a more intimate knowledge of the God we love and serve and in whom we live and move and have our being.

Pilgrimage of a Soul

One of the things that always happens while I am gone is that books accumulate for me to read and review on my blog.  This week the pile is bigger than usual as Tom is starting research for a new book and keeps sending reading material my way.  However the one at the top of the pile for me is Pilgrimage of a Soul by Phileena Heuertz.  I wrote an endorsement for this book some months ago and have been waiting expectantly for its appearance.  It is one book that I read cover to cover even in the original galley form in which it was first sent to me.

I love this book and think that it is perfect for summer reading, especially for those who want to spend some time retreating, reflecting and renewing their faith.  Phileena beautifully weaves the story of her own pilgrimage walking The Camino in Spain with husband Chris, through the recounting of her life struggles, joys and spiritual journey.

Like me Phileena calls herself a contemplative activist.  She and her husband Chris co-direct Word Made Flesh, giving their lives to building communities of justice, equality and opportunity amongst victims of war, prostitution and poverty.  The walk to Camino was the first sabbatical the Phileena had taken in 12 years and Pilgrimage of a Soul is a powerful testimony to the value of such experiences in all our lives.  Phileena draws from the life of Mother Theresa and the writings of Henri Nouwen, St John of the Cross, Parker Palmer and others to enrich her book.

I found myself laughing with her, crying with her and wanting to a part of what she was doing.  I heartily recommend it not just to those who are contemplating a time of retreat or sabbatical but to all who want to enrich and deepen their faith.  Well done Phileena and thanks for writing this book and allowing us to enter into your life in this way.

I would love to quote the whole book for you but will restrain myself and only give you a glimpse of one section.  I will leave you with these words to reflect on:

In our modern world, it is much too easy to overextend our limits toward activity and productivity.  Stillness, solitude and silence are not valued today like they may have been for our ancestors whose days were filled with these qualities simply by the nature of their life’s labour and limitations.  We tend to see restrictions to activity and engagement as something to be avoided.  But limitations and restrictions can be a grace for us. Within the context of our limitations, God can do for us what we cannot.  The caterpillar can’t make herself become the butterfly – that kind of change requires confinement, solitude, stillness and receptivity to something bigger than herself.  This is how transformation is made possible.  remember, we cannot make ourselves grow; but we can choose to submit to or resist the process.  And though much growth takes place in our active lives, all elements of creation are subject to contemplative stillness as an integral part of growth and transformation.  The butterfly does not become the magnificent, colourful creature by a fury of activity.  She submits to the confinement of the chrysalis – womb-like, tomb-like.  She is still.  She rests.  She receives.  She submits to a work more glorious than she could have ever conjured up for herself.  (p135)

Getting Ready For Halloween

One of the things that really surprised and horrified me when I first came to the US was the huge emphasis on Halloween.  Even churches organized Halloween celebrations with kids dressed as witches and no one thought twice about feeding the monsters that came to their doors trick or treating.

Today there seems to be more talk about not celebrating Halloween because it has been so taken over by witches, covens and non Christian groups.  But is that the right attitude?  How could we redeem the celebration of Halloween and return it to the Christian celebration it once was?  How can we enter into the joy and celebration of God’s rhythm of feasting and add to the fun rather than trying to kill it?

The word Hallowe’en itself is a contraction of “Hallowed evening” the old English word for “holy” still seen in older translations of the Lord’s prayer .  The evening is hallowed because is is the beginning of the Feast of All Saints celebrated November 1st.  All greater feasts of the church calendar like Christmas and Easter begin in the evening the following the ancient Jewish practice of beginning the celebration of the Sabbath at sundown on Friday evening.  So it seems to me that ignoring Halloween and trying to just celebrate All Saints Day doesn’t really work.  What we need to do is reattach it to All Saints Day and regain its original and true significance.

So how can we do this?  Here are some possibilities:

Matt Stone conducts an alternative service – Thanksgiving for the Dead to reflect on lost loved ones and the saints who have gone before

Helen Hull Hitchcock from Women of Faith and Family suggests holding a children’s party at which children dress up as saints from past ages.  She has some other great suggestions that you can check out here

tom and I will be on the road this Halloween but here are some thoughts I have on celebrations we could do in the future to enter into the real meaning of Halloween

Plan a family heritage party. Invite people to do some work beforehand researching their family history and particularly the Christian saints who were a part of it.   Ask them to bring photos and stories to share.  Finish with a time of prayer for all those that have gone before us.

Several years ago when my youngest brother went to Greece where my father comes from he found out that it is possible that our family name Aroney comes from the name Aaron and that our family probably originated in Jerusalem many centuries ago.  It is probable that one of the reason they began the journey out of Jerusalem first to Constantinople then to Rhodes and finally to the tiny island of Kithera at the bottom of the Peloponnese mountains is because they became Christians.  There are a number of Greek orthodox priests in my father’s family history and my Aunt Mary was a very devout Greek Orthodox Christian.   I know less about my mother’s family history but would love to find out where her family too has had profound encounters with God.

Plan a Halloween pilgrimage. Again this might require some before time research.  Explore the Christian heritage of your community.  Where did the first Christians come from?  How did they interact with the native peoples?  Where was the first church established?  Who were some of the early Christians who impacted your community.  Plan a pilgrimage walk to the site of the first Christian community and if possible have a time of prayer and possibly even a eucharistic celebration to remember those who have gone before

What ideas do you have for a redeemed Halloween celebration?