I have been asked repeatedly why I am going on a pilgrimage—actually it’s “Why would want to do such a thing?” My family and friends have asked me out of curiosity. Acquaintances question as if to check and see if this is the deal breaker in our fragile relationship, as in, “Are you crazy?” There are the Irish folk who are simply straightforward and ask, “Are you daft?” The “thing” they all question, is walking 360 miles across Ireland. I’ve had three friends walk the Camino de Santiago and each told me it was something they felt they had to do, as if the Way, was calling out to them. I could say the same for Ireland itself, I feel as if the land is beckoning me, as if I belong here on the isle of the forty shades of green. Ireland is, after all, my mother’s ancestral homeland.
However, I think pilgrimage is about more than just the place, whether the Camino, or the Wicklow Way, Spain or Ireland, there is something about the pace and the mystery of the walk.
To walk with a backpack is to slow down. The pace averages about thirty minutes a mile. At first, carrying a pack, weighing about twenty-five pounds, takes some getting used to—after a few days, you feel as if you can’t walk without it. The pace and the weight provide time to think, pray, and observe. Walking the way allows you to see things you would never experience otherwise, the landscape, the flowers, the wildlife, meeting people along the roadside. To walk is to experience the land. When it rains, you get wet and you keep walking. When it’s hot, you sweat, and you continue. When the wind blows, you feel the intensity and draw upon your own strength to lean into the wind. To walk is to taste the air, feel life, and to commune with the terrain of mother earth.
The mystery of the walk, now that is the allure fetching me to take on the ache of weary feet, the pain of a tired back, and the changing uncertainty of the elements. “What will happen?” is the unknown, the adventure, and the excitement. Walking the Way is not the challenge of climbing the Alps, but it has its own set of risks. But, the real “What will happen?” is the question I ask of my inner being, “What will happen to my soul?” Will my worldview change? Maybe I could even be so bold as to ask if I will be transformed by the experience?
An elder friend in my church was intuitive enough to tell me not to change, “We like the old Gil,” she said. Her concern is honest and forth telling. Both she and I know, I will change, something will be different within me, and the old Gil will become the new Gil. How? I don’t know. It’s mystery.
I started planning this pilgrimage a few years ago, picking the time, plotting the course, collecting my gear, and training my body. Most recently, I have spent time praying that I will be aware and attentive to the experience. I start walking in the next few hours. I am excited. Admittedly, I am a bit nervous. My anxiety doesn’t have anything to do with the physical risk. The anxious feeling I have is, what if I walk 360 miles and the only “thing” that happens to me is my feet hurt. I guess I’ll have to take the chance and find out.
Priest, pilgrim, writer, alchemist—living into the mystery, the knowledge, and the practice of sacred alchemy. I've walked across Ireland, almost 400 miles of mountains, valleys, forests, and magic. The pilgrimage was a mirror of my life's journey, coach, president, priest. Traveler of the life's struggles—from failure to re-imagination—still walking.