Van Morrison's song "There'll be days like this," was playing on the taxi radio as we made our way from the bus station to our B&B in Dublin. Seems like a year since being in Dublin while it's only been 8 days. Those 8 days were spent walking the 100 miles of the Wicklow Way with 12 fellow pilgrims.
Today, I can't distinguish the overwhelming feeling of the afterglow of walking in the quiet of the forest from the hangover of doing the hard work of pilgrimage. While you might think I had too many Guinness last night in celebration with my companions, I did not. My heart is overflowing with the light of joy that comes from being with 12 other people who completed the walk and the work of their own personal pilgrimage. Seeing them shout in jubilation, leap into each other's arms with gratitude, share tears of satisfaction, and beam with a new found confidence from doing something they feared not possible, makes my heart flow with love for what the experience has brought them. The hangover feeling comes from my own sense of having worked hard to create this space for them and for me, yet knowing the work continues. The hangover comes with the depression of leaving something I love so much, maybe to return another day. Too much reflection, however, the day after the walk, is dangerous. Holding spiritual space for others while they do their work exacts a toll of soul energy. I feel much like I felt when I was a new parent—ecstatic with being a new father, exhausted from too little sleep. Like most first time parents, I was both excited and frightened by the future for my child. I know that each of my fellow pilgrims will have to spend some considerable time renegotiating with themselves how they will now live their lives after making such a soul trek.
They will return home to family and friends changed from the work of pilgrimage. Each will have left part of themselves on the trail, while at the same time, they have picked up something new. The experience of unpacking the pilgrimage will take weeks, months, maybe years. I know for myself, I am still working through my Ireland coast-to-coast walk two years ago. Now I have compounded that pilgrimage with this one. Each person who walked has been affected in a different way. While we shared the same path, we walked alone with our own burdens. What we each learned will be unique to our own experience. Still, at the same time, walking together, we gathered new insights from one another. Pilgrimage is as complicated as life itself, you are alone and at the same time, not alone.
Of course, some things we wish we could have left behind, we could not. Just this morning, while trying to purchase a train ticket to Limerick, I became very frustrated and angry with the machine that would not take my credit card. Then it demanded cash in exact change. I got so flustered that I made a costly mistake of buying a roundtrip ticket for today, which I did not intend to do. I didn't realize I bought the round trip ticket until I was on the train. I later asked the conductor, but was told it was too late for a refund. You would think after five trips to Ireland and several train trips I would have enough experience not to make such a blunder and especially not to get so upset. Yet, wherever you go, there you'll be. So, what's all this talk about pilgrimage transformation? Was all that walking for nothing? Have I not changed one bit?
Part of transformational work is to be transparent and vulnerable. Being honest about my frailties is a matter of being changed by the work of living life as a pilgrim. Pilgrimage forces the pilgrim to leave behind our identities of veneer we use as defenses and enter into the process of letting the pilgrimage strip away the pretense of whatever mask I am wearing. The face is unshaven, the make-up has disappeared. The nearest restroom is right behind the next available tree. The same sweaty, dirty clothes are worn days without washing. The pain brings out the complaints. The weariness strains the social tolerance. Somewhere along the way, I am who I am, there is no hiding me from myself or anyone else. There, at that moment, I can truly see myself. Then the work of pilgrimage begins. I must accept myself. Work on myself. And keep walking. The pack has not gotten lighter nor the road smoother. And I must deal with it all. Such is the reality of life and the demanding work of transformation. For me, this kind of work is worth the payoff, a dynamic charge of the soul, anamorphosis. Doing the work, over time, in small increments, a significant change begins to happen and a new part of myself begins to emerge.
But for the transformation to happen the pilgrim must continue the work long after the walking has stopped. Patience is required. And the ugly truth about who I am must be confronted by my own self. There in the light and heat of the day, change can and most likely will take place.
To my fellow pilgrims—be gentle with yourselves. Walk slow. Take time to rest. Breathe. Process. Be well. You are loved. Until we walk together again, we are always walking with the souls of one another.