The last few weeks people have been asking me if I’m excited about our trip to Ireland. That question usually is followed with, “are you packed?” A few will ask me if I’m ready to walk the 150 miles. And a few have asked me how have I prepared myself. The answer to those questions lie somewhere in the process of paying to attention to the mind, body, soul, and spirit.
I know I’m headed to Ireland. I know I’m going to walk the Wicklow Way with two groups. I’ve walked the Wicklow Way before; I know the terrain, and I know that the weather is unpredictable. But I don’t know how my body will hold up this time. I am walking with people who will be on their first walking pilgrimage. I don’t know how they will respond to the pounding of the trail. And for sure, I don’t know what will bubble up from deep within my psyche, nor do I know what the Spirit of God will bring my way. The power of the uncertain far out ways the familiar.
But pilgrimages come in many forms, those we intend to take, as well as those that are thrust upon us. I am always talking with people who are sharing their stories about dealing with life pilgrimages; the anxiety, the fear, and the unknown. The question invariably comes about how to prepare for the uncertain.
How do we prepare for a pilgrimage into the uncertain—the pilgrimage of health issues, the pilgrimage of life transitions, the pilgrimage of disappointments, and the pilgrimage of delving into the unknown realm of the spiritual world?
To find some answers to these questions, let’s take a look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our faith and the original pilgrims. (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7) How was Abraham prepared to go on what seemed to be an impossible pilgrimage?
First, Abraham listened. He used his six senses to hear what God was saying to him. To go on any kind of pilgrimage—those we intend to go on and those we do not want to traveled— we have to prepare ourselves by listening. Typically, our first response is to do something; make plans, buy tickets, buy new boots. We want to rush around and do things; all good things, all things we eventually need to do.
The same usually happens when we get thrust into a pilgrimage we don’t want to take, things like illness, divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one.
We want to do something, get on the internet, do research, read a book about how to solve our problem, talk to our friends. All things are good, but they are distractions from the reality of how to start a pilgrimage. The first thing we must do is listen—to take information using all our senses. Look around and see what’s happening. Smell the air. Taste the situation. Touch the circumstances. Listen.
Abraham listened. What he heard was awfully challenging. God told him to leave his home. God told him he would be traveling to some unknown place. And when he arrived at this promised land it would be occupied by another tribe who wouldn’t want to give up their land. And God told him that one day, in the far away future, he and his wife, though seventy-five and childless, would bear a son, and Abraham would become the father of many nations.
Before we head out on one of life’s pilgrimages we first have to listen to the Divine, realizing that what we might hear could be irrational and not make sense. It’s often those callings that are truly the voice of the One Holy Living God. By listening, we are then able to make intentions for our pilgrimage. By listening, I have set a specific pattern of spiritual practices that I intend to follow each day. I bought a red journal for the journey. I intend to follow the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius. I am going to read the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the prose of James Joyce. And I intend to be open to what the Spirit of God presents to me along the way.
Second, Abraham and Sarah traveled by stages; they took time to think about what they were doing. A pilgrimage has many parts. The preparation, the travel, the walking, the reflection, and then adjusting to the changes the pilgrimage has brought about in our life.
Abraham went through several wild experiences on his pilgrimage. At times, he didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He put his wife’s life at risk. His own life was threatened. His plans had not worked out very well. But he was still on his pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage of life can leave us feeling frustrated, angry, and confused. The most difficult thing to accept about the pilgrimage of life is that more often than not we really don’t know what the outcome will be. We have to let go of our need to control. And from that point, we must simply follow where the Spirit of God is calling us to go. If we avoid the calling, if we deny what is happening in our life, if we refuse to embrace what lies ahead, if we refuse to walk, then we will not be able to fully experience the gift of life. We must journey by stages and think through the process in order to experience the pilgrimage.
Third, Abraham rested under the oak; he checked in with his feelings. When you’re on a walking pilgrimage you can’t walk 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At some point, you have to sit down, take off your pack, rest, and reflect on your experience.
Abraham sat down under an oak, which became known as the Tree of Abraham, synonymous with the Tree of Life. It was there that Abraham reflected upon his pilgrimage. I have a favorite tree on the Wicklow Way. It’s a giant oak that has grown around a rectangular stone about six feet long and two feet high. By growing around the stone, the oak has created an opening to itself, which, when climbing onto the stone, you can fully stand up inside the tree. Sitting on the stone, inside the tree is a beautiful place to check in with my feelings.
And now, when I’m not in Ireland, I can sit on the ground an imagine myself inside the great oak. In the pilgrimage of life, we need those quiet, safe places, where we can check in with our feelings and reflect about our journey.
Finally, having gone through the process the comes with being on pilgrimage, Abraham imagined; he had a vision. And not only did Abraham have one vision, he lived his life in a state of visioning. In other words, his pilgrimage work effected how he lived his life; what he sensed, what he thought, what he felt, and how he imagined living the remainder of his life.
We are all on the pilgrimage of life. Some of the pilgrimages are wonderful and filled with joy—and some are not. The painful journeys maybe are where we learn the most. What we learn from the life of Abraham is that a full complete mature life will have both types of pilgrimages. The key is how we process them. Do we listen? Do we process the pilgrimages by stages? Do we set aside time for reflection? Are we willing to imagine a new way of living? Such is the work of living life as a pilgrim.