The Journey Toward More

Article by Amy Cole (February 2018 eNews)

A Pilgrim:

a curious soul
            who walks beyond known boundaries,
            crosses fields, touching the earth
                        with a destination in mind
                                    and a purpose in heart.

During a busy decade of my life and ministry, I went to a Cistercian monastery for silent, solo retreat every year. I met with my spiritual director, took long walks, prayed the Hours, ate simply, wrote and read. I relished the time. After my first retreat, I noticed that unlocking the gate on the road to the retreat cabins could almost instantly ground me in a fresh attentiveness to God. I felt quickly “home” with my longings and intentions. The holiness of place, and yearly returning there, felt like opening a time capsule of my previous experiences on retreat, as well as sounding a drum roll and expectations of what God might show me in the days ahead.

When I signed up for my first pilgrimage with Shalem to Iona, I innocently assumed my time would look and feel very similar to those retreats, except I would be in the ancient holy space of a Scottish island with gourmet meals and a room overlooking the quaint Iona harbor. After eight years and four very different spiritual pilgrimages, I realize now that I had no idea about the difference between a spiritual pilgrimage and a personal retreat.  My retreats allowed me rest, prayer, reflection and spaciousness. The pilgrimages did all of that, too, but exposed me to new spiritual practices and immersed me in a foreign culture where my teachers were not only Shalem faculty but fellow pilgrims and spiritual heroes like St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and St. Columba. Where my retreats had been solitary, stationary and richer in internal experiences of the Holy, on pilgrimage I experienced the spiritual community of shared intentions, diverse personalities and the care and nurture of fellow pilgrims who came from different spiritual traditions and life stages. Through daily prayer practices and guided meditations, we grew in deeper attentiveness to what and who we saw, an openness to deeper meanings, and an awareness of our vulnerabilities and fears at the unfamiliar and foreign.

In Paris we focused on art and spirituality, the metaphor of Light. We began to see beauty nearly everywhere. As I glance through my journals from Paris, as well as Iona and Assisi, I’m struck by how many new ways I noticed beauty. The wren waking me each morning from the shrub of the convent garden. Walking freshly washed cobbled streets of Assisi to an early morning Lauds service in St. Clare’s basilica. The soft-spoken sister who greeted us when she unlocked the enclosure door for us each evening. The laughter and quick friendships formed with five other women from our group on the nights we shared our “God moments” over a meal of charcuterie and cheese at a wine bar in the Latin Quarter. I saw compassion and beauty in the young mother who shared our guest kitchen at the convent, after she spent all day at the nearby children’s hospital where her daughter had come for treatment of a rare cancer.  Poetic words of Rilke, brushstrokes of Monet’s water lilies stretching in long oval walls of the Musee d’Orangerie and Rodin’s massive Burghers of Calais all stretched my ideas of beauty.

Most afternoons or evenings, we gathered in small groups with other pilgrims to share a few reflections of the day. Often what I shared of my experiences and noticings of the day was enriched and deepened as others added what they had seen in the same piece of art and how it had spoken to their present circumstance. Some pilgrims of our groups had come to celebrate special birthdays, wedding anniversaries or the beginning of retirement. Many came alone, but others traveled with close friends, spouses, family members from different generations. Over the course of the week in each pilgrimage, I became aware of fellow pilgrims who, like pilgrims through the ages, carried heavy burdens: death of a spouse, addiction in a child, a marriage in ruins, care-giving for aging parents. Someone made reference to the solidarity in shared sufferings that had led many of us to make time for the pilgrimage. And yet so little was actually spoken about any particular situation or tragedy. Unlike exhausting and endless talking of groups at home, our pilgrim circles resembled a prayerful haiku of respectful and compassionate listening, or the giving and receiving of a simple blessing on holy ground.

I’ll never forget the evening of the summer solstice on Iona. I joined a few other pilgrims for a sunset hike to the west beach celebration we had learned about at morning prayers in the Abbey. The whole island was invited to celebrate the beginning of summer. It was the largest bonfire I’d ever seen, and hundreds sat on the hillside savoring the light. Others danced down by the flames and sang Celtic ballads. Young people from the abbey played mandolin, penny whistle and guitar. Though at first it seemed only beer and revelry, I noticed as the evening wore on that participants seemed to hold a reverence, offering toasts and prayers of gratitude as well as intercession for the upcoming harvest.  Living life on Iona and taking part in traditions Celtic and Christian continued to stretch and blend my unconscious designations of the holy and the worldly. We formed spiritual connections and friendships through morning prayers in the abbey, lunches at the pub and the hike to St. Columba’s Bay. Our common intention to journey toward “more” and to become spiritual community set the stage for deep relational connections, healing, renewal and a sense of a holy longing or calling.

Even as I recall memories from past pilgrimages and the many moments of deepening in my spiritual heart with others, I struggle to remember the names of those who journeyed with me. I only know that the gifts came through the presence of another pilgrim who shared a moment with me, who journeyed alongside me and who I know in my spiritual heart. Over the course of the four pilgrimages, I realize that the sense of expectation, gratitude, familiarity and belonging I felt when entering the gate of the Cistercian monastery now happens when I plan to join a Shalem pilgrimage. I know the pilgrimage will enable me to be more fully present to God. I trust that I will be stretched and deepened toward becoming the person I want to be. The time-capsule of memories from past pilgrimages reminds me how much I need and want the gift of spiritual community of God’s design. In my heart, I feel as if I’m already in the airplane!

February 02, 2018 by Amy Cole 2 Comments
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Shirlee K. Yoder
Shirlee K. Yoder
6 years ago

The moment I glimpsed the picture of pilgrims on the path, I knew that was the descent to St. Columba’s Bay. Been there. Done that. So I could resonate with much of the creative descriptions of pilgrimages—on Iona and elsewhere. Yes. So accurate regarding the richness and breadth of pilgrimage in contrast to personal retreat ( which is also enriching, of course). Thanks for posting.

Celpha Sands
Celpha Sands
6 years ago

A very inspiring story. I hope to one day do a pilgrimage.

Thanks for sharing.


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