“A pilgrimage is an intentional journey into the experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations. We grow closer to God beyond our own imagination and ideas.” The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Christine Valters Paintner
Recently my Spirit Circle chose to read Christine Valters Paintner’s “The Soul of a Pilgrim”, a book that explores pilgrimage as both an inner and outer journey. Several of us were preparing for “Footsteps of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica,” a Benedictine pilgrimage to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland sponsored by the Benedictine Oblates of Christ the King Priory.
By definition, a pilgrimage is a sacred journey or holy expedition, but we do not need to travel a great distance to go on pilgrimage. It is more about choosing to be “attentive to the divine at work in our lives through deep listening, patience, opening ourselves to the gifts that arise in the midst of discomfort, and going out to our own inner wild edges to explore new frontiers.”
The purpose of going on a journey “is always to return home carrying the new insight back to everyday life,” Paintner writes. “When we take inward and outward journeys, we can be pilgrims as long as we stay open to new experiences.” A week of hard work, becoming a new parent, losing a loved one, resolving a relationship conflict, or going on a spiritual retreat can all be a pilgrimage if one seeks to learn, reflect and be transformed from the experience.
These insights from the first few chapters and the book “The Soul of a Pilgrim” travel with me on my two-part pilgrimage. First, I visit cousins in Germany and then I join thirty-six other pilgrims to learn more about St. Benedict and to visit sacred sites including churches, monasteries, abbeys, castles, small villages, and large cities.
Three weeks, three days I will be gone. As I journey from Nebraska to Europe, I reflect on both my outer and inner experiences—the people, places, feelings and insights that I encounter on the journey.
Day 1: Saturday, June 8—
I think it’s an unwritten rule—all trips begin with a flight delay. Because of weather delays in Atlanta, my plane in Omaha earned an extra 40 minutes sitting on the tarmac. I sat in front of a (very good) mother and her two young children—a girl, named Violet, about 3 years old, and a boy around 4. I could tell the mom was going through her arsenal of activities to keep the kids entertained for longer than she had expected. They took turns playing games on an iPad, then played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and, finally, they played a story-telling game called “and then”—the mother started a story and each child had a turn to build onto the story after she said, “and then.” She begins, “We went out to a restaurant for dinner and then…” Violet simply adds, “We ate and then….” There were a few ordinary turns, but then Violet gets creative. With every turn, she adds a character—a princess with a cute tiara and a wand of rainbows. The boy adds a character with a suit of armor. Violet says, “A cute suit of armor.” The adventure story took them to the moon, meeting dangerous dragons, eating pretend dinner and then going to pretend bed very late. I am intrigued that each child returned to something familiar, something they loved in telling their part of the story.
Overhearing their story made an impression—a pilgrimage is an adventure of the mind first. We create an ideal in our imagination of what a journey will be like, whether it’s moving to a new house, having a dinner party or going on a trip, and then it becomes experiential. After the wonder comes the reality—and the reality can be filled with pleasant surprises as well as more discomfort than we had expected. This, too, we learn from.
“Pilgrimage calls us to yield our own agendas and follow where we are being led,” Paintner writes. There are many unknowns setting out on pilgrimage, despite attempts to plan the finest details. This idea of letting go of expectations, yielding my own agenda, resonates as I practice the meditation Paintner recommends to begin a pilgrimage—
“In your imagination, see yourself at a doorway. Spend some time being with the door and noticing its qualities. What are the colors and textures? Is it old or new? Is it worn with time and shiny? Is it closed or slightly ajar? See if you can be with whatever image comes to mind without trying to change it.
Imagine yourself pausing here, knowing that as you cross this threshold you enter into a liminal kind of time, kairos as the ancients called it. This is the time outside of time, where you will encounter both challenges and grace along the way. In the threshold space, you are in between, you are invited to rest into unknowing—about what the journey will bring, about even where you are going exactly.”
I think of many SoulCollage cards I have made with doors that represent this threshold of starting something new; it is archetypal. Paintner recommends choosing a seven-word mantra to remember and repeat throughout the pilgrimage. I play around with the phrase “peace like a river” and the words open, flow, embrace, surrender, anchored, spirit, God, and love.
I consider that I am entering kairos time for three weeks and three days. I will leave behind most of the daily news and will have limited contact with my husband and daughter because of the seven-hour time difference and a busy itinerary. Outside of normal time, I look forward to the routine of daily Mass, intentionally meeting the Divine each day. I settle on the mantra, “Trust God, peace like a river flows.” It encompasses surrendering to surprise and remaining open to possibilities, but it also recognizes the ever-present stability of God, met in the practice of ritual and prayer. It holds the paradox of both familiarity and adventure. Just like Violet’s story—there is excitement in telling a new story with a creative twist, but always she came back to the comfort of the familiar character from her imagination.
Sadly, no sleep on this 8-hour flight (but I did watch one must-see movie—The Upside.) It is 30 hours before I go to sleep for the first night in Munich, Germany at my cousin Jefferey’s house. The first week of pilgrimage with my cousins begins.
(All quotes in italics from The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within, Christine Valters Paintner)