Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage-Departure: Fire and Fear


The last load of laundry was finally folded and last minute pre-travel errands run.  Whispered prayers and silent repetitons of the “do not forget list” infused rain gear, woolen layers and inspirational books as they were packed tightly away in the suitcase.   Today I departed for my pilgrimage to Iona and I couldn’t be more eager to get past this stage!

The pilgrimage’s archetypal stage of departure is wrought with tension and conflict.  While our souls are desperate for this life-giving journey, our egos are inherently set against anything that would bring about such unity and peace for ourselves.  Traditionally, this struggle against Self-- to get over and through the leaving threshold-- is represented by two great sphinxes that stand guard and strike fear into whoever would dare bypass them.  The only weapon that can defeat the sphinx is self-assurance and the ability to see through their fear tactics. To garner the strength to acknowledge the ruse of dares and distresses they throw at the pilgrim, is to seek strength from our Sacred Source and boldly call out to these foes that they are but a distraction from our destination.

I’ve studied pilgrimage for years and yet am always surprised at how very real and strong these archetypal stages are.  The events and occurrences that lead up to the departure are absolutely hallmarked by despair, and lead one to second guess the need to go on such a soul journey.  This particular pilgrimage has been no different and the sphinx have sure been doing their dandiest to scare me away from the day’s journey; it has been a nonstop onslaught of attempts to waylay and mislead me.

Beyond the leading-up weeks of fluish fevers, car problems and financial woes, we almost had a house fire last night.  Seriously.  To commemorate my departure-and Seattle’s brilliant May weather-we decided to grill a salmon and enjoy our family’s meal outside.  I decided to leave the grill on high heat to burn off the residual fish skin following dinner…and promptly forgot about the outside oven as I packed and put the children down to bed.  Late into the night, after my husband had swept the kitchen floors and laid the shaken out kitchen rugs on top of the grill, which is inches from a bakers rack containing shoes, coats and outdoor miscellany that stands against the 100 year old wooden paneling of our home (!!!!!), I smelled burning smoke through the kitchen window I just happened to open earlier in the afternoon to get a cool spring breeze through the house.  I opened up the back door only to find the kitchen rugs in flame atop our gas grill!  Grabbing an un-torched corner, I flung the rugs to the ground and rushed around looking for water to douse the firey inferno.  The flames were inches away from our house…I still shudder to think about what would have happened if I had gone to bed at my regular bedtime, and not been awake fussing about my packing.

That incident behind me, I anxiously laughed in the faces of the sphinxes; “Oh you archetypes!  Trying to get me all afraid and what not!  Nope, I’m getting past you and continuing on with my soul journey!”

It was time to leave for the train, which runs just a block away from our house, to get to the airport in time to catch my flight.  My husband and two of my children were home to walk me to the station.  The sidewalk to the station takes us past a nuisance property where felons, prostitutes and drug addicts are want to hang out.  Typically they are active in the wee hours of the morning and are rarely out and about during the bright sun-filled days.  However, just as we were about to make our way to the train, a handful of these unsavory household guests gathered on the sidewalk.  Their presence induces silence and fear; and as their eyes bore through my own, I desperately just wanted to turn back home and forget this whole pilgrimage affair.  Strengthened by the innocence of my children, and my bold husband, we walked past these people who had become apparitions of fear itself, daring me to be strong enough to pass by them.  With an exhale, I tightened my grip on the hands I love most and felt joy returning as we made our way quickly to the train.

However, the sphinxes weren’t through with me yet.  It appeared they wanted to throw one more thing of fear at me to see if I truly dared pass them and engage the heart of this pilgrimage journey.  We stood waiting at the street’s crosswalk-just beyond was the train station-and directly across from our little family was a man, who with one glance, made my skin crawl and move around me like a snake.  His ogling eyes didn’t ask permission as they seemed to look through my clothes, his jeering toothy smile centered on my son and his lips moved with unheard incantations.  I clutched my children, for in the urban wilderness, these are the types from which we are warmed to stay far away.  Through pursed lips, I whispered to my husband to remember to lock all our doors and stay vigilant; indeed, I was scared!  The pedestrian crossing sign changed and we embarked across the street, brushing shoulders with this man as we passed.  The snakes swarmed in my stomach, but were released as soon as we made it safely to the other side of the sidewalk.

A beacon of welcome seemed to embrace my safe passage through the threshold of departure: just feet away from me was a transit sign displaying a dove, sacred symbol for the patron saint of the Holy Isle of Iona-St. Columba, for whom this particular Seattle station was named.

Coincidence?  I think not.  Grateful for this sign of affirmation, my heart leapt past the fear and foreboding; and eagerly boarded the train for this pilgrimage journey.