Bertil went to Iona from Sweden with a pack lighter than a feather and a prayer he couldn’t even speak. A retired vicar of the Church of Sweden, this thin, long-legged man was as genteel as tea, and diligently spoke in a bass of broken English with long spells of Swedish woven in. But for years this sonorous voice had been silenced from song, a gift that had been dutifully practiced and trained in choirs for over fifty years. Bertil had not been able to sing for quite some time, a strange phenomenon without a cure, according to consulted doctors and specialists. With a mute melody, Bertil decided he must go to Iona for Pentecost, prayerfully hoping that Spirit would blow through his caged chorus, renewing both his voice and life-wearied soul.
I met Bertil at the Iona Hostel, and we attended services together at the Iona Abbey. I sat and sang along with Bertil at the Iona Community’s weekly service for healing, a precious and powerful space dedicated to restorative prayer requests for loved ones all over the world. We laid hands on one another and repetitiously offered prayers on behalf of our mutual needs and for those surrounding us. Following this moving service, I commented on Bertil’s lovely singing voice, speculating that he must be in choirs and performing groups. He looked at me with wet eyes and told me of his story…and his healing, as fresh and new as the tears on his face.
THE JOURNEY TO IONA
People come from all over the world to Iona, Scotland – and have for almost 1500 years – to experience God in new and life-giving ways. Whether a person is carrying a question, a prayer, or a need for healing and refreshment, this Sacred Isle seems to release something of its prayer-soaked soil to its pilgrims. I met a woman from Germany who came to be soothed and sanctified and was surprised to discover that Iona’s plant life was the deliverer; she wandered the beaches and heathered hills discovering flora and fauna that, quite literally, appeared to be calling out to her. She reverently gathered these plants and for a week drank teas and made poultices, and felt closer to God than ever before, on account of this good earth.Another fellow pilgrim was returning to Scotland to reconcile a tragic accident that took the life of her father while visiting this land over thirty years ago. The stories of why they come are as varied as the pilgrims that carry them, but come they do, ardent to leave their homes and arrive on holy ground.
Pilgrims come to pray here, believing that the accompanying candle, lit in the Abbey, will hasten the petition. They come to this place searching for a change that doesn’t seem to exist at home. They come for a reason that appears abundant in Iona’s surrounding sea, but lacking from their own tap. And there is something to this ancient belief that going somewhere else will bring you closer to the Divine. History heralds the holy events and lives that were lived out in places like Iona; to be able to come to these places with our own feet and walk the same paths as these great saints truly does come with a sense of mystical import. While the arrival to these sacred sites is absolutely necessary in the pilgrimage process, it is the getting there that highlights and underscores the gifts that are received at the destination.
It comes down to this: Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. It is the tension that causes us to awaken to ourselves in the first place that subsequently requires an exit, a leaving of all that we have come to know and trust as our homelands. Here, in these comfortable places, it is a challenge to see God, the world and our lives with clarity; furthermore, it is difficult to be awakened to the needs of our communities when we are dictated by clocks and cubicles, consultations and concerns. However, when we choose to respond to the Longing and the Call to leave the familiar behind in search of answers found in far-away places, we are deploying our soul to interact and intervene with the surrounding environment, the result of which is an energizing and heightened awareness of ourselves, of Others and the Spirit amidst it all.
This kind of invited alertness requires us to depart, to leave and to walk, to become intimate with the path upon which we tread, and others with whom we share it. The path that leads to the pilgrimage destination is critical for this process; for along this road, with no vehicular/insular walls to tune us out, we must tune in to the measured mode that invites contact, conversation and company. The structures we use to define who we are in ordinary life become irrelevant. Pilgrim space has no regard for class, race, or social/economic standing. There are no more random run-ins with strangers; there are no more lucky or misfortunate moments. In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny; every contact attests to some greater plan. No encounter is without meaning. There are signs everywhere, if only we learn how to read them. Peculiar people turn into much-needed messengers. The natural world speaks candidly and profoundly. The road has been transformed into grace; it is now a place where souls are nourished and renewed.
Phil Cousineau, author and pilgrim, says:
I remember sitting on the tarmac in Philadelphia awaiting our Atlantic departure to Glasgow in 2009. On pilgrimage to Iona, why should I have been surprised that we were grounded for FOUR hours while the winds and rains of a Hurricane Bill whipped around us, lightning lighting up the jet-black night outside our plane? What really brought the rigor close to heart was upon collecting our backpacks in Glasgow; is was evidently clear that our luggage was unable to be loaded on our flight during the storm, and also due to the extreme conditions, abandoned, not even covered against the torrential rains. My pack containing all my teaching materials for Iona was completely SOAKED, much of it rendered useless. All I could do was laugh knowing that indeed, I was on the road of a true pilgrimage!
The inevitable chaos that surrounds one’s journey to the place of their heart’s longing is set in place to distract and possibly even derail the most hope-filled plans. When one leaves on a pilgrimage, they are making an absolute commitment to a sojourn towards self-knowledge, which in Christian mystical tradition, is the understanding that knowledge of self and knowledge of God are one. And there are energies at play within and around us that are desperate to ensure that divine connection doesn’t occur. This happens in the guise of uncertainties and doubts, details unwinding, or appearances that even the weather is commiserating against you!
The purpose of the pilgrimage is to ultimately make life more meaningful. It is regarded as the universal quest for the self. Though the form of the path changes, one element remains the same: renewal of the soul. The essence of the sacred way is “tracing a sacred route of tests and trials, ordeals and obstacles, to arrive at a holy place and attempt to fathom the secrets of its power” (P.Cousineau). Once again, the act of listening is emphasized here. The way of the pilgrim is one of an inner-quiet, an inner ear attuned to the subtle sounds of the Spirit while on the sacred road.
Ultimately, we choose the way of the pilgrim’s path to get somewhere. We aren’t electing to be sojourners forever. We prefer the pilgrimage because of its archetypal stages: Longing, Arrival, and eventually, returning Home. The Arrival stage is especially poignant as this is the location and/or place toward our heart has been bent the whole while. It is the place that strengthens our resolve when the going gets rough, or the road seems too dark and dismal. We cast our eyes upward and outward towards this place for which we have longed and to which we have attributed purpose and answered prayers. The required posture on the Pilgrim’s Path has prepared you for your arrival; you have practiced the necessary way of seeing and listening to the surrounding greater community of things. So it is that when you arrive to your sacred destination, you are equipped to receive that which is for you.
ARRIVING WITH INTENTION:
PREPARATION, SIMPLICITY, + OFFERING
It is hard for me to say exactly what the Arrival stage looks like, as everyone absolutely has his or her own emotional experience and physical response to the day when you finally get there. I have witnessed people respond with tears of rapture and remorse, giddiness and gaiety, and silence and solemnity. But common themes are woven through the lives that have risked much to respond to the longing and leave for a place beyond the hearth and home: preparation, simplicity and offering are always present with a well prepared pilgrim at the point of arrival.
When I talk about preparation, I am looking beyond travel itineraries and packing lists. A pilgrim will immerse themselves in the poetry and prose of a place and/or region in an attempt to soak up the Spirit’s presence and inspiration in a culture. Intentional prayers and blessings will cover the time spent packing, journeying and will highlight the preceding minutes as one approaches the sacred site. This kind of preparation hallmarks the pilgrimage mode of travel as starkly contrary to the typical trip or vacation.
An easy way to practice simplicity is in how you pack. By packing light, you allow for the stranger to show up and supply a need. This posture positions you as open and ready to receive the Divine, guised as an Englishman at the Iona Hostel quite possibly! (Indeed, it has happened to me!) It is also important to engage a spirit of simple expectations. Don’t expect WiFi, a Starbucks or cuisine de la USA at your destination; in fact, if it is available, spin on your heel and discover where the locals get their mid-afternoon cup of wake-up, and indulge in regional cooking. To a degree, it is a little like the “when in Rome…” way of thinking. Don’t make it complicated. Engage the culture of the ways around you; it will be apart of your soul’s salve and a reason for coming.
Lastly, be prepared to offer something. As you approach your sacred site and your heart leaps with the proximity of answered prayers, posture yourself in such a way so to give something back to this place. A pilgrim decidedly journeys not to pick up souvenirs and trinkets along the way, but to look for circumstances to see others’ souls, and give out smiles and kindnesses for nothing in return. I challenge my retreat participants to bring along a physical item on their journey that represents their reason(s) for making the pilgrimage. The idea is that this item can be placed on the altar, or given to someone at the place of arrival as means of engaging the offering. For we know that it is only when we give that we truly receive.
Your pilgrimage began long ago as the yearning to go relentlessly etched itself onto your heart. Because of, and out of, your preparation you have expectantly traveled toward this wisdom site with hands upheld to the One who is the origin of all things, including both questions…and answers.
Your posture is submissive and your soul is surrendered. May what has been silenced in you for far too long, begin to sing!