I facilitate pilgrimage journeys to Iona, Scotland and in the Pacific Northwest for individuals who respond to The Call to engage transformational travel as a means to recovering a sense of the sacred within themselves and the natural world. Every retreat participant with whom I have worked has felt the deep uprooting that occurs when the call to go is upon them and are relieved and refreshed by this ancient practice and a profound place that demands action, questions and a quest for answers.
Iona provides all the trappings of a good pilgrimage: historical significance, a saintly presence, a continuous line of faithful heritage, and a requirement to travel there with intention. Moreover, Iona is the historical birthplace of the Celtic Christian tradition and so by going here, I invite conversation and attentiveness to the numinous natural world that surrounds us, and of which we are fundamentally apart. One of the key themes of this unique stream within the Christian faith is that nature is revelatory.
The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world. Every tree, blade of grass, and wild goose’s cry was imbued with the Spirit and spoke to the character of the Creator. These “theophanies” –God showings—were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries. The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things.
The entire created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator. Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed–the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.
The particularities of a place subsequently became both a sacred messenger and a storied record of divine encounters. Many important religious sites in Celtic lands are notable because of the presence of standing crosses. These great, free-standing, three-dimensional or ‘high’ crosses often stood in replacement of even more ancient pillar stones that stood to testify and link heaven to earth. This was a primal way of place-making. By naming a place through the placement of stone, or more notably, through tale-saturated titles, the Celtic people affirmed how important the natural world was to their experience with the numinous. Sacred legends associated with landscapes abound in Celtic country, and are often the narratives that bring people back to and into nature.
The island of Iona is storied land, tilled with tales immortalizing meetings with angels, prayer practices, and marking the journeys of those who have come before. Annie Dilland points out in “Teaching a Stone to Talk” that holy places have been disappearing rapidly since the Enlightenment, and our contemporary dislocatedness affirms this. “God used to rage at the Israelites for frequently sacred groves. I wish I could find one…. Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems not-holy.” However, Iona is sacred land and people make pilgrimage here to soak of these stories, hoping that something of this sacred soil will stick and have a profound impact on their personal lives. And my hunch is that there are many more sacred sites all around us, even in our own urban neighborhoods, if only we would pay attention.
The Celtic way of pilgrimage paid attention to place, understanding that God was revealed through the natural world and even through the hospitality of the stranger. When we travel with a pilgrim’s pace, we embrace the perspective and values of the Divine. Charles Foster holds that a journey will challenge you to engage critical aspects of the divine through:
This was a way of living, of moving, and of arriving to a place that required radical engagement. It entreats the individual to live into communion with the seasons, the elements, the natural world and other humans. The journey becomes the medium by which meaning is made and relationships are maintained.
Pilgrimage demands we pay attention, sensing messages for our inner journey through the faces with whom we share the sidewalk, as well as the environment that surrounds us. We awakening to the culture of a place when we pay attention to the potential of interactions with both the seen and unseen world. And this is where I sense the profound gift Celtic spirituality and its propensity to journey have for our modern cities today. This stream of spirituality both honors wandering and seeking out a new special place with the challenge to find renewal through an attachment to place. This attachment to a place comes through knowing its stories and noticing its strangers as portals of profound meaning and connection. However, this kind of noticing requires unplugging from our devices and engaging in our new places with our senses. It means tapping into the collective memory of a place through our bodies. The smells, sights and sounds of a place will reveal much about its stories—stories that induce knowledge and love of the land, the culture that co-habitates here, and the Creator who exists in and in between these places and its people.
When one sees more of a place, (these are the bits and pieces: birds and benches, angles and alleys, weeds and woods) because of one’s experiential sense of it, it allows us to plunge into a posture of permanence because we are enabled to gauge the true significance of what we gaze upon. This kind of seeing is akin to what the early Christians meant when they spoke of theoria, that was a way of seeing into the heart of reality that sometimes revealed the very face of the divine. Or like what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he spoke of “inscape,” the luminous, utterly singular texture of a thing that emerges with blazing clarity when a person actually looks upon that thing with care and sensitivity. Pilgrimage requires all senses as it depends on our sensory selves to receive and transmit divine messages in the here and now. It is nigh impossible to have an I/Thou encounter based on particularity and receive its sacred import if podcasts and screens overwhelm our sensing selves. This capacity is often grown by practicing the pace and posture of pilgrimage so that when we return home we are able to “see into” all that is there and all that is yet missing.