Pilgrimage: Invitation to the Unknown

Pilgrimage is an invitation to the unknown.  This year on my solo journey to Iona, Scotland, I’ll be going to an ancient pilgrimage site.  I’ve reserved my week at the Abbey where I’ll live in an international community of staff and guests.  My information sheet gives me some idea of what it’ll be like; it’s not a retreat with lecturers, or a week of serious-minded conferences with endless discussions (thank goodness!), not a center with meals provided by invisible hands.  We’ll all help in the chores of chopping vegetables, cleaning toilets, washing up and setting tables (sounds like home!).

There’ll be discussions around our theme for the week, “The Pilgrimage of Life.”  These will be led by Alistair McIntosh from Glasgow, originally from the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Services will be held in the Abbey church throughout the week and sometimes guests are invited to take part in preparing and leading services.  There are evening social events as a time of enjoyment and to use whatever talents guests have—and evidently everybody has some talent (hope this won’t be embarrassing!).

Every Tuesday there’s an organized pilgrimage of a seven-mile all day hike around the island (proper walking boots with good ankle support, and waterproofs, are essential!)

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Wonder what I’ll discover that week, I think to myself, after reading the information sheet, my first glimpse into being one of the guests.

I know that like previous pilgrimages, it will be a physical journey to a new place, and more importantly, an internal journey to what’s inside of me.  This year, I’ll take my first solo journey outside of North America.  Along with the other guests and staff, I’ll be in a covenant to live together as a community.  My previous journeys have prepared me for Iona.

Living in a community is about sacrificing for the good of the whole.  I’ve stayed in hostels where we shared food, helped each other find needed gear, and gave fellow travelers advice to smooth the journey.  We do that in our home communities—without taking a trip away, by working together in soup kitchens, letting go of petty complaints to make a more peaceful environment, and overlooking differences in political opinions in order to honor our relationships.


Staying in hostels has helped prepare me for Iona.

We can travel to a community that’s foreign to us— by going to another country or by crossing the divide of our city, getting to know those we’ve been separated from by race, affluence, and opportunity.  Either way, God can work in our lives to give us awareness of what that physical place is like, whether it’s the capricious weather changes of the Hebrides, or seeing our city from a different vantage point.

To prepare my heart for this pilgrimage, I’ll use Christine Valters Paintner’s suggestion in The Soul of a Pilgrim and create a space in my home as a retreat area– a special place of prayer.  This space will be dedicated to the journey ahead.  We can all do this, whether it’s for the journey into each day or for a pilgrimage to a faraway place.  She suggests placing a meaningful symbol or two on the altar of the retreat area.

On my altar, I’ll place a copper Celtic cross that I purchased at the gift store of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.  It reminds me of my first pilgrimage and how I felt grounded in God’s presence at that time of upheaval in my life.  I remember lighting candles and saying prayers for my future in the quiet space of that magnificient chapel.  Now, sixteen years later and preparing for my fourteenth journey, I’ll pray for Iona.  How will I experience God’s call in that unfamiliar Celtic community founded by an Irish monk?  I’ll see as I take each step along this pilgrim path.


How about you?

Are you being called to a pilgrimage in your community or in a faraway place?

How can you create a retreat space where you can prepare for that journey?

What meaningful symbols will you place on your altar?

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