Good morning, good afternoon, good evening – wherever you are and whenever you are, I hope this finds you well. I invite you to relax, put your feet up, and follow me on a conceptual journey as we tackle the difficult question of:
What is a pilgrimage?
Normally, I’d launch into a discussion about where you can find one. But to me, it’s not so much a place as it is a feeling – less a physical journey and one of emotional and spiritual exploration.
In many ways, the pilgrim sites in Ireland are more a guideline for the experience of the journey, and less the epitome of the journey itself. Standing outside of shrines and churches older than anything you’ve ever seen before in the Wild West of Ireland can invoke that feeling of awe, true – but to take an Irish pilgrimage, one must be open to the possibilities of healing, seeking, and accepting.
Let’s break that down a bit: in terms of healing, the Celts were famous for their influence on the land – not because they changed it terribly much, but because they used the land in such a resourceful way that the land shaped itself to their desires, it seemed. Besides dolmen and similar structures, they also fashioned sacred sites from bubbling springs and flowing streams, creating places believed to heal and help those who came to visit them. These places were known to cure ailments such as eye conditions (though some might infer “blindness” also refers to that of the mind – to dip one’s head in the water of a certain well was said to open their mind up to new possibilities and provide pathways for enlightenment), headaches, toothaches, ankle sprains, and more.
Sacred spaces over time transferred to places such as an ancient face carved into the stone of a churchyard wall or (going back a bit in history); “fingerprints” of saints in eroding stone, or even saunas dug into the earth where heated stones and cold water could sweat out sickness or strain.
There were dozens of way the land is interwoven with action, and the Irish faith in the land is something that stems all the way back to Celtic tradition – something that survives and intertwines with modern spirituality. From balancing that cyclical quality of seasonal change to sustaining life and focusing on the aspects of the Goddess (e.g., the “emerald isle” herself), to some, pilgrimage was making the journey from place to place – and having it made meaningful by discoveries of fresh water that could flush away ailments and circles of stones that could turn one’s life (and leg) around properly. Resetting oneself seems to be a motif here – or perhaps the start of something new, shedding the old. There are a lot of different ways to heal oneself to varying degrees.
A placebo effect; perhaps, to some, but there is the possibility of an inarguable amount of “residual energy” to be found in the land – the feeling of walking over something ancient, of dipping one’s hand into water that has flowed and fallen on the land for countless ages is resounding. Standing in silence and allowing the mere concept; the possibility surround oneself is vital. There is renewal in simply being, for a moment, and taking the journey that thousands upon hundreds of thousands have taken before. And now, you’ve made it your own.
It is not as though the concept of pilgrimage isn’t universal: people can come from all over to seek out something greater; that healing concept that quite literally keeps a person going. Ireland is home to many pilgrimages; the Christian aspect bringing in thousands of people per year. However, spirituality can be more universal than that – and more individual, besides. In taking steps; in seeking something, there is also a sense of motivating oneself forward: the cliché being the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step actually being rather apt here. The truth is, what one feels on the pilgrimage is what makes it what it is. Whether or not you travel in a pack, so to speak, the concept of pilgrimage infers going it alone: in the sense that it is an individual journey among the journeys of others.
The most recent group of Wild Westie “pilgrims” shared their personal journeys through various creative ventures; a keen example being Westie couple John & Donna Farrell’s reflections on their journey:
“So much more than sightseeing,” John wrote, “the history, myths, legends, and connections with native people and local teachers and guides were an immersion to Ireland that exceeded our hopes and expectations.” He explains that it was a unique, Celtic spiritual “presence”, actively engaging with the experience through photographs and prose. His wife; Donna, focused more on poetry: her haikus regarding her pilgrimage resonate as someone who found what she might’ve been seeking.
the Burren’s not barren
there are flowers everywhere
each a gift for me
pay attention, girl
look carefully and closely
shalom awaits here.
Shalom, to me, is a type of acceptance. A welcoming of peace. Acceptance in the form of being open to possibility. Whether it’s walking in solitary silence through a valley flanked by mountains and famine houses or sitting by the wild Atlantic, turning a smooth stone over and over again in your hands, you have to let the experience happen. Nothing good ever came of forcing something – the pilgrimage requires the use of all of your senses. Take a moment to feel the earth under your feet. Listen either to what is being said or how the wind and water speak to you. Taste the salty brine of the sea, drink in the sight of weather-worn crosses set above places predating the origin of such symbols. Saoirse Charis-Graves; a spiritual leader of sorts for the Wild West Irish Tours, summarizes an event the Westies experienced on one of their events at the time of Samhain:
Guided once again by the incomparable Pius Murray (who is well-known for his pilgrimage walks), the Wild Westies traveled to a sacred site in the Burren area, where Pius demonstrated the concept of this particular well by kneeling, scooping up water in his hands, and allowing it to fall through his fingers once he’d found what he wanted to focus on: something he needed to let go of.
“This moment in our pilgrimage was profound for me,” says Saoirse. “It’s been showing up in my dreams, and has sparked in me a desire to engage in a daily practice of allowing this gesture to assist me in ‘letting go’.”
That can always be a struggle, especially nowadays. In making the voyage to Ireland; visitors embark on a pilgrimage, whether they realize it or not – an escape elsewhere, to let go of something, be it fear or work or stress…they choose to leave something behind as they go in search of something else entirely.
Overall, the pilgrimage idea seems to concentrate on quite a bit of “availability” – letting oneself become a part of the moment and the environment. There is enlightenment to be found in the smallest of ways – it won’t always be a Siddhartha-esque experience, wherein sitting under a tree for hours on end invokes a sort of ascendance from the mundane. It could easily be the simple act of picking something to let go of – to weave yarn around a branch and hurl it into a river; allowing the water to carry your troubles away. It could be giving in to supposed superstition and putting faith in a stone face to kiss your pain away. At the very least, these experiences are a part of the journey – one travelers will take with them when they leave Ireland. In many ways, a piece of the visitor will always stay behind, as is true of any journey: in coming to Ireland, you are becoming more. More aware, and hopefully, more open to possibilities, as every experience in travel is a new one.
Circling back to the idea of the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, any individual who sets out with Ireland in mind is probably looking for something. It could be a genetic link; seeking relatives and history. It could be historical, in wanting to walk among the ancient sites and explore areas of stone and sensation. It could be a spiritual event; yes, in that there is something that calls a person to Eire in endless song.
The point is, we are all of us pilgrims, each on individual journeys that interweave across footpaths – like Pius’s Coisceim Anama, or Footstep of the Soul, it is an undertaking of the heart – to move where the universe moves you. Saoirse had more to say when I reached out to her, and she brings everything together beautifully:
“I think of ‘pilgrimage’ as a journey of spirit,” says Saoirse.
“It may be a physical journey. To another land, to another country, to another place. It may be done on foot, on water, a trek across a frozen land, a road traveled by car or bus or motorcycle. It might be done alone, or it might be with a companion, known or unknown, human or not. Or with a group of people, familiar or unfamiliar.
It could be a retreat from one’s everyday life into a series of new places, new people, new experiences. It might be accompanied by a guide, or several guides, or no guide at all.
It might be done with intentions, written or unwritten, or dreams, fully-formed or half-realized, or simply a desire to journey ‘away’ from whatever ‘here’ might be.
One might carry totems or icons on the journey. Some might be left behind, tucked into a niche, tossed into a well, or tied to a tree branch. Some might return home with the pilgrim, or the pilgrim might carry a new totem home … something that holds the memory of the journey for the time to come.
A pilgrimage might mark a time of transition, from single to married, or married to single. From parenting to empty-nesting. From coupled to widowed, from addiction to freedom, from hopeful to empty.
A pilgrimage can be a journey of self-discovery or of penance and forgiveness or of healing. It can be religious or spiritual or both … or neither. A journey from one way of being to another.
A pilgrimage can be a returning … to home, to self, to sanity, to peace.
A pilgrimage can be an opening … to joy, to amazement, to Mystery.
A pilgrimage can be the journey you make from the time you rise from your bed to the time you fall into sleep at the end of the day. And each rising brings the promise … or perhaps the opportunity … for a new journey.
May the pilgrimage you undertake this day be filled with moments of blessing.”
So what makes your pilgrimage a pilgrimage?
We’d love to know your thoughts – let’s discuss this together.
We’ll walk a while and see where the conversation and road alike leads.
Until next time, travel safely!