When my friend Teri was telling me about the trip she was planning for her church members to Scotland and Iona that I eventually joined in on, she repeatedly used the word “pilgrimage.” Now I think she was partly just trying to dispel the myth that this was some sort of vacation with a church twist, but as I start to reflect on this journey, I think she was actually using the best possible word.
Pilgrimage is not a word people use much these days, but it has a long history in religious and spiritual life. To this day, faithful Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Buddhists and Hindus make the journey to holy places in their traditions as well. In an earlier era, Christians were pilgrimage people, too, with people making their way to the churches of saints and visiting relics housed in special locations, but nowadays pilgrimages seem to be far less formal and certainly less important. Today, Christians, especially Protestants, might make a trip to an important holy site, but it would be unusual to consider a particular place a required spot of pilgrimage as was common in a different era.
Even so, as I look back on my journey to Scotland and Iceland, it was a time of pilgrimage for me. Along the way, I actually made my way to several places that were once major pilgrimage spots. Both St. Andrews and Iona once housed important relics of saints and were among the important places that faithful people would visit before the Reformation to be encouraged in their faith. Many of the other churches we visited that predated the Reformation also were sites of pilgrimage at one point or another. Even the natural wonders I visited on my own as part of a bus tour in Iceland felt a bit like moments of pilgrimage.
For my own walk of faith, the places I visited were at once both very important and relatively nonessential. While I was grateful to visit sites that have loomed large in my cultural and spiritual formation like Iona, I think I found the journey itself far more informative for my walk of faith. The time I spent with others, with myself, and with God along the way was revelatory to me than any experience even in the most holy of places.
I saw this most clearly on Tuesday of my week on Iona as I joined about 100 others on a pilgrimage around the island. Three resident staff and volunteers of the Iona Community led this group up and down rocky passages, through boggy grassland, along the waters of the sea, and even across the Iona Golf Course that is shared with sheep and cows! I was a bit hesitant to make the journey out of fear that I wasn’t in the best shape to make the trip or that the weather just wouldn’t hold, but in the end, I was grateful that I did. Along this little pilgrimage covering seven miles around a small Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, I saw a microcosm of so many other journeys of my life. The trip had challenging moments (though far fewer than I expected), breathtaking vistas, rocky places, wonderful conversations, strangely quiet moments, plenty of ups and downs, and even a good bit of ordinariness.
The pilgrimage around Iona was notable for all these things and more, but I will remember it for a lifetime for two reasons. First of all, I was surrounded by others along the way. I knew some of my fellow travelers pretty well, and others I barely knew at all. Still others I got to know along the way. All of us, though, shared something special along this way as we enjoyed a beautiful day and explored an incredible place together, whether for the first or fifth of fifteenth time.
I will also remember the pilgrimage because of the intentional moments we shared along the way. Eleven or twelve times along the way, we paused to hear a reflection, scripture, or poem. These were often meaningful and special – think of hearing about the transfiguration of Jesus at one of the highest points on the journey as we did. However, the most important part of it all was that when we began to move again, we usually started out with a song. There is likely another blog post coming on the importance of music on this trip for me, but the songs that we shared along the way set the tone for the rest of our travels together. We each had our own part to contribute to our common journey, but in the end we needed everyone to join in the song in one way or another as we continued the pilgrimage together.
Most of all, all the pilgrimages of this journey – around Iona, around Scotland, and generally “across the pond” – reminded me that this life is not a journey that I take alone. Those who have read along on this blog, commented here or on Facebook or Twitter, or have actually journeyed with me a bit have been an important part of this pilgrimage. Even in the times when I felt like I was making this journey alone, I was grateful for the little signs that I am not alone on this walk of life, for I cannot do it by myself.
At some level this post feels like a good place to end, but I know that there is more reflection and sabbatical time ahead, so look for more here in the coming weeks. I am looking forward to three more weeks of downtime before I return to my pastoral work, and I still have another trip ahead to visit family and friends in Mississippi and Alabama in just a couple weeks. Thanks for being a part of this journey with me, and I look forward to sharing the days, weeks, months, and years ahead as we journey together on this strange pilgrimage we call life.