For Pilgrims of the Heart

Pilgrims are travelers who are answering a call to leave home, walk with intention, embrace the journey, and return transformed. This page includes a closer look at each stage of pilgrimage, along with practical suggestions for turning any journey into a pilgrimage.

Many pilgrims travel to fulfill time-honored religious vows or to visit recognized sacred sites, but all you really need to be a pilgrim is courage to take to the road and willingness to change.

Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.
– Richard R. Niebuhr

What Is Pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage is a journey toward meaning. Whether on an arduous trek to a remote destination or a quiet walk in a neighborhood cemetery, a pilgrim travels with questions that do not lend themselves to easy answers.

Even if your journey will take place mostly within the walls of your own house, for the pilgrimage to begin, in one way or another you will find yourself leaving familiar patterns and places of life.

The pilgrim heart seeks a peacefulness of belonging that is also a restlessness. It may feel anything but peaceful. The paradox is that there is not soul-peace that is not also unrest; there is no family that does not include strangers; there is not true home that is not a world-home.
Sarah York

Leaving Home

We are all pilgrims here on earth, but there are specific times in life when the call comes to take up one’s staff and head out into unexplored territory. 

Maybe you are entering a transitional stage in a relationship, or in the span of life. You might sense a door opening, a new energy to walk across the threshold. Perhaps you long for a renewed sense of connection to the world at large. Or maybe you simply feel pot-bound in daily existence, constricted and starving for new earth. Something calls the pilgrim to leave behind familiar ways and walk a different path.

Pilgrims embody a willingness to:

  • Travel, or separate from home or the known
  • Enter and experience the unknown
  • Be open to where the quest leads and how it transforms them
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud became more painful than the risk it took to open. 
– Anais Nin

Walking with Intention

Pilgrims begin their travel with an intention. The intention of a pilgrimage might be to find healing and rest, or to reconnect with the sacred. It might be to deepen relationship with your fellow pilgrims, or to discern the answer to a dilemma. In contrast to a goal. which is something met in the future, an intention is a quality or focus to carry along the way.

A practical suggestion: Before beginning your journey, spend time considering and turning your intention over until it feels true. Then write it down and carry it with you. Periodically remind yourself of your intention throughout the trip. It may be that your intention changes on the road. If it does, this is part of the pilgrimage.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
– Lao Tzu

Embracing the Journey

Going on pilgrimage means letting go of familiar places, patterns, and comforts to make room for new life. It means packing lightly, leaving behind the objects, technology, and assumptions that maintain an old way of being.

Willing to be a stranger, the pilgrim is also open to discovering what it means to find home all over again in a strange land. 

A practical suggestion: As you begin your pilgrimage, consider taking a pilgrim’s vow that states how you plan to live out your intention. Maybe your vow is to engage with what happens in your travels, rather than simply observe. You might vow to be open to providing companionship with your fellow pilgrims, creating a new community on the road.

You cannot travel the path until you have become the path.
Buddha

Returning Transformed

The pilgrim who is willing to be surprised is also open to be changed. If entered into mindfully and with a whole heart, each encounter on the road has the potential to transform. The pilgrim returns home not with all the answers, but with better questions: questions that bring the pilgrimage experience into daily life and reveal depth in all they see around them.

A practical suggestion: First, consider how you will give voice or form to what happens while on pilgrimage. Will you journal? Sketch? Write a continuing letter to a friend? Then think about how you will share your story when you return home. You might plan a celebration with family and friends around a special meal. You might decide to tell your stories to a single soul-friend over tea. Finally, reflect on how you will create space and ritual at home for all you’ve become on pilgrimage. What new patterns embraced on pilgrimage now become part of your daily life?

The point of traveling is not
to arrive but to return home
laden with pollen you shall work up
into honey the mind feeds on.
R.S. Thomas

Setting Out Again

And always, always be open to the next call to pilgrimage.

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a hundred times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
Rumi

Resources

A list of favorite sites and books relevant to pilgrimage, sacred places, and intentional travel.

Earth Sanctuary

Open Spaces, Sacred Places

Camino de Santiago

Pilgrim Cards

 

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau.

America’s Greatest Walks: A Traveler’s Guide to 100 Scenic Adventures, by Gary Yanker and Carol Tarlow.

Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, by Sarah York.

Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey, by Ian Bradley.

Pilgrimage: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice, by Edward C. Sellner.

Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino, by Joyce Rupp.

The Way of the Traveler – Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery, by Joseph Dispenza.