Have you ever wanted to go on a pilgrimage? Following in other pilgrims’ and ancestors’ footsteps sounds so romantic, noble, sacred, ancient even; with the idea that at the end you will be changed or have learned something or have deepened your devotion.
My husband and I visited Santiago de Compostela during a cruise around Spain a few years ago – the end point of the famous pilgrimage route of The Camino de Santiago. We visited the cathedral where the pilgrims go to pay homage to St. James at the end of their journey and see his relics. In speaking to a few of the pilgrims as they were getting their final stamp in their book, we reveled in their sense of accomplishment. It was palpable – a gleam in their eye, a satisfied smile.
Dictionary.com defines pilgrimage as either 1) a journey, especially a long one, made to a sacred place as an act of devotion or 2) any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest for a votive purpose. Related words include crusade, (which is scary), mission, trip, and wayfaring. Wayfaring is defined as traveling on foot, but its synonyms are drifting, rambling, vagabond, nomadic. Hmm… to be a pilgrim or a wayfaring nomad. One is revered, the other is feared and watched with a careful eye. One thing about the word pilgrimage is that it implies a goal or purpose. Does a pilgrimage have to have a specific goal? Does it have to be a set period of time, in a set place?
What we really need is a new word for a pilgrimage, a word for a journey that is taken one step at a time, without knowing the end point or goal, or having a set time frame, but is still a sacred one.
I was in Australia once many decades ago, at Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is called by the Aborigines. When I first heard about how the aborigines do a walkabout, walking their dreamtime, their storylines, I couldn’t wrap my head around it, being so schooled in linear thinking. Walking a story; what a lovely way to describe a pilgrimage.
When I was a child, we would visit Myrtle Beach every summer and my biggest memory is the daily walks I took on the beach with my dad or by myself, with the walks growing longer as I grew older. In those days I was reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I remember loving that book, although it seems rather cheesy now. But perhaps for a 10-year-old in 1970 who didn’t fit into social circles very well, it was the beginning of a pilgrimage.
As I walk the beach today, the waves are washing over the seashells like laughter, and each one is like an ancestor rolling in to greet me and nurture me. Endless millennia of ancestors; human ancestors, tree and plant ancestors, animal ancestors. Walking the beach every morning that I am at the ocean has become a ritual that runs through all the years of my life, listening to the waves, pondering the dance between the sea and the land.
Each beach walk, each year, overlaps the next with a shimmering ribbon running through them that undulates on the wind, catching the light in different ways each time I look at it. A ribbon that becomes an ongoing pilgrimage of my life, and becomes woven into and around my ancestors, family, and friends; more spiral than linear, like the whelks that wash up onto the shores.
This pilgrimage of walking the beach becomes the pilgrimage of walking the forests, walking the streets, and walking all my memories. Glimpses flash through my mind from pictures that have recently come to me. Absurdly disconnected, except for the ribbon of my life that connects them. One day standing with my coloring books, blue rimmed glasses, and long funky hat, still strong in my six-year-old self. One day a punk wanna-be outside a London Tube stop, trying to look cool. One day a pregnant nun in a funeral parade party accompanied by my 10-year-old son in a vampire cloak. Just a few of many random points on the tapestry that is my story-journey-pilgrimage, bookended by walks on the beach.
Unlike a traditional pilgrimage, I don’t know the end point, the goal. I only know that I am on this journey one day at a time as my devotion deepens, and all I need to know is the next step. And that each step is a prayer. If I listen to the waves, to our Great Mother, and to my heart’s desire, I will hear what the next step should be. And that is all I need to know. And to say YES.
Images: 1) My footsteps in the sand 2) a picture of my six-year-old self recently given to me by a cousin 3) another picture recently resurfaced taken in 1980 while in a college semester in London at a punk photo shoot with my classmates. 4) a picture sent to me just last week by an acquaintance I don’t even know well, of me pregnant with my now 28-year-old son, dressed as a pregnant nun during a festival funeral parade, accompanied by my older son dressed as a vampire.