How I failed pilgrimage is a long and somewhat interesting story. When I first spoke those words I was walking along a gravel road up toward the lona Abbey in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. I had been walking this road for five days—from the hostel at the end of this road to the village, the Bay at the Back, Martyrs Bay and a couple of times to St. Columba’s Bay. It was the main village road that connected us pilgrims to island life. The hostel sat on a hill overlooking the north beach where in the fifth century, over sixty monks were murdered by marauding Vikings coming to plunder the church’s treasure.
I looked down at my hiking boots, waterproof and bought specifically for this trip to save my socks from the boggy parts of the island that I may cross on the way to and from the day's wandering, and tried to come with no preconceptions about what to expect. I tried not think about the bunk beds and if I could sleep. Would a week with strangers make me crazy? I had tried not to overpack, but rewearing eight pieces of clothing for two weeks had worried me (a person who distinctly likes changing clothes).
The one thing I didn't think would be an issue would be the communication with God that must happen on a pilgrimage. Especially for a person who has a somewhat robust spiritual life. A person who has (I feel) heard the call of God, and has felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on special occasions of my life.
Walking along that road, I spoke the words "I think I failed pilgrimage."
I was immediately assured by my fellow walkers that it is indeed impossible to fail pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a voyage. Pilgrimage is the reward; that nothing is required to experience but the experience in it's own terms. I understood that. I rationalized it. But... the lack of feeling of the "thin space" which this and other spiritual spaces around Christendom have had caused me concern. Where was the quiet meditative time, the "a ha" moment that comes when the voice of God speaks so loudly in your head that you know it is true and real? Where was the answer to prayer, the feeling of belonging and the overwhelming sense of the divine?
I knew where it wasn't, but why?
Scott (my husband) and I left our pilgrims and set out on our "vacation" part of the trip. Another story entirely that ended with me sick, brought to hospital and recouping in my hotel room. Full of homesickness and sadness for not being able to see all the sites in Edinburgh that I had researched and read about (yes, I am one of those people). And then there was the failing of pilgrimage that made it all the more sad. If I had just gone home without the time resting in bed at the hotel, the staying in the same clothes, the homesickness, I think that failing pilgrimage wouldn't have been at the forefront of my mind.
One truth that I had been coming to terms with since last Fall on a trip to Santa Fe was the idea that we are "story people." I had always known it, but I think it didn't become concrete in my mind until I saw the clay figures of the Apache. Women of the tribe are surrounded by children while she is telling them the stories of their history and heritage. I saw these clay figures and I realized that is what we do. We experience, we internalize, and we tell the story. It isn't until we tell the story that the story makes sense, and we codify it into our past ideas and we make it a part of who we are and what we think.
So back to my pilgrim story, I did not know the meaning of the experience until I began to tell others of it. I began to unpack my stories and, by unpacking them, understood them, and it became to me clear what the experience and God had to teach.
It was a suitcase teeming with ideas and revelations.
I remember the metaphor that we do not know God's plan because we are looking under the tapestry where the little bits and bobs of lost thread are. We aren't looking from the top where the great story of the thread is told. Unpacking is like that, we get home and our clothes and us are a mess. We clean and organize and then we process. The return being the most important part. It is vital to the experience to let the story develop like soup, become richer as it sits.
Each time I tell what happened it starts the same. "So, I haven't talked to you since you went to Scotland. How was it?
I tell them about the long hard voyage, the two days of traveling, the waiting, the moving, the lack of sleep. But then the story changes from when I told it the first time. I say "but that is a part of the pilgrim experience, it is supposed to be hard, it is made that way to put you in a place away from your comfort zone." I confess am not a "sleep in bunk" type of girl. Holiday Inn is my idea of roughing it. I never hiked and biked and camped. My father played softball and basketball, so I grew up in sports fields school gyms all over the area. Not in hostels, making my own food.
Then I tell them about the beautiful weather but how fickle the weather was. How warm sixty degrees felt in Glasgow but how cold it was with a twenty mph North Sea wind. How one day I had almost everything I brought with me on and still was cold. How the sea looks like the Caribbean but felt like Flint Michigan in December.
I inform them my cell phone (which had no other purpose on the island) told me that we had walked almost 40 miles in the week I was there. "Wow", they say. Not much to be wow about because I confess that it was so cold that if you wanted to be outside, you better be moving.
I tell them about the beautiful Abbey and the history of the island and my favorite part, the sheep. SDL (sheep dotted landscape) filled with sheep and lambs walking all over. I love the fact that in Scotland there is a right to wander that allows anyone to wander across the crofts as long as you open and close the gates properly. You can walk through someone's farm and pet the sheep and love on the hairy Highland cows. They can join you for a picnic on the beach, while you can see folks play golf on the sheep croft/hiking trail/beach/nine hole golf course.
And if they are still interested and I haven't run them off with photos of all these things, I say what I feel God had put on my heart to say. "I went to pilgrimage to hear from God but God gave me revelation that it was not Him I needed to hear from, it was the experience of fellowship that I was to find.
Fellowship of fellow travelers that somehow, for some divine reason, ended up in my story and become a part of my story. By their joining my pilgrimage became a part of the voice of God in my life.
I remember Big Jim and Slim Jim as I called them. Big Jim, with his sturdy frame and large deep voice that says wise things with self-deprecating humor, Slim Jim, a Tao Chi loving retired school teacher who found himself left by the train somewhere in the south of Scotland and found great joy in the experience. Alexander, the Lebanese, Catholic, Gay, Jungian Psychologist, author, and permanent pilgrim. So many descriptions for a quiet thoughtful person. My bunkmate Kaye, the Colonial Williamsburg historian, with whom I stayed up with ‘til midnight drinking Scotch and talking about Jeffersonian history. Kathryn, a UMC minister who knitted with me and (wife of Big Jim), told stories of time in ministry. I was with them when they were picking out their new wedding bands with Celtic knots.
We visited with Kim, a very busy business traveler, who wandered all over the island even through the boggy areas, alone. Renda, who was working through the changes happening at home, but finding herself in Scotland reworking her new life, planning her new home by the lake. I remember her calling her children every evening on the top of the beach where the reception was the best. Her lifeline to her old life while finding her new life balance on a windy north beach in Scotland.
There was David, the quiet one, who when I asked what he did, he told me he was a tutor, but at the end of the trip, I found him to be a former finance specialist in mergers for ING. So many layers, so much knowledge and interest. I remember he loved hiking to the top of Dun I, the highest spot on the island, where you could see all the island and the other islands around in the Hebridean chain.
The team of Denise and Evie who were there when we arrived. They were the kind leaders that directed the team, developed the schedule for the day. There was Luke, Andrea's husband, whose concern for his own snoring was so high he brought a bag of ear plugs that would have muted the hearing of half the island. The first night, Andrea texted him and told him to turn over because she could hear him through the wall, Named "Strong Like Bull" for his lifting large amounts of groceries from the Spar, the island’s tiny grocery store. This was a great talent as we had to hike the food every day from the Spar to the hostel, about two miles. He also swam in the cold clear water of St. Columba’s Bay, a feat that is both amazing and not to be repeated by any other pilgrim for good reason.
And there was Andrea, our Shepherdess. Looking after her lost sheep like when the train left Slim Jim. Her worry made us not worry and whose interest in Scotch mixed with contemporary theological study of Paul Tillich made me go back and reread The Courage to Be. Which is a shock because I didn't like it much the first time I read it. But was better because of the conversation we had. (still not a fan)
Finally, there was our esteemed leader, Larry. I see him as a bishop with walking sticks whose life-work of Missional Wisdom Foundation began on a trip to lona. Now that is a thin space, God experience, he didn't fail pilgrimage.
I experienced conservative folks and liberal folks on the each end of the theological spectrum, experiencing grace and having an experience with God without arguing, without trying to change or reform the other. There was an understanding that we are traveling this gravel road and we are to learn and help others on that road. We are living the eucharist of life, we are eating the tree of life, not the tree of knowledge of good and evil. All of us were far enough on the spiritual path to see worth and love more that right and wrong.
Our final night we spent on the beach at dusk, around 10 pm (remember: Scotland is the same latitude as Moscow). We were sitting around a campfire with our group, some others at the hostel tents, and our hostel hosts listening to them play guitar. There was a song composed by one of the girls, I would describe as a dirty ditty about the Corncrake. The bird that many come to the island to see because they are very rare. They are rare but very irritatingly noisy. This horrible throaty cry greets you as you enter and leave the hostel. It also keeps her awake most of the time. Hence the dirty ditty. The fire, the laughter, the sun on the rocky beach.
So back to what God was saying to me… It is this (I think): You came to this place to see where you wanted to work in church. You did the homework, read the books, did the six week Lenten study. You began writing short stories and sketching (something I have never done), you prayed whether you wanted to work in evangelism in the church where you knew there was upcoming issues with the denomination. What is the best thing for me to do, God? What do you say?
I think God said.... Live in fellowship, love and cherish each other. I am a God of wine and food, of sunsets on beaches and dirty ditties. I am a God that expects you to communicate with me, to pray, to teach and to preach for me. But there will be times of brokenness and times of loss. It is in that voyage that the real purpose of life is. It is where the great existential question is asked, "If we are going to die and those we love are going to die and experience brokenness and loss, what are we here for? Why do we live here if we believe there is a God and heaven and goodness for us there? And the answer is "we are here for each other"
We are to mimic heaven on this earth. We are here to eat mussels at a small restaurant on an island in the middle of nowhere with people we hardly know and make that a eucharist. We are here to wrestle with the hard questions in the floor of a common room after a shared meal. We go to bad church services, sing songs with strangers from music that we don't know. We cross a sea and climb a mountain and wait patiently for funny little puffins to strut and preen at us like we are royal visitors at the Globe Theater.
Pilgrimage isn't comfortable, isn't vacation. It is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to teach us something and make us see things in a different way. Experience things and learn.
Perhaps I didn't fail after all.