Does your “bucket list” include visits to sacred places around the globe? If so, here are some suggestions to get you started on the pilgrim’s path. “The difference between pilgrim and tourist is the intention of attention, the quality of the curiosity,” writes Phil Cousineau in The Art of Pilgrimage: the Seeker’s Guide To Making Travel Sacred. Whether you’re planning a family vacation to Disney World or a trek across the 500-mile El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), it possible to make travel sacred and meaningful. Below are some tips to help you conceptualize sacred travel.
- The journey begins long before the pilgrimage occurs.
I first read about Tintagel, Cornwall in the early 1970s in Mary Stewart’s magical series about King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. I knew the moment I read the word “Tintagel” I had found a home – maybe in a previous lifetime. Now, after having been there twice, I am even more convinced of my spiritual connection to this breath-taking place.
If there are such places for you, know that your heart and spirit yearn for them, and that you are being called to go. Learn all you can about a place and its people. The trip is then more meaningful, and you can ask more knowledgeable questions when you arrive.
- Ask for blessings and prayers from your elders.
During a pilgrimage, it often is wisdom (not always knowledge) that we seek, but rather a knowing deep within us. Our elders, who have travelled many more days on Earth than us, are a source of strength and comfort when we’re far from home. Gather people who love you and ask their blessings for your travels.
- Pack lightly and sit on your suitcase.
I always take one bag and a backpack when I travel, and usually my bags are weighted with more books, journals and pens than clothes. Cousineau suggests that, a couple of hours before departure time, you sit on your suitcase. This act calms you, connects you to what’s inside, and helps you remember anything you’ve forgotten.
- Take gifts.
True pilgrimage is both receiving and giving. Bring gifts for hosts, or children or elders you may meet. Bring gifts to pay homage to sacred places. During my first pilgrimage to Glastonbury I brought scallop shells, the symbol of pagan pilgrimages long before they became the symbol of the Way of St. James. On my second visit, we scattered herbs at sacred sites, and tied small ribbons to trees (the birds, we learned, feather their nests with them).
- Plan, but allow room for flexibility and spontaneity.
For 14 years I took students to a Lakota reservation for spring break. We carefully made travel and accommodation plans well in advance. But you can’t always control air travel! So accustomed to rigid academic schedules, it was difficult for some students to be flexible with fluid planning when activities needed to be sandwiched between daily activities of our hosts, or South Dakota’s unpredictable weather forced changes within minutes.
- Allow space for serendipity.
The White Spring in Glastonbury bubbles deep in the womb of the Earth Mother. The cave-like area that encloses the spring is sacred to pagans and others. My friend and I exited the cave filled with joy and communion with the elements, to be greeted by two young men wearing suits and riding bicycles – Mormon missionaries. They stopped us, asking if we would explain the concept of the Goddess and paganism to them. We were delighted to do so, and a wonderful, unexpected exchange occurred.
- Every being – not only human – you meet is your teacher and guide.
I camped alone in the Blue Ridge mountains some years ago and had an incredible conversation with a Fox. I hiked around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and a Chipmunk crawled into my palm. I have stood eye-to-eye with a Buffalo, and saw amusement and tenderness in his eyes. Hawk has flown by me at waist level, so close I could have touched her wing, and Eagle has soared so low over my head I could see his talons folded against his body.
I learned about rebirth from the sacred Yew tree. I have drunk healing water made from sage and other sacred herbs at Sundance ceremony. Mother Ocean is the one constant in my life. My heart belongs to her waters and her shore.
- Be still and silent.
Take time every day to simply sit with your experience. Be present in each moment. Write – journal, write a poem, write a letter. Draw, paint. Take some pictures, but don’t see everything through the lens of a camera. Use all your senses to help you be present.
- Bring the pilgrimage home with you.
Create an altar of the objects you brought home in homage to the place and the people, and in gratitude for safe travel and wisdom. Rewrite your journal, filling in details. Draw more pictures from memories or photos. Make a recording of music you heard on your travels. Cook a commemorative meal and invite friends to hear your tales.
- Keep the pilgrimage alive.
Continue to learn about the sacred places you visited. Keep up with news about it. Stay in touch with the people you met. Continue to write about your ever-evolving learning.
Finally, know that you don’t have to travel around the world to experience the gifts of pilgrimage.
“True pilgrimage changes lives,” says Martin Palmer in Sacred Journeys, “whether we go halfway around the world or out to our own backyards.”
Blessed journey to you!