For many years, I have accompanied people on pilgrimages in Ireland. I meet groups at the airport, with the bags they have carefully packed, and I usher them to their hotels or retreat centers to begin their journeys.
People often come on these pilgrimages at great expense – of money, of time, of effort – and they have enormous hopes for what the experience will bring them. They hope for clarity, they hope for insight, they hope for connection, and in some cases they hope for nothing short of revelation. It’s a tall task, facing this group of people with such high expectations.
And yet, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that their journey will change them. Their journeys will leave them different when they return home a week, ten days, a fortnight later. It doesn’t matter the length of the journey: it will change them nonetheless, and most often not in the ways they anticipate.
Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice that, for thousands of years and in a multitude of cultures and religious traditions, has been embraced as a reliable source of transformation and inspiration. Regardless of the destination, regardless of the companions on the journey, regardless of the scenery, the types of accommodation, the weather, the time of year, the stage in life, those who go on pilgrimage will be altered by the experience.
Leaving your comfort zone and traveling through a new space, with all the unknowns that it brings, is sure to have an impact on you. No matter how carefully you plan the itinerary, no matter diligently you research prior to the journey, no matter how intentionally you prepare yourself for every moment of the trip and all its possible eventualities, you will still hit the unknown and the unpredictable, and it will affect you.
“It’s all part of the pilgrimage” became my mantra.
The one sure thing about pilgrimage is that it involves facing the unknown. But the question is: how do you respond to it when it arises? What does it bring up for you? What does it trigger within you? How do you treat others, or yourself, as you encounter it? How do you pray through it? How will it shape you into a new person?
The unknown and unpredictable can bring out the worst in us. It can reveal fear and resentment. It can unearth old hurts. It can expose judgmentalism, and harshness, towards others or ourselves. People can be impatient, ungracious, and uncharitable when things don’t go the way they’d hoped.
But on the other hand, facing the unknown of pilgrimage can also cast a light on the goodness within each one of us. It can reveal our resilience when encountering the unexpected. And when I saw pilgrims releasing their need to control the outcome of their journey and simply taking each step, each day as it came, with all of its surprises, the richer their experience became for them.
Here in Coronavirus 2020, we have suddenly arrived in a new space. Though we have not even departed from home, we have left our comfort zones far behind us and entered into the unknown. There’s no doubt that all this affects each of us greatly.
Though we may have scheduled these weeks, months, and years down to the hour, things have most definitely not gone according to plan. Indeed, none of us could have dreamed of how different our lives are now than we’d imagined they would be only a few short months ago.
Though we have not packed our suitcases with everything we might possibly need for this journey, we still carry our baggage. We carry our fears, resentments, and hurts as we walk through these days.
The question is: how do we respond to this unexpected present we are traveling through? What does it bring up for us? What does it trigger within us? How can we treat others with grace and kindness as we walk forward on this journey? How can we be gentle with ourselves as we step forward into whatever awaits us tomorrow? How can we find words and ways to pray through this time? And how will living through this experience shape us into new people?
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that journeys into the unknown will change us. This is a truth that has been embraced by human beings for thousands of years. We will be affected, we will struggle, we will grow, and we will not return to normalcy the same people we were before all this began.
Yet, in the midst of this unexpected twist in our plans, we may experience in our own homes the very thing we set out for distant lands to accomplish. We may receive the clarity, the insight, the connection, the revelation that we long for so deeply. We will be transformed – perhaps not in ways that we would have hoped for or chosen – but transformed nonetheless, into richer, stronger, wiser human beings.
It’s all part of the pilgrimage.