I know an important book has found me when I find myself wondering, “Where was this book when ... ?” That thought circled through my soul yet again as I read through The Soul of a Pilgrim. I have been a fan of Christine’s heart and thoughts since the earliest days of Abbey of the Arts and was eager to sit with her experience of pilgrimage, having traveled that adventure-filled road a few times in my life.
As I reflect on the past eight years of my life, I am aware of the immensity of the journey traveled during that time. Throughout those years, I often found myself in the place of “Pilgrim.” Yes, I would have appreciated having Christine’s gentle guidance during that time while also recognizing that the Holy One always journeys with us as we make our way one step at a time. To read her words at this time in my life is to be affirmed that I am not alone in the path I have traveled, and that I am well-equipped for the next invitation to pilgrimage. What a blessing it is when someone dares to focus on a topic so full and multi-layered, and brings some simplicity to the situation so that one is not overwhelmed in the unknowing.
Always We Begin Again was created to journey alongside those on the path of learning to live anew when impacted by a chronic diagnosis. As we have continued to develop and grow within this vision, we are learning that pilgrim wisdom applies to those in a time of transition regardless of the circumstance(s) that has brought them to a place of beginning again. In light of that discovery, AWBA is currently developing a January-September 2016 offering of pilgrimage (via Internet and in-person gatherings) for those in a time of transition from “what used to be” to “what will be” whether brought about by a chronic diagnosis, loss of a loved one, divorce or struggle in a marriage as well as the joyful transitions of a new baby, new home, welcome job change, etc. Many of us are in transition of some sort leading us to wonder about the next step.
We have asked Christine to expand on a couple of her pieces of pilgrim wisdom for the benefit of our readers and thank her for including AWBA on her book tour.
1) You encourage the use of creative expression as a support on the journey within. What is your response when one’s inner critic claims, “I am not an artist”, and we quickly disconnect from this avenue that could help deepen insights about the path?
The artist label really doesn’t mean anything. This journey is about embarking on the creative process as an act of meditation and openness to discovery. No artistic talent is required, and often those who consider themselves “artists” get most in their own way. There is such a gift in offering yourself the grace and freedom purely for the joy of it.
2) Can you talk about the connection between physical and interior "walking"? How do we develop a sense of mindful walking in conjunction with interior slowing?
I love this question. Walking is how we physically move through the world. The gift of walking, as opposed to driving or cycling, is we do it through our own initiative without the need for a vehicle. So when we walk mindfully we propel ourselves forward with the purpose of paying attention. We journey through our landscape with eyes open to discovery. This is our call to slow down interiorly as well, to listen, to await with open hands, while walking forward ready to meet what comes.
3) In Chapter 1, you write about those times when we know “we can’t return to life as usual. That way is now closed.” Many of those served by AWBA are living with a chronic diagnosis or are in a caregiving role for someone with a diagnosis. In those times, it is very clear that the alternative to go back to the way things used to be is not an option. How might one “pack lightly” when the pilgrimage is thrust upon you, sometimes with very little warning that a new journey is about to begin? The lack of time to prepare catches people off guard.
I advise people to be gentle with themselves. Letting go is a process, it takes time to release what is not needed. Continue to ask yourself: do I really need this? It might be a physical object or a relationship which is no longer working, eventually you will start to notice stories you tell yourself or fears you carry. Keep asking if you can set those aside as well. And if you aren’t ready, or find yourself returning to those old patterns, be ever so gentle with yourself.
4) On page 65, you write about a holy pause and offer the invitation to “notice where we are ‘forcing things’ and then we can let them go. It is about smiling gently at all the inner desires that attempt to grasp control of our lives.” When one is in transition, “fixing and forcing” often seems, at first glance, the appropriate response to gain some slight control over the unknown. What are a few practices we might try to invite a “holy pause” so that we may experience its benefit as motivation to continue the journey in a less-grasping manner?
The most foundational practice for me is allowing even a couple of minutes between activities where I take five deep and slow breaths. As much as possible I bring myself present to the moment. Breathing in this way can create such a sense of both physical and emotional spaciousness. My next practice is to try not to fill my life so full with commitments. I have a tendency to schedule things back to back, but even having a half hour between where I can pause, reflect, and rest helps to nurture a sense of life as having more fullness, rather than depleting me.
5) AWBA has received much interest in its yet-to-be-titled “Camino Project.” We are hearing from many that they have a desire to walk the Camino, the Appalachian Trail, and other journeys that take them into a new land where they have time and space to wonder anew. At the same time, due to health and other circumstances, they do not believe this a reality and welcome AWBA’s alternative option of pilgrimage. What words of encouragement would you offer to those brave souls who, even in the midst of uncertain circumstances in their daily lives, are drawn to an experience of living on the edge as a pilgrim “AWBA Style” (online and some in person gatherings)?
I would offer every encouragement to see life as the pilgrimage itself. Chronic illness offers more than enough opportunities to travel to foreign landscapes and to encounter the stranger both within and without. Placing unrealistic expectations for long-distance travel on ourselves is not the journey of pilgrimage. The journey is to discover the invitations to new understandings of home right in the midst of our lives. So much the better when we can do this with companions.
6) Physical pilgrimages typically have a final destination to be reached where the pilgrim can celebrate and honor having completed the journey. When one is on an inner journey, how might he or she know that a destination has been reached and what are some ways in which that could be honored?
It may take a long time of wandering before we feel like we have arrived. In the Celtic tradition this was called peregrinatio, and years of wandering for the love of God was encouraged until they reached the “place of their resurrection.” I love this image and we might have it affirmed in our dream life, in our conversations with a spiritual director or soul friend, or in a sudden awareness that we ourselves have broken open and changed. Perhaps an old pattern or story has been keeping us rigid, and suddenly we find ourselves softening in new ways and discover a sense of being “at home” that we hadn’t experienced before. However that knowledge emerges, I always encourage celebrating every step of the way. Invite friends over to share a meal, go to a beautiful place in nature for a simple ritual perhaps engaging the four elements of water, wind, earth, and fire. Ritual, community, and the witness of the earth feel essential to me.
7) Would you share with us a moment in your own life where the journey may have seemed simply too difficult and how you moved through that challenge?
In the spring of 2000 I was in the middle of graduate studies and I started having a serious flare of my rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time our rent on our apartment was being doubled and my husband’s job at a church was being terminated. It was an exquisitely painful time. I made it through my staying faithful to myself, showing up each day to be present to the profound grief and discomfort arising. I reached out to friends and family members for support. I breathed a lot and I continued practicing not grasping at what I thought the outcome should be.