Wandering Pilgrimage

I’ve always had a fantasy about going to the airport with just the clothes on my back, my ID, a credit card and my toothbrush. I go through the revolving door, walk up to the counter and look up at the day’s flight schedule as if I were looking at the menu in a coffee shop. But instead of choosing coffee, I am choosing a destination.  Will it be Asia, Europe, South America, Africa?

What if today’s worship service ended in such a way? We would each be given an all-expense paid trip to the pilgrimage site of your choice. And in the church parking lot there would be an airport shuttle.

Have you ever thought of going on a pilgrimage? Where would you go?

I know Jews and Christians who have been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Zen Buddhists who have gone to Japan, Pagans who have gone to Greece.

I knew a Catholic nun who was retiring from her many years in chaplaincy and celebrated her retirement by walking El Camino de Santiago in Spain.

There are regular Unitarian Universalist pilgrimages to Transylvania to see our Unitarian cousins. UUs travel through the deep South to see where the civil rights movement began as well as to Boston to see the roots of Unitarian history in this country.

But pilgrimages are not always about religious roots.

Bill Sinkford, the former UUA president, and other UUs went to Africa to see where millions of the strongest Africans, possibly their ancestors, were gathered and held captive before being put like cargo onto the middle passage.

I’ve met people who are walking the Pacific Crest Trail which begins in Mexico and follows the Sierra and Cascade Mountain ranges all the way to Canada.

I’ve heard stories of Viet Nam veterans still haunted by traumatic memories of war who have returned to Viet Nam decades later, and throughout their travels they find some peace and some closure.

My friend is from Cuba and when he was visiting recently, he went to St. Lazarus church where thousands of people go for healing. He had his braid cut (which was 10 years long!) and brought it as an offering to honor his grateful celebration for how his wife has finished her cancer treatment and returning to life with a renewed vitality.

What I imagine all of these trips have in common is the intention of stepping away from the daily routines of ordinary time and space by going on a trip, but the trip is not a vacation.

A vacation helps us to let go of our familiar lives, giving us a sense of perspective, novelty, respite and renewal.  While a pilgrimage is really a spiritual practice, yes stepping away from our present but with the intention of touching the truth of the past while re-dedicating our future toward a holy purpose.

As you wonder about what kind of pilgrimage you’ll go on today, you might want to consider: But what does a pilgrimage really mean for Unitarian Universalists?

After all, we find the Holy in so much. We Unitarian Universalists are wandering pilgrims. There is no Mecca for us to face during prayer. There is no one single shrine that we approach with our bodies bent in prayer. There is no spit of land that is sacred above all others. There is no holiest of holies.

We Unitarian Universalists are a funny people. We find a strange comfort in the uncertainty of never knowing where the Holy might show up. Could be in the ancient scriptures or could be in contemporary poetry or blog posts.

Just as prophetic words are not limited to one book, holiness is not limited to one building. Yes, the Holy can be experienced in dedicated monuments, historic sites, national parks, but it can just as likely be found in the backyard or in the alley behind the apartment building.

So if the Holy can show up when and where you least expect it, then what makes one place more holy than another? What makes one place more worthy of pilgrimage than another?

For some people a place is made holy by the historical significance or the religious tradition of a place. Perhaps this site was built by architects and artists who had the intention of creating holy space and perhaps over time thousands perhaps even millions of people have visited this site with reverence. For such pilgrims, holiness could be inspired by a sense that you are not alone. You are standing toward the end of a long line that reaches back through many years, many centuries even.

And as you settle into such a space you may realize that holiness is not innately present in a building, a city, or even an entire area of land. Holiness in the eye of the beholder. One person’s pilgrimage site is another person’s sight seeing.

Going to Transylvania will be a very different experience for Unitarians than it will be for Hindus. Going to Jerusalem will be very different for Christians than it will be for Buddhists.

But one thing is clear: if it is a true pilgrimage then your love for life will be affirmed in this place.

The ground is made holy wherever the ground of your being is made whole.

I think the closest I have ever come to a pilgrimage was when I was 20 years old and I went to Europe by myself. I wanted to see Anne Frank’s house.

I did a lot of performing as a child, teenager and young adult. I happened to play the part of Anne Frank in two different productions, once when I was 14 and again when I was 16.  I had thoroughly researched the secret annex where Anne’s family and friends were in hiding. I imagined the dimensions of every room and what it was to be a child who did not go outside for over two years. I took it as a sacred duty when I was charged with embodying her and speaking her words.

So when I was there, no longer imagining the place from an ocean away, but slowly stepping through the rooms where Anne and her family and friends lived and were arrested and then when I walked through a concentration camp, it made something that had long since been imaginary, very real.  It made something that had been in parts, whole and complete.

As I walked through these spaces at 20 years old, of course I was honoring Anne Frank’s life and death, but I was also honoring the gift of my own life. I had already outgrown Anne by four years. I was transitioning into adulthood as she could not. I realized I came to Europe to say goodbye to this loyal imaginary friend of mine who had much to teach me about being a teenager, but she could not walk with me through these gates of adulthood.

And as I tried to say goodbye to her, I realized how I could not let her go, even if I wanted to. Her spirit had already changed my own. She had accompanied me through so many of my formative years and would be forever woven into the ground of my being. She taught me how to take up the brokenness of my youth and re-forge the wholeness of my emerging adulthood.

Perhaps this piece about brokenness and wholeness is an important one to consider before we choose our pilgrimage: Are we going on a pilgrimage as someone who is broken seeking wholeness, or do we go as someone who is whole seeking to bless a broken world?

One of my dearest friends, Elizabeth Russell, embarked on such a pilgrimage. The project was called “Gaia’s Witness”. She and a group of women traveled to toxic sites in the western United States. They went to acknowledge the broken vows between humanity and earth. They went as human ambassadors of beauty to these traumatized corners of the earth, to bear witness and deliver a blessing.

I’m also reminded of the renowned Peace Pilgrim who has been called ‘a 20 century St. Francis of Assisi’. She took the following vow in 1953: “to remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food." She traveled without any money and without aligning with any particular organization. Peace Pilgrim walked over 25,000 miles throughout North America, beginning in 1953 and ending when she died in 1981.  She walked to share her simple message for complete disarmament for each person and for each nation.

I’ll go to Yosemite for the first time in May. I want to be with the giant sequoias. These 300-foot seemingly indomitable ancient beings have weathered hundreds of years of storms and fires. But in recent years scientists have started to climb the trees for the first time so that they can test the treetops for signs of stress from climate change. The trees might not be getting enough water. They each absorb one ton of water every day!

As I walk in their giant shadow I imagine that I’ll offer a blessing and whisper:

All things are impermanent, as the ancient Buddhist teaching goes. All things are impermanent. They arise and they pass away. The trees, me, all beings, we arise and we pass away.

I’ll bless the trees. Perhaps no one else, not even my own family will know I’m doing it. I’ll probably sing my blessing as I usually do. It will just be me and the trees and my faith in a force that witnesses, that receives my blessing and blesses me in return. Maybe I’ll be blessed with an echoing in my soul of what it means to ‘speak for the trees for they have no tongues’.

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the real though far off hymn
That hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing

We Unitarian Universalists are people of the wandering pilgrimage. We wander in the ways of love as best we know them today, wandering toward wholeness, healing and transformation, becoming our deepest and truest selves together, knowing we will stumble along the way, and we will restore one another.

So, the shuttle is leaving after coffee hour. Where are you going? What would be the embodiment of your spiritual journey? Would you come broken seeking wholeness? Would you come whole, ready to give a blessing?

Whether or not we ever plan a grand trip to faraway lands, why not live each day as if we are all on a wandering pilgrimage right now? Because we are. Any day can be a day of relishing the triumphs of the soul, and our greatest pilgrimage sites might be much closer than we know.

About the Author

  • Susan Maginn is a UU minister serving the Navy Chaplain Corps.

For more information contact worshipweb@uua.org.

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