Last fall a group of family and friends piled into a couple cars for a day trip for a picnic lunch in the hills. On the way we stopped at a couple old familiar places including a dormitory and a roadside bus stop shelter. In the forest we poked around an abandoned old building that we weren’t sure we were allowed into – a tad spooky but cool! Up the hill we found a carbonated mineral water spring to drink from with our hands, which was refreshing. In a forest clearing we got out our sandwiches and chips and stood around a smoky pile of green sticks as if it were actually a campfire. We thought about taking a side trip to a waterfall, but time was getting on, so we drove home.
It was a nice few hours. A drive, a picnic, fresh air, and good conversation – not a bad way to spend a day.
In fact, it was one of the most significant experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Because of the meaning every single place held for us in Romania’s Black Forest, hearts were in throats every time we pulled over and stepped out of our cars. Some of our friends had stayed home for the day, sensing the emotions and flashbacks might simply be too much.
In the abandoned building, we climbed the stairs to an upstairs room where we found the roof collapsing and gigantic mushrooms taking over the wood floor. A young man began to sing softly. Awkwardly, but also awed, we joined in. As the tune trailed off, we were carried away to another era of our lives and relationships. In our freshly awakened memories, some of us in the room were abandoned, institutionalized children barely surviving relentless exploitation and abuse. Others of us were volunteer summer camp leaders who found ourselves way, way beyond our depth, patching together funny skits with amateur trauma care.
What happened in that upper room over eight summers was both quite ordinary, and remains the closest I’ve ever come to the honest-to-God miraculous. That room of doubled-over laughter and pain was the healing room, the family re-birthing and bonding room, the wardrobe door into another world and shared future we would step toward.
What happened in that upper room over eight summers
was both quite ordinary, and remains the closest
I’ve ever come to the honest-to-God miraculous.
We are all adults now, we pilgrims. Our day trip pilgrimage was a journey of intention, with attention to the significant – and even the sacred. On one level, yes of course it was simply a picnic day. All our days, on one level, are simple. We do well to enjoy their simplicity, as we genuinely enjoyed our sandwiches and waved away wood smoke from our eyes.
The ancient spiritual practice of pilgrimage cultivates in us a deepening connection with the sacred in our world, and with God. We may embark on a “big P” Pilgrimage, such as a Holy Land tour planned over many years. Or we may make a “little p” pilgrimage, such as our picnic outing to the forest. In both cases, we start with a conscious decision to make this more than a simple trip. We’ll look for more, and open our spirits to more. Typically, our destination represents something of the “more.” So we packed our picnic bags with anticipation, knowing the dormitory, bus stop, and abandoned building were for us indeed “thin places” between this world and another, the seen and unseen, the miraculous and the mundane. Something important had happened there.
The great paradox of pilgrimage – and perhaps any reliable contemplative discipline – is this: in cultivating awareness of the holy, pilgrimage ushers us into simple honest awareness of what is right here, right now. There is no “more” than this. For this reason, our initial reaction may involve flat-out disappointment. A friend returned from the Holy Land and blurted out with refreshing frankness, “It was just a pile of rocks! And long rows of kitchy souvenir stands! And a jam of tour buses jockeying for parking spots.” Compared to her lifelong imagination of the scene, walking where Jesus walked was a sweaty exercise in exasperation.
Nothing more important will happen on “big P” Pilgrimage than to be keenly present in spirit to sweaty disappointed exasperation. And to a pile of rocks, like it or not. You’ll make your connection to Tel Aviv and fly home. If you allow it - more and more fully allow it! – the “more” will have happened enough to do its work. Or maybe, sloshing along a shoreline, you were transported to another plane of imagination and mystical experience, arm in arm with your rabbi, friend, and precious Lord. In either case the “more” will have happened enough to do its work if you return home with a more practiced capacity to be keenly present and engaged with what is here and now. The pile of this and that around the house, the jockeying and jams at the grocery store - this is the stuff of holy lands. There is no holy stuff other than this anywhere, and never has been.
We stomped out the fire, gathered our chip bags and climbed in our cars for home. In that upper room, the glory of the Lord had shown ’round about us and we were amazed. Shame about the water damage.
For Soul Tending
What “big P” or “small p” pilgrimage journey might be in your future? How might you cultivate being keenly present in spirit to the “right here, right now” of the journey itself?
Photo: Upper room from camp building in Black Forest, Romania.