Pilgrimage as a Tonic

I remember being at Mary’s Church at the medieval monastery at Glendaloch, a national park of extraordinary beauty, lush woodlands, glimmering lakes, verdant meadows and tumbling streams. Mary’s Church lies outside the consecrated grounds of the monastery itself.  It was a women’s sanctuary and a place where those who were not baptized could be buried. Women running from whatever might compel them to leave all that they had ever known could find haven there, with the stillborn babies. The walls of this tiny, now roofless, stone church were of local schist mixed here and there with blood-red quartz.  

Our small group of pilgrims had come to pray with the very tangible spirits of that place for peace and justice.   Sitting on the gravel floor under the roofless sky I felt grief, though none had been with me on arrival.  As the others slowly left, I slumped   against the wall to let the tears come. In time, I found myself rising to step outside into the little graveyard filled with unmarked slabs of slate marking each grave.  As   tears streamed down my face, I found myself stroking the slate grave marker in front of me as the presence of a young woman came into focus.  She was on her knees at my feet, her arms wrapped around my waist as mine were about her.  I stroked her blond hair.  She wept in heartbreak, grief and relief for what she had had experienced, what she had left behind and what she hoped she would find here.  It was a moment out of time that moved me deeply.  I cherish its memory.

In this country, most spiritual seekers have heard of the vision quest as a method of gaining spiritual inspiration and direction. This is a central practice of Native American peoples in which, at a personal crossroads or as a rite of passage, the seeker spends three to four days fasting alone in the wilderness in pursuit of a vision from Spirit. The experience is life defining. 

Perhaps less understood in this country is the practice of spiritual pilgrimage. In many older cultures, pilgrimage has served much the same purpose as a vision quest. A pilgrimage may last for just a few days or extend for months, even years. As with all spiritual quests, it is the purpose that defines the pilgrimage.  Everything that happens—from the people met to the experiences encountered—is understood as a meaningful expression of the pilgrimage’s lessons.  

Pilgrims journey together.  It is a community affair, less about solitude than mutual support and giving witness to each other’s experience. As they settle into the journey, pilgrims reflect on life and become clearer about what is truly important. It is a time apart in which, at its best, a natural rhythm reasserts itself beyond the tensions and strains of personal life. If unhurried, the body unwinds its chronic holdings.  On pilgrimage to sacred places in nature, there are welcome opportunities for fresh air, sun and exercise that allow for the unique energies of one’s changing—and healing—to work on body, mind and emotions. In addition, many sacred sites are renowned for healing, such as Lourdes in France, the Chalice Well in England, and the many wells of Brigit in Ireland.

Sacred places are ‘sacred’ because they are luminal places, where heaven and earth meet.  There is an energy at such places that draws seekers, catalyzing transformation, remembering or visions. The old Celts of Europe called them “thin” places because the veils that separate the human experience from the divine are thinner there. Even today, it is possible to step away from the crowds and well-worn tourist destinations to find these ancient places of living spiritual presence. Indeed, the deeply feminine energies of stone circles, holy wells and ancient monasteries have transformed the world over (moved from end of sentence) lives in an unbroken tradition from the earliest days of honoring the Goddess through the modern era. 

To understand the transformative power of pilgrimage, it is useful to consider the spiritual traditions of the Celts, the ancestors of the modern European peoples. Dana or Danu, the Mother Goddess of the Celtic peoples, was—and is still—known as radiance, shining, brilliance, the water, fire, land, people and all of Creation.  She can be gentle and nurturing or challenging and even hostile.”

This word “dana” has a great synergy of meaning that gives insight into both the Celtic spiritual mind and the relationship between spiritual purpose and the energies of sacred place. besides being the name of the goddess creatrix, It is the Gaelic word for chi or prana, the energy that infuses all of life. There is also a third meaning for dana as expressed in the term “aois dana,” meaning the people of the dana, the gifted ones, healers, harpers, the people of vision. FRANK Mac Eowen in The Mist-Filled Path suggests that these ancient gifted ones are still available to us  and “are ready willing and able to aid, instruct and guide us in becoming…people who are seeking a spiritual way of balance harmony and ecological consciousness.”(1) 

To add to our understanding of dana, we might explore the root word, dan. Its meaning in Old Irish is craft, art, science, skill, or know-how. A later modern Irish meaning of dan is fate or destiny.  And with this, we see the interweaving of the meanings of dan and dana that formed the foundation of a pilgrimage.  A primal transformative spirit (Dana) working with the energies of life (dana), with the assistance and guidance of helper spirits (the dana) is actively rendering support for the fulfilling one’s skill or destiny (dan). These are the energies found in sacred sites that offer such profound opportunities for transformation!
Frank MacEowen, in The Mist –Filled Path, describes, her as “a life affirming goddess … and this complex of energies as a “prime initiator of cellular shifts in consciousness. If we have emotional blocks, encumbrances or limited ego perceptions we need to cast off,  they will facilitate the process, helping us to have more access to our spiritual selves rooted in the soul and soul of the earth.”(2) 

I was visiting Newgrange, the restored megalithic ceremonial cairn in County Meath,   Ireland, for the second time.  Once again I had been into the inner womb-like chamber of this great mother of an earth mound.  The docent’s flashlight mimicked the rising sun’s rays of winter solstice morning penetrating the otherwise lightless chamber for 17 minutes.  In a miracle of 5,000 year old engineering, light illuminated the magnificent 20-ton sandstones that form the walls and ceiling of the cairn, many carved in beautiful spiraling patterns and petroglyphs.   I pressed myself to the stones, melting into them and their ageless stories. Too soon we left the chamber for the sunlight,  before making our way back to the bridge that crosses the River Boyne and the busses.    I  balked at crossing the bridge meant leaving  this precious place and time for an all too ordinary reality. Already the power of Newgrange was reorganizing my energy fields! Dropping down on a park bench, I surrender to the energetic maelstrom.  the transformation took a mere `15 minutes. arising, my head had cleared, my heart aligned, my body centered and my destiny honed. cellular shifts of conscoiusness indeed.

[1]Frank MacEowen, The Spiral of Memory and Belonging: A Celtic Path of Soul and Belonging (Novato,CA: New World Library, 2004) 47
 2 Ibid, 45

published in Alaska Wellness, March/April 2006