Pilgrimage: doing the walk of life

But we look back, with thanksgiving, in order to look forward. We cannot stand still. God is always calling us on to larger life. Geoffrey Tristram SSJE

I am mulling over the difference between a trip and a pilgrimage. The two things have a lot in common, of course: the careful planning, and the evaluation of potential stops along the way.

Perhaps a key difference is intention. At the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher will often ask participants to “set an intention” for the class period. The idea is to call to mind something–a person, a joy, a worry–and set it down in the space at the front of the mind. This is a way of clearing the way to make room for the practice, as well as marking the intention as a kind of offering. 

There is also the matter of why one travels. The purpose of my to-ing and fro-ing is not simply to see some other landscape, but to seek the transformation of my own, interior landscape. It also helps if the outer landscape is already holy.

Which brings me to Lindisfarne. The road signs point to “Holy Island,” so that’s pretty helpful. On the other hand–and this will preach–the road only goes there sometimes. Or rather, the road is always there, but sometimes it is obscured. The road to the sacred place is not always open. 

A tidal island in the North Sea off the extreme northeast coast of England, Lindisfarne has been destination for pilgrims and monks and Vikings for more than 1500 years. Whether they come for prayer or pillage or just commerce, all comers must cross the water, and take heed of the tides.

It is easy here to look back and visualize the past, to feel oneself walking in the same footsteps as Aidan, Cuthbert, and other saints whose names are known only to God. The priory is in ruins, of course, but it is still tangible. Adjacent to the priory, St. Mary the Virgin Church stands on the site of the monastery founded by Aidan and is an outward sign of the continuity of faith. I worshipped there with a small group on a Sunday, the 1662 prayer book communion presided over by a vicar whose sonorous voice made me think of Simon Callow.

Just on the other side of the vicarage is the beach across from Cuthbert’s personal retreat island. While Lindisfarne’s buildings evoke humanity, the beach transcends human memory; it is empty and timeless. A bit of devotional beachcombing yielded a tiny crinoid known as a Cuthbert bead. This is pilgrimage: mindful walking, in anticipation that the path will bestow a gift.


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