Author, Susan Copeland, shares her thoughts about spiritual journeys, an exciting and life-changing venture that sends pilgrims of all ages on their way. We have selected excerpts from her recently-published pilgrim journal for modern times, Finding the Waymarkers, and included photos illustrating both popular and little-known Christian pilgrimage sites in Britain and Europe.
Pilgrimage travel is being rediscovered by millions with destinations ranging the world over. Learning from the ancients and adapting to today’s conditions in our lives, Christians and non-Christians alike are rediscovering the power of the intentional journey, of sacred places and internal reflection. We are seeking again the ancient sacred places of pilgrimage that have been recognized, sometimes for centuries, as places for healing of body, mind, and spirit.
Pilgrims in medieval times trekked from the north of Europe to Rome and even on to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. For over 1,000 years, pilgrims have made their way to the acclaimed resting place of the Apostle James in Northern Spain at Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims have walked St. Cuthbert’s Way to the island of Lindisfarne on the east coast of England, and to Iona, the home of St. Columba, from which Christianity was spread to the Picts of Scotland. St. Andrews, Scotland, the assumed resting place of the bones of the Saint, the grotto at Lourdes in France, the image of Mary in Czestochowa, Poland, the Marian Shrine in Mariazell, Austria, and St. Thomas Mount in India have all served as sacred places towards which pilgrims have been drawn.
Castle on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, England. Susan Copeland
Pilgrim Site Snapshot: La Salette
The mountaintop pilgrim shrine of La Salette in the French Alps has only a couple of hundred visitors at a time for the very good reason that the only place to stay is the efficiently-run retreat center, booked months in advance. After a two hour drive or a public bus ride out of Grenoble on narrow road with dozens of tight hairpin curves, you arrive in dazzling natural surroundings with no town, no shops, an imposing rose-stone basilica (built 1852-65) and a modern chapel, a visitor center staffed by welcoming volunteers and a modern hostel for pilgrims to stay and eat cafeteria-style at shared tables. Closed only during the month of November, the majority of guests are from France, Poland and Italy, but English is also spoken.
Apart from the daily schedule of spiritual experiences held both indoors and outside, what makes you utter “Wow!” many times throughout a visit is layer upon layer of mountain ranges, the perpetually tinkling bells of sheep in tiny green fields that sweep down from the pilgrimage site, and dozens of well-worn ridge-top hiking trails straight out of the opening movie scenes of The Sound of Music.
Photo by Alison Gardner
A pilgrimage comprises a set of movements to satisfy the initial longing and guide the direction. These movements hold true for treks to distant lands and to sacred sites closer to home.
Longing: A quickening and desire for a closer intimacy with God, self, and others. When we listen with the ears of the heart, we may discover the passion to begin a pilgrimage. As a pilgrim, we seek to embrace the thin silent places within the body, mind, and spirit. This may or may not be to a particular destination. But once we bring the longing to awareness, we can begin to prepare and to discover the waymarkers to guide us.
Preparation: Outward and inward intentional tasks for readiness. Pilgrims have traditionally traveled simply, unencumbered by heavy baggage or an inner heaviness of spirit. This has, however, always been a challenge for me. I want to pack the extra book about local history. Or I want to bring appropriate clothing for every kind of weather and event. Yet I have never read all the books nor worn the extra clothing that I brought. The wisdom of pilgrimage on the inward and outward journey is always simplicity.
Journey: Following a path with an open mind and heart. Pilgrims thrive with the help of fellow travelers, the assistance of guides, and the hospitality of places of rest. Still, difficulties can arise. Transportation connections can be missed, inclement weather descends, one’s way may be temporarily lost, and lodgings may not meet expectations. Such disruptions along the route often present opportunities to ask for and rely upon the support of others. Nothing need be wasted on the path, for every encounter, connection, and challenge can bring us to a moment of insight and blessing if we are open and ready to receive.
Nestled in the western Pyrenees of France, the village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has served for 1,000 years as a gathering point for Europe’s Christian pilgrims to cross the mountains into Spain and begin a 750 km walk to Santiago de Compostela. It remains an exciting, lively hostel town to this day as pilgrims from all over the world gather. Alison Gardner
Arrival: Reaching a destination or knowledge of a sacred experience. As in the past, pilgrims today reach their destinations fatigued, yet with hearts and minds full and nurtured by the experience. Pilgrims find great value in pausing and marking this moment of arrival. This is a moment when ritual, celebration, thanksgiving, and reflection can intensify the entire experience. It can be an opportunity to gather with others who have made the journey to share ceremonies and stories. This can occur in a traditional way or with a heartfelt ceremony created in a holy moment.
Walking the labyrinth at Columba’s Bay, Iona, Scotland. Susan Copeland
Return: The preparation and embracing of the journey home with enthusiasm. There comes a moment on pilgrimage when the heart begins to turn toward home. This may be set in motion by a new quickening: the sense that what we are experiencing and learning needs to be shared with others. Often, pilgrims feel a yearning to resume an ordinary life in which new insights into faith, hope, and love can be practiced. We find ourselves futuring, attempting to discern how daily life can be enriched. We stand, in fact, at the central moment of our pilgrimage, alert for the path and the waymarkers that will guide us to a more abundant life.
St. Martin’s stone cross in front of the Abbey, Iona. Susan Copeland
Just as there are deliberate preparations to launch a pilgrimage, there is a desire to thoughtfully organize a return. This involves letting go of a place, a group of people, or the recently-acquired rhythms of daily life. It is a time for the creation of rituals and ceremonies of blessing, gratitude, and farewell.
During my two months of a working pilgrimage as a volunteer with the Community on the island of Iona, I found solace in times of solitude and silence on the island’s remote beaches. I collected numerous seashells and small round stones while walking along the stunning, rugged shore. I regularly carried these treasures back to my room as a visual reminder of those solitary sojourns in the midst of our active community life of prayer and service to guests.
Iona Abbey and a view of the Island of Mull, Scotland. Susan Copeland
As I planned my return home, I decided to select a few of my favorites and return the rest to the sea. On the chilly, blustery afternoon before my departure, I relinquished my treasures to the tides. As I dropped some on the white sand and flung others into the breakers, I offered prayers of thanksgiving for this time, for this place, and for the blessings of community that had been mine over the previous two months. I prayed for the next pilgrim who would walk these shores. Whether or not she discovered these same stones and shells, I knew she would experience the deep peace of the running waves and silent sands. It was a simple ceremony, not only of releasing the stones and shells but also of taking leave of a time and place. It was a ritual of preparation for my return to family and life in California.
Pilgrim Site Snapshot: Lourdes
Larger and more commercially sophisticated than many pilgrim destinations, Lourdes is near the French Pyrenees in southwest France. Yearly from March to October the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is a high-profile place of pilgrimage with an estimated 200 million visitors since 1860 [currently five million per year]. With an incredible weekly roster of activities, services and meetings, there are several information centers and armies of volunteers of all ages and languages who work diligently to make the individual or group pilgrim experience a lifetime memory.
Rotating through different languages at different times, church services are laced with spine-tingling choir singing, but there are also riverside and hillside walks to offset the intensity of the more focused timetables. With the second highest density of hotels in France after Paris, accommodations and eateries are plentiful in this town of 16,000 permanent residents to serve every budget and comfort level, but booking ahead is essential.
Photo by Alison Gardner
Afterlife of Pilgrimage: Integrating the habits of the heart practiced on pilgrimage. When I arrived home from my working pilgrimage with the Iona Community, I discovered new “little habits.” I purchased a standing clothesline similar to the one we had used in the drying room to hang my laundry outdoors in the fresh air. Oatmeal continued to be my breakfast of choice. For months, I enjoyed a tea break every day at 11:00 a.m. I had joined the Iona Community as an Associate Member and, continuing after my return to practice the Community’s “Rule of Life”, I faithfully prayed the morning litany, including the study of scripture. All these fresh little habits harkened back to the sacred time of pilgrimage, and they continue to support me as I move forward on my spiritual journey.
For millennia, people have undertaken physical journeys as an outward manifestation of the spiritual journey to friendship with God. Today, we are rediscovering the spiritual practice of pilgrimage and the role it can play in modern times. Finding the Waymarkers reflects on the elements of pilgrimage drawing on history and the author’s personal experiences. It invites readers to consider preparing for their own quests with inspiring stories of modern pilgrimage, prayers and blessings for the journey, journal pages for personal reflection on the way, and a list of resources and websites for pilgrims.
Finding the Waymarkers: A Pilgrim’s Journal for Modern Times
Heartsong Press, Santa Barbara, CA
Published in 2012, 118 pages, US$14.95 (ISBN 978-0-9846787-0-9)
Available through the website: www.FindingTheWaymarkers.com
The author rests at a traditional scallop-shell waymarker along the Camino de Santiago. Willis Copeland
Susan Copeland is an ordained minister who has served as a hospital chaplain, bereavement educator, and parish minister. She also conducts workshops and retreats on the topic of pilgrimage. Her interests include photography, creating ritual and celebration, and the joy and challenges of going on pilgrimage. She lives in Santa Barbara, California with her husband, Willis. Email: Heartsongsb@cox.net.
Enjoy More Pilgrimage and Sacred Travel Articles in our Collection
We invite you to discover other richly-illustrated feature articles about pilgrimage and sacred travel in our web magazine’s Travel Article Library, including five articles with different experiences of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, and “In Search of Sacred Places” which takes a broader look at pilgrimage travel destinations worldwide. These articles are among the most perennially-popular in our entire collection.