When we initially think of the practice of pilgrimage, it’s likely that specific locations come to mind.
These locations might be destinations that you travel to, such as Iona in Scotland or Lourdes in France, or they might include the journey itself, like walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Whether these sacred sites have attracted pilgrims for generations or they are locations that are unique to you, there’s something about these particular places that allows us to more readily connect to the Divine and the True Self within.
Though these sacred sites might have a numinous quality to them, it’s not simply the location itself that draws Seekers of the Sacred. More likely, it is the landscape of a sacred site that invites us deeper—whether the natural features of a destination or the terrain of a well-traveled path. This reminds us that pilgrimage is at once an external journey and an internal journey. It is an embodied spiritual practice, with our outer journeys reflecting our inner journeys and our inner stirrings moving us toward outward action.
Because the external journey and the internal journey go hand in hand, our places of pilgrimage have much to reveal about the journeys of our souls. Author and spiritual director Christine Valters Paintner speaks to this connection in her book, Earth, Our Original Monastery. “Earth has multiple terrains, as does the soul. Becoming familiar with the outer landscape reveals dimensions to us of our inner ones as well,” she writes. Many spiritual teachers, including Richard Rohr and John Philip Newell, would consider creation as God’s first revelation. Nature has a way of revealing to us insights about the Divine, they would say. This means that, as image-bearers (and members of creation), nature has much to reveal about ourselves, too.
The places we are drawn to explore speak to the invitations of our inner journey, and if we pay close attention, the landscapes of our pilgrimages can teach us about the terrain of our souls. An example of this can be found in Reclaiming the Wild Soul, by Mary Reynolds Thomson. In this book, Thompson invites readers to explore “the silence and simplicity of deserts,” “the mystery of forests,” “the flow of oceans and rivers,” “the inspiration of mountains,” and the “regenerative spirit of grasslands.” Something could be said, too, about the seclusion of islands, the depth of caverns, or the gentle guidance of a trail.
Are you beginning to see the connection here between the outer and inner journey—between the landscapes of pilgrimage and the terrain of your soul? A journey to the ocean’s edge might speak to a need to explore edges of our own. A longing to travel to the wilderness might be an invitation to become better acquainted with the wild of your soul. These landscapes don’t necessarily have to be natural, either. Human-made aspects of our world can equally reflect parts of our inner world, too. A pilgrimage to a cloistered monastery, for example, might speak to an inner desire to be oriented by daily rhythms, and a journey to a city might represent our longing for community and connection with others (both past and present).
Though travel is the most straightforward way to immerse ourselves in new surroundings and discover different landscapes, you don’t necessarily have to leave home to determine the invitations a landscape has for your own journey and the insight it offers regarding the terrain of your soul. Whether you choose to spend time with a landscape that speaks to you through images or encounter the environment just outside your front door, you can begin to name what a particular landscape says of your inner journey through inspired reflection and active imagination, connecting the outer landscape with your True Self deep within.
The practice below can be engaged while on pilgrimage or in everyday life and is adapted from Earth, Our Original Monastery (page 30).
Start by gazing at the landscape you want to explore and then begin to focus on an aspect of the landscape that draws you in.
Then, Paintner writes, “take this thing you were drawn to and bring it inside you. Write: The [thing] in me knows… and then keep writing to explore your response.”
As you write, notice what surprises you with deep resonance or quick resistance, knowing that both can serve as signposts for the journey and indicate what merits further exploration. What is the landscape of your pilgrimage revealing about the terrain of your soul and your journey’s invitation?
Continue the exercise with other aspects from the landscape you are visiting, allowing the outer landscape and inner landscape to co-mingle and the exterior journey and interior journey to become one through your engagement.