There are many attributes that set the pilgrim apart from the tourist traveling abroad or the person simply going through the motions in everyday life.
One of the attributes that is essential to the posture and character of the pilgrim is intention—the purpose with which the pilgrim journeys and the deliberateness that accompanies each and every step.
That doesn’t mean the pilgrim knows where the journey is leading or is always confident of which step to take next. The pilgrim, after all, is a seeker, guided not by certainty but by sacred stirrings deep within and a faith that these longings are worthy of pursuit. In fact, psychologist David Benner defines faith as “a response to a call to a journey,” and a pilgrim, no doubt, is one who is called.
Our favorite stories of old tell tales of similar pursuits—heroes and heroines who undertake journeys not necessarily because of ambition, but instead because of another force driving them toward action from deep within. This force led them to leave what is familiar for what is foreign and what is known for what is unknown on a quest that ultimately resulted in transformation.
While the journeys of our treasured heroes and heroines might seem mythic in comparison, that doesn’t mean we aren’t called to undertake our own quests. Instead of slaying dragons or recovering mystical artifacts, however, our quests often revolve around what is more immediate: encountering the Sacred and uncovering our True Selves. A quest, after all, is simply “a journey made in search of something.” For us, however, that something begins with a capital “S.”
Still, though our ultimate destination might be the same, each quest, like each person, is unique. Your quest might be one of discernment. Or, your quest might lead you to confront something that is hindering you. For many, a quest might sound a lot like a new year’s resolution. What makes it a quest, however, and not simply a goal, is the understanding that the way forward is always a journey.
Ready to set out on your quest? Here’s how to determine your quest and where to begin:
1. consider your questions
“Questions tune the soul,” writes Phil Cousineau, author of The Art of Pilgrimage; “The purpose behind questions is to initiate the quest.” It’s no surprise, is it? The word “quest,” after all, is right there, hidden in plain sight.
Consider what your essential questions might be in this season, and, consequently, what quest might be hidden within. Make a list, writing down your questions freely as they flow. If you’re unsure of where to begin, try to tap into your longings, which often fuel the questions of our soul. Alan Jones, author of Soul Making, insists, “We need to be introduced to our longings, because they guard our mystery.” As we seek to identify our quest, it is that Mystery that propels us forward.
2. wait for the stirring
Now that you’ve listed your questions or longings, spend some time in contemplation in order to better sense where the Sacred is stirring. This can be done in whichever way provides the best avenue for you to be ushered into the presence of the Divine. For some, it might be a quiet stillness. Others might experience more resonance on a walk in nature. Pilgrimage, after all, is originally an embodied practice, so it is fitting that our outer movements would encourage movement within.
Note, too, that the quests we are being invited to take won’t necessarily always feel good. The heroes and heroines of old knew that, for sure. Sometimes our own resistance is the very mud we are being called to trudge through. At the same time, a quest doesn’t have to be ascetic, so don’t feel like you must always take that path. Your path ahead might feel like freedom, even if great courage is required along the way. Ultimately, you must listen to your heart; it knows what is true because it is both sourced in Truth and seeks Truth.
Then, once your quest is determined, speak it into being. “To name something is to imbue it with soul,” Cousineau states. Your naming of your quest is your “yes” to the Divine’s invitation, and with that threshold crossed, the journey truly begins.
3. identify your next step
Whether abroad or in everyday life, pilgrimage is an active practice, requiring initiative and engagement. The Divine has called, but it is we who must follow. Now that you have named your quest and set your intention, what will your next step be? Perhaps it’s starting a new spiritual practice or connecting with someone from your past. Maybe it’s scheduling some time away or seeking inspiration from a seeker who has gone before. Whatever your next step is, there must be a next step, or there is no quest. As the poet Antonio Machado tells us, “the path is made by walking.”
4. let go of the outcome
Perhaps most important, but often ignored, is the reality that while we are the seekers, we are not the initiators of the quest. In the same way, while we might know which direction we’d like to take and the desires of our hearts, we do not necessarily know where the quest will lead. And, in truth, we should not claim to—otherwise, we might be placing false limitations on the movement of the Sacred Guide. Instead, as the saying goes, we must allow the journey to be the destination.
For many, this requires a shift in perspective, one that is reflected by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them,” he says; “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Your quest is this living out. In the end, the mark of a true pilgrim is not necessarily someone who knows the path or where they’ll be at the journey’s end, but rather someone who is attentive to the journey each step of the way.