An Imaginal Pilgrimage (Part 1)

In just under three weeks, Ash Wednesday will mark the beginning of Lent, a time of preparation for the great feast of Easter. Traditionally, the preparation has included “simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God.” Before the feast, there was the fast. It was intended to call to mind the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism.

Most of us think of “giving things up” when we think of Lent. In other words, I might choose to give up something I really like to eat or drink, say, chocolate or soft drinks. Another person might give up television or video games. A lot of the emphasis, at least traditionally, seems to be on intentionally suffering, perhaps as a way to feel in some small way the pain of Jesus’ suffering.

While I don’t think fasting from certain things as a way of spiritual preparation is a bad idea, I’ve always preferred the practice of Father Charles Burton, the priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd when I was a teenager. He admonished us to “take something on” at Lent. Perhaps one could take up a prayer practice, for example, lectio divina or centering prayer. Or one could begin to volunteer at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. It could also be something like a healthy habit, such as exercising regularly or getting more sleep. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to try both approaches – letting go of the old and embracing the new — at the same time. Ideally, there should be something new and positive brought into our lives, even if that is just a new perspective.

This year for Lent I’ve decided to go on a pilgrimage, specifically St. Cuthbert’s Way, the pathway from Melrose in Scotland to Holy Island (or Lindisfarne) in England. Now, I’m not actually going to fly to the UK and walk the actual route. For one thing, I don’t have the money to fly over, and, for another, I don’t have the time to take off from work. This pilgrimage is one that I am calling an “imaginal pilgrimage.” I will be walking the 62.5 miles of St. Cuthbert’s Way on a treadmill at my local YMCA.

As part of this undertaking, I will be preparing appropriate music and imagery (taken from pictures made of the route) while I walk. I plan to walk 10.6 miles per week, finishing on Maundy Thursday. During that time, I will also be studying and meditating on the meaning of pilgrimage and how pilgrimage, however it is made, can become a prayer of the whole body. At the same time, I want to explore how can I make a pilgrimage to the margins, meeting my brothers and sisters there while making my walking pilgrimage (more on that in later posts). As my overall guide to the experience, I will be using Charles Foster’s excellent book, The Sacred Journey.

I’m not sure this will work, but I’m willing to give it a shot. If nothing else, it can’t hurt to get the exercise. I will also be attempting to post about what I may be learning on this blog at least twice a week. I hope you will join me.

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