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From the moment I saw the announcement in the Sunday Bulletin about a pilgrimage to Lindisfarne and Iona in summer 2013, I knew this was my trip.

Lesson # 1: listen to your gut.

I had just started a new job so I was not sure I would have vacation time. It was a stretch for me financially … but none of that seemed to matter. I went to the informational meetings, got a little panicked as I realized I did not know anyone in the group very well, if at all, and it seemed like most of the folks entertaining the idea were couples. Very intimidating … but the desire was still strong to find out more and to take this journey.

Jeri and John Smith

The Smiths — often hand in hand — a couple I got to know a little bit … a friendship that will grow. They inspired me!

I was hooked from the moment I heard Greg talk about mud boots abbeys, ruins and the difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage. Once I made the commitment and sent in the initial deposit, the preparatory meetings were so very helpful and confirming.

Lesson 2: Take advantage of the pre-pilgrimage opportunities to get to know your travel companions, their names, experiences, motives and desires: you have more in common than you can imagine. We are more alike than different!

It was in one of the meetings that I volunteered to help prepare the Breviary for the trip, and to work with Rabbi Helen Cohn. It soon became apparent to me that this would be a hidden treasure from the pilgrimage experience. We have become not just fellow pilgrims but friends.

Lesson 3: Don’t assume you will know what the outcome of the Pilgrimage will be … keep your eyes ears and heart open for gifts beyond your imagination.

Each meeting offered a unique opportunity to learn and to grow in a spirit of community with my fellow travelers. I won’t remember a lot about the history but I will remember the gentle unfolding of people’s stories and the gifts they brought to the experience. I will remember, with awe, the hardships the saints and pilgrims endured for the sake of spreading and protecting the Gospel and the faith. I will continue to ask myself if I could have done that … or more importantly, what am I ready to do now?

Greg and Helen

The Rev. Greg Foraker and Rabbi Helen Cohn

I am especially grateful for the phases of preparation Rabbi Helen presented and encouraged us to think about and explore.

I am equally grateful for the practice and experiences with “mutual invitation” that Greg brought to the group. This simple practice of listening with intention brought us to a deeper level of connection with one another and perhaps more importantly a little more aware of ourselves.

Lesson 4: … a repeat of Lesson 3 … sometimes I am a slow learner!

So the preparations continued and finally the trip began in earnest. I was excited, a little nervous. My request to room alone did not materialize. I was paired with someone I did not know at all … scary … but in the end, fun, interesting: new insights and understandings about “no coincidences.”

Room in Manor House Hotel

Our room on the third floor of the Manor House Hotel — incredible breezes and a great view of the Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne was magical, quaint, and charming. I kept pinching myself to believe I was really in England — in this remote but popular spot where the sights and sounds — and the absence of sound when the island closed its doors at night with the coming of the tides — was really my home for a few days.

To experience “magnum silencium” — the grand silence — while living in close quarters and sharing meals with others was a moving experience.

It was on this Holy Island that I experienced my first “ah ha” moment as I walked one morning and encountered the path below. It looks harmless enough, and it was, but the events surrounding the journey down this path, the hesitation, the encouragement to “go see the seals” from an elderly island resident who was busy painting his house, provided me with a learning experience and insights that I am still processing and trying to understand. It was/ is one of those “go deeper” experiences that Greg talked about frequently on our trip. I never saw seals but the vision of the experience lingers.

The path

To say that I am grateful for the path is an understatement

The walks and talks that occurred on the island were the beginnings of some deeper connections with my companions. I am grateful for every step and every word, every whisper of God’s presence that I experienced in this special place.

Lesson 5: Keep moving forward! Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous” …

Don and Eileen Veitch

Eileen and Don … the unofficial photographer and good will ambassadors of the trip

Below is the “shack” behind the Lindisfarne Castle. It is in a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, a famous British horticulturist, artist, writer, and garden designer. For some reason it spoke to me … I could have moved in and set up house for the summer.

"the shack"

Ruthie Hooper

Ruthie offers a greeting and blessing to our new wooly friends

To walk in the fields with the sheep that scampered about pretty un-fazed by the curious/nosy visitors was a pretty amazing experience. Here Ruthie offers a greeting and blessing to our new wooly friends. I am reminded of the Psalms: “Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”

Sheep

Lesson 6: Don’t underestimate the power of the simple tasks, gifts or experience that life brings.

An unexpected gift of this trip was an opportunity to meet and listen to Graham Boothe from The Community of Aidan and Hilda. He spent time with us, unfolding his own journey while explaining a little bit about the community on the Holy Island and around the world. His eclectic background resonated with me and I felt a little more OK about being a “spiritual mutt” with many and varied church experiences and interests. It was he who also helped several of the pilgrims get to the place to start our slow and meditative trek across “the Pilgrims Way” … the place where the tides flow in and out and create the unique characteristics of this lovely island. Greg led the journey and encouraged us in prayer and reflection. Some of us chose to shed our shoes and socks and literally connect with the earth; others walked in shoes or boots — used poles and held hands to negotiate the slippery dips and crevasse, the seaweed and shells. I will not forget the smells and sights, the slime of seaweed, the texture of the mud, the pull of the water, the richness of this sensory experience. There was a sense of connectedness that we felt as we trudged through the tidal path for almost three hours, often in silence, frequently slipping and constantly in check with one another — a gift of this “mini” community within the larger group.

Lesson 7: When the opportunity presents itself — PLAY IN THE MUD … getting dirty is good for the soul!

Mud

Lindisfarne castleOn a different day – or maybe it was the same day as the island certainly seems “timeless” with sunlight that lasts until 11 p.m., there was the trip to the Castle. Sound and crippled people made the journey to the top of the Lindisfarne Castle. They went and found not just history, a beautifully appointed home of antiques, finery and incredible views but perhaps, as I did, a piece of their soul — that needed a dusting off from the air atop the hill. It was amazing to watch the people walk/talk/stop/rest/look out/walk and climb again.

Lindisfarne was wonderful … leaving I felt sad as I gazed out the window of our motor coach and thought about the rhythm of the tides and life on Holy Island. I wondered if I would ever make it back to sit among the Priory ruins again and feel the presence of the saints of old.  I thought about the steep walk up to the Castle, the challenges it presented for those among us with tired limbs, old bones, recovering bodies. I hoped their experience on Lindisfarne was as rich and profound as my own.  These incredible walks were metaphors for the journey through life. There is always a choice: an opportunity to make the trip with an attitude of “can you imagine” (thank you John Smith!) or “here we go again.” I want to choose the former! I thought about the gift of conversation with Ruthie; moments of clarity and a delightful peace that I carried with me to the next part of the pilgrimage.

The landscape was incredible as we made our way towards our next destination. The trip had some pitfalls but that too was a learning experience for me.

Scenery

Lesson 8: I can choose how to respond in adversity: I can choose to go inward and find the peace and quiet. I can create my own reality, as Rabbi Helen would share with us later.

Little did I know that Iona would usher in an equally as powerful an experience … the next installment …

—Joyce Stewart

One thought on “Lessons from a Pilgrim: Part 1

  1. Joyce, your sharing is a beautiful gift. You’ve captured the essence of our journey and have brought my mind and spirit back to these wondrous places. It was truly a life-changing pilgrimage.

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