What do you do when things don’t go as planned? For most of us, it’s easy to take it in stride when a new recipe turns out less than delicious, or when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our outdoor activities. But what if you’ve just traveled thousands of miles, arriving at a Christian community that specializes in stirring worship services and inspiring action for justice and peace on a holy island known for its breathtaking views and spiritual experiences – and you’re not moved at all?
Going on a pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual discipline that many of us are undertaking in new ways. Traveling to Iona Abbey on my own 5 years ago, I learned first hand what it means to be a pilgrim. Making the long journey to a special place, and then living in intentional community for a week with strangers, taught me a great deal about myself and my faith and my sense of call. I was transformed by the land, by the people, by the worship. I was so moved that I returned the following year with a small group from my congregation. Sharing the pilgrimage with others deepened my experience, as we formed our own little community as we traveled, and made room for each other along the way.
After completing my first year as campus pastor at TLU, I imagined the impact on students of a pilgrimage to Iona. I waded through piles of paperwork and mounds of requirements to put together a study abroad trip that would give young adults the opportunity to travel as pilgrims and open themselves to the transformation I had experienced. I shared with potential students my stories of meaningful relationships, beautiful music, and solitary walks along the rocks at the beach. I told them that the Isle of Iona has been considered a “thin place” for centuries – a place where the earth and the heavens meet and the holy is within arm’s reach. I encouraged them to apply if they were looking for a place to contemplate their life’s meaning, the bigger questions of faith and call and purpose.
After meeting every other week throughout spring term, talking about what to expect, what to bring, and what was required, we set off from the airport, ready for our spiritual adventure. The journey was long. And the jet lag was harsh. With just 7 hours of “night” on the plane ride across the Atlantic, we hit the ground in Scotland at a brisk stroll. Navigating the bus into the city and construction at the train station, we found the right track, and traveled several more hours to our overnight stop, where there was still much walking to do. The next day held two ferry rides and one harrowing bus ride with a very impatient driver, plus another long walk. By the time we were settled into our rooms at Iona, our group was exhausted.
And so the spiritual experience began. We were meeting new people: our roommates, our housework group-mates, and the volunteer staff who were there to support us. We were going to chapel two times a day, getting up early for the first, and staying up late for the second. We were hearing about the Iona Community’s work for justice and peace, and were encouraged to find ways to make a difference back home. We were exploring the island, finding paths that cut through fields of sheep, leading to sandy shores and craggy hills.
As an experienced pilgrim, I could see that the place and the people were doing their work: planting seeds, offering new perspectives, blowing through with unexpected insights. But my group of new pilgrims, some of whom were first-time travelers, were frustrated by the end of the second day.
“I’m not feeling anything.” “I’m not meeting any new people.” “I don’t see the point of going back to worship today. I already went once.” “I came here to have this powerful experience of God and nothing’s happening – something’s wrong with me.”
What do you do when things don’t go as planned? Even as pilgrims, maybe especially as pilgrims, we experience disappointment. When you decide to set off on a pilgrimage, you have big expectations. You’re going to meet God in every flower and sunrise. Your whole approach to faith and life and spirituality is going to be transformed. Every day will be filled with happiness and light. Every conversation will be uplifting.
But then reality hits: pilgrimage is like real life. Sometimes you wake up tired and miss the sunrise. Some days you’re just going through the motions. And occasionally you encounter people you can’t connect with. Some days are just dark, even in a holy place.
What enables a pilgrimage to be transforming is letting go of expectations and allowing reality to do its work. What turns a dark day into something meaningful is allowing it to be dark, and gently examining where the darkness got its start. What turns a challenging conversation into an enlightening encounter is holding up a mirror to see the traits you despise in others staring right back at you. What changes a crappy travel day into a transformative pilgrimage day is attention: taking the time to pay attention to what’s right in front of you and what’s deep within you. We go on pilgrimage to give ourselves the time and space to pay attention to life – life that’s all around us. Expectations just get in the way.
As the experienced pilgrim, I was able to have some good conversations that week. I helped students name their expectations of what was supposed to happen so they could set them aside and focus on what was actually happening. I tried to point out the places where I saw God at work, in little and big ways. And I encouraged them to follow their hearts, take care of themselves, and recognize that transformation is deeply personal, physically draining work.
And in the midst of guiding them, I relearned some things myself. My expectations of myself as a perfect leader get in the way of opportunities to be an authentic leader. My need to follow an itinerary can be stifling to the winds of the Spirit, who blows me in new directions when I finally let go. And my job as pilgrim leader is not to remake everyone’s experience in the image of my own. My job as pilgrim leader is to stand beside and walk with other pilgrims and enjoy the wild diversity of my companions. Who knows where the Holy One will lead us next? I have no expectations. Only hope.