has been a place where Christians of different denominations have come on retreat or as part of a personal pilgrimage. They have come on their own, in small groups, young and older age groups, or on parish days.
They have come for the day, weekend or weeks.
The retreats have been organised and led, (by the people who choose to come) or silent and seeking.
Papa Stour, with its early Celtic Christian heritage is a ‘thin’ place, and those who seek, find.
In his programme ‘Scotland’s Sacred Islands’ Ben Fogle visited Papa to experience its grace-filled spiritual atmosphere for himself.
It is hoped that once the Covid situation improves, Papa Stour will continue to develop this aspect of island life, particularly when the Kirk Development Project is up and running.
Early on a bright August morning a dozen ladies from Lerwick Baptist Church gathered at West Burrafirth for a day trip into Papa Stour. There was a bit of a cool wind blowing but they are a hardy lot!
On arrival we warmed ourselves up with hot tea and coffee and scrumptious home bakes in the ferry waiting room.
Braving a cool wind and cloudy skies we took a walk down to the pier for a history lesson followed by a stop along the road for another history lesson.
Our next stop was at the site of the stofa. Here the ladies heard a potted history of the site and the partial reconstruction of the stofa as a community project in 2007/ 8.
From the Stofa the ladies wandered along the road to the 200 year old Papa Stour Kirk where they learned about the history of the building and had a good scout around ahead of a service they were to lead later in the day.
And then up to the school where the Ladies enjoyed Cullen Skink and homemade scones washed down by hot tea provided by two long term island residents.
In the middle of the afternoon the Ladies returned to the Kirk for a time of worship to Almighty God. Accompanied by guitar and accordion they ‘raised the roof’ as they sang with gusto a selection of old and well known hymns. There was a short ‘preach’ based on Jesus calming the storm followed by a wonderful time of open prayer.
After tidying everything away the Ladies went back to the school where thy feasted on bacon and sausage rolls before heading for the ferry and home. It had been a wonderful day in Papa Stour.
‘Young person’s weekend retreat April 2019. Enjoying all that Papa has to offer for mind, body and spirit.’
Pilgrimage took the form of the Jewish exodus, Islam’s Hajj to Mecca, vision quests, walkabouts, and classic heroic journeys about leaving home. In the fourth century, many Christians began to travel to Jerusalem. Each century took on a new form; the interesting thing is the spirituality that went behind it. It was an exercise in letting go, a search for wonder, a constant discovery of the new. It kept older religions from becoming staid and expecting God only in the familiar and customary. Pilgrimage accustomed people to change and growth.
So, major Christian pilgrimages would go to Jerusalem (later travelers would visit saints’ shrine or relics) and oftentimes they’d go for a whole year or more. They traveled at great expense and with great difficulty, and their goal would be to reach the River Jordan. Then, at the River Jordan, they would dive in the water and swim across. This was of course a way of re-experiencing the baptism that Jesus experienced.
Let me give you a mantra that the New Jerusalem community have come to know. The mantra is “This moment or this place is as perfect as it can be.” Our temptation is to always look to the next moment to be more perfect, the next place, and then the next moment or place.
You see, we are always disappointed in what we actually have. We are always rushing into the future. The reason we’re rushing into the future is because we’re not experiencing a wholeness in the present. And when we haven’t grasped the present, we always live under an illusion. It is an illusion that the next moment or place is going to be better. When I get around this corner, when I see this church, when I get to Jerusalem, when I get to the hotel— whatever it might be. But pilgrimage helps us see that attitude is essentially wrong. As long as we think happiness is around the corner, it means that we have not grasped happiness yet. Because happiness is given in this moment and this place, and this moment and place are as perfect as they can be.
These were spiritual books guiding pilgrims as to how to prepare themselves. Preparation was required before they went on pilgrimage.
First of all, you had to make amends with everyone you had ever wronged. Also, if you went on pilgrimage holding any kind of unforgiveness, it could not be a good pilgrimage. You couldn’t leave your town until you’d forgiven everyone who’d ever wronged you. Certainly, this is an attitude that we can pray for at the beginning of any pilgrimage: that God would keep our hearts open and loving, because a pilgrimage can’t just be a tourist trip. The meaning of a pilgrimage is an interior journey. Primarily, it’s an interior journey enacted exteriorly.
When we return home, if no interior journey has happened, we really haven’t made a pilgrimage. Understand? We’ve just been tourists. We’ve traveled around and said, “I saw this, and I saw that, and I bought this,” and so forth. But that’s what a tourist does, not a pilgrim. And God has called us on pilgrimage.
The idea was that they had to leave everything in right relationship at home. If they had any material debts, they also had to pay those before they left. They couldn’t go on pilgrimage until their spiritual and physical debts were paid, and they had permission from all the right people.
Next, they had to go to confession before leaving. Sometime in the course of a pilgrimage, celebrating some kind of reconciliation was deemed very appropriate. Again, there’s that cleansing, that letting go. Above all else, pilgrimage is praying with your body, and it’s praying with your feet. It’s an exterior prayer, and the exterior prayer keeps calling you into the interior prayer.
Pilgrims move in two directions at the same time—an outward direction toward a holy destination and an inward journey seeking an encounter with the sacred. Two of the best academic scholars of pilgrimages, Victor and Edith Turner, [Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture] explain it in this one sentence: “Pilgrimage may be thought of as extroverted mysticism, just as mysticism is introverted pilgrimage.” Pilgrimages, they suggest, were, and are, no walk in the park, or plain, or mountain. Embarking on such a journey, we become untethered not just from our physical normalcy. These uncertain, trusting steps also move us out of our spiritual familiarity. The pilgrim is invited not only to walk out of boxes of dogmatic beliefs, but also to walk away from practices of comfortable spirituality.
Consider historically the life of peasants or serfs in medieval Europe who were tied to specific places—a manor, and a particular piece of land. Religious life was likewise confined to a local parish, with its repeated, routine practices. As pilgrimage opportunities began to be possible for a wide range of people, their journeys liberated them toward places unknown, with spiritual intensity. Pilgrimage sites were places where miracles had occurred. The bones of saints were living; the apparition of Mary created a rarified space. Healings occurred, continuing the miraculous nature of these sites.
Yet those embarking on pilgrimages faced clear and present dangers. They were walking into liminal space, with a familiar past of place and spirit left behind and a future promise of spiritual power, wedded to tangible, material things, in the distance.
In their own context, this was a reckless spirituality, a form of extroverted mysticism…. For most, this was a once-in-a-lifetime embodied quest of spiritual abandonment. In the words of the Turners, “pilgrimage was the great liminal experience of the religious life.”
For today’s pilgrim it can be the same. A pilgrimage is a rejection of modernity’s expectations and assumptions about time, place, perception, satisfaction, speed, predictability, and the material world. As in ancient times, motives for contemporary pilgrimages are mixed. Lines between pilgrimage and tourism become blurred for some while breaks in employment prompt others to a pilgrimage more than a thirst for embodied forms of holiness. Yet pathways that move simultaneously in inward and outward directions prove irresistible to throngs roaming pilgrimage paths today.
The Spirit yearns to break out and to break open our old practices, our protective shells of comfortable spirituality, connecting our inner selves more deeply to God’s love and to God’s world. Your soul no longer stays still. It’s moving with God in the world, and moving toward God, revealed in signs or shrines or saints or surroundings. The pilgrim’s walking body holds incarnate this inner journey of the soul.
Today, what I’d like to speak about are disciplines or what we call spiritual practices. If we want to prepare and open our spirits to receive everything we can and to perceive the fullness of the moment, I would like to at least suggest a few interior disciplines. Primarily, a pilgrimage is an individual matter between the person and God. It’s not horizontal as much as vertical. The primary concern is that we make an interior journey and hopefully find a bigger God. Therefore, I want to encourage each of us to take time alone each day.
First of all, let us practice the discipline of silence. Secondly, let us take some solitude. Thirdly, we practice the discipline of speech. Our patterns of many years are that whenever there is a moment of silence, we fill it up by talking. Let’s see if God can teach us a way to say only what’s necessary and what’s important.
[ Today, our smart phones make this discipline more difficult and even more essential!] We don’t need to just fill the silence up with more sounds. There are things that don’t need to be talked about, things that are just time fillers. They’re just there to fill up our nervousness. How can we deepen the quality of our communication while we’re on this retreat and this pilgrimage?
If you keep a journal on pilgrimage, I encourage you to take some silent time and write about your experience. Don’t just journal about where we went and what we visited. Write about what’s happening inside of you. As regrets and mistakes come forward in our consciousness—and they’re inside all of us—just keep handing them over to God: “God, I’m being judgmental again. I’m being angry again. I’m being impatient again.” Then when you go to your journal, try as best you can to write down your interior experiences: “How am I feeling? What’s God saying to me in prayer? What am I hearing?” These are all disciplines to deepen the quality of our listening.
We’re going to encounter people who do and say things differently. If we move into “sophistication,” we will lose the childlike spirit that Jesus talks about. A pilgrim must be like a child who can approach everything with an attitude of wonder and awe and faith. Let’s pray for wonder. Let’s pray for awe. Let’s pray for desire, or better “the desire to desire,” and ask God to take away our cynicism.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. —Matthew 6:21 Author Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook connects pilgrimage to the universal longings of our hearts: The first thing all human beings hear in the womb is their mother’s heartbeat. The metaphor of a journey to the center of the heart offers many insights into the nature of pilgrimage in general and the inward journey of the pilgrim in particular. One pilgrimage site that speaks to the journey to the center of the heart is found in the small village of Chimayó, located in the mountains of northern New Mexico. “If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles of life … whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó.” …
Many of the pilgrims who travel there are not necessarily of the same religious tradition, and they are often not totally committed to the pilgrimage tradition or necessarily believe in miraculous healing. But they go on pilgrimage because they feel a longing in their hearts, and they are searching for something—perhaps divine love or inner peace, relief from a broken heart, or a more meaningful life—and they gain solace from belonging to a group of pilgrims along the way…. Pilgrimage, then, involves … the heart. The Talmud says, “God wants the heart.” It is the heart that holds the body together…. Augustine of Hippo [354–430] wrote that the heart is a metaphor for our deepest and truest selves, and he frequently uses the image as a way to explain his own journey to God: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
he sacred art of pilgrimage involves both an inward and outward journey. … The pilgrim strives to hold both the inward and outward journey together, sometimes in tension, but always focused on the search for meaning, for the Divine…. What most distinguishes the sacred art of pilgrimage from a tourist trip or hiking expedition, as beneficial as these are, is the characteristic inward journey, a turning of one’s heart to the Divine, with the expectation of transformation on every level of being along the way. Benedict of Nursia [c. 480–547], the founder of Western monasticism and author of the Benedictine Rule, used to advise his monks and nuns to “listen with the ear of their heart.” In other words, the pilgrim’s first yearning is in the heart, deeply and inwardly, sometimes for years before the outward journey begins.
Every day, we are given a natural way to reconnect with God that doesn’t depend on education. It doesn’t depend on getting a degree in philosophy or theology, living in a particular period of history, or believing in a specific religion. It depends on really being present to what is right in front of us. As Paul says, “God has made it plain” (see Romans 1:19–20).
The missing element for many of us in the developed world has been contemplation, which allows us to see things in their wholeness and with respect (re-spect = to see a second time). If we were to spend time in nature, alone like Jesus or the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we would know many of the same things religion has been trying to teach, but we would know them on a cellular level, on a physical and energetic level. That kind of knowing does not contradict the rational; it’s much more holistic and heartfelt. There is nothing that is not spiritual for those who have learned how to see.
Pastor and author Brett Webb-Mitchell suggests how we might make pilgrimages a regular part of our lives: A pilgrimage need not take place in an exotic, faraway locale. It need not take a whole week or two. It can take place in our backyards, in our neighborhoods, around our churches and retreat centers. One doesn’t need to be wealthy to be a pilgrim. One simply needs to have a purpose and place in mind where one can go in order to experience the Holy.….
A pilgrimage is more than just a hike, a walk, a run, a bike ride, a vacation, or a journey…. Pilgrimage is the state of mind and heart or spirit that changes the vacation, the hike in the woods, the long kayak journey along an intercoastal strip of water, the ride out into the country, the walk to a friend’s house, the errand in the middle of the day, the walking of a dog, the 5k run or marathon … into a pilgrimage in which one encounters the Holy. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast describes this very sentiment: when the pilgrim sets her foot on the ground, every step is a goal, and the pilgrim says “now, now, now”; she is living in the present and claiming the presence of the Holy God now in her midst , upon this soil, fully cognizant of the sacred land she walks upon…. Whether we are on an actual pilgrimage or perceive that the road of life we are on is our pilgrimage, each step, each move one makes is blessed by the Spirit. For both an actual pilgrimage and the pilgrimage of everyday life is a journey of faith.
(All notes taken from the newsletter of the Centre for Action and Contemplation. Week 5th-11th March 2023)