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Retreat and Pilgrimage

"Retreat is a time to step back, survey the field, and listen for God's whisper. Pilgrimage

is a 'call of the wild,' to be open to discomfort, challenge, and the rough, wild path of

change. Spiritual seekers need both." Marjory Bankson, Seekers Church

This quote lives in the intersection of what I envision for my spiritual direction ministry, the interdependence between setting aside time to retreat, rest, recover, rejuvenate, and listen and engaging the inner pilgrimage journey head-on to find YOUR spiritual direction; a journey that may sometimes require a companion and guide to join you along the way.

Pilgrimage Journey

The inner pilgrimage journey, like any involved travel, can be full of discomfort and challenge along with the joys and the beauty. As we travel the path to find our spiritual direction, we come face to face with many obstacles. One obstacle we must face is our sins, those behaviors where we fall short or miss the mark in ways big and small. To become aware of and to tell of our sins is not an easy part of the path to travel. We face the suffering we cause ourselves and, often more devastating , the suffering we cause others in our lives. We don't often take the time or effort to look at where we have fallen short in our lives and then make amends and ask for forgiveness from our friends and family these days. Of course we don't because it is difficult. That is also the reason to do it though. Facing our sins often bears fruit in becoming more empathetic to others struggles and allows forgiveness to often be easier to grant ourselves and others.

Another obstacle we encounter on the pilgrimage journey is our own emotional wounds and stuck places. If you have difficulty with fear or anger or loneliness or resentment or any other of the so-called negative emotions, you will run right into it eventually on your journey. One of my favorite stories to tell is when I was an intern chaplain at a Chicago hospital and emergency room and when it was time to see patients for the first time, I burst out of the elevator full of confidence and excitement on the surface, but just as quickly when I turned the corner to go down the corridor to the patient rooms, I was faced with the biggest tiger I had ever seen. I immediately turned right back around and went back to my supervisor's office as quickly as I could.

Tigers on the Path

The metaphor for me goes back to stories of the forest monks of Thailand in the early 20th century. They would often meet actual tigers on the trails between villages. The ones who survived came back with tales of meeting the tigers and stopping and becoming as still as possible. One monk tells the story of one incident where, instead of fighting the fear arising within him, he welcomed the fear in and he had the sensation of the fear filling him up and then spilling over out of him as it reached the top. Thus the fear dissipated and he was able to hold his ground until the tiger passed him by.

Fear is my biggest tiger too. Most other emotional baggage and stuck places for me follow from the basic fear within me. So, as I travel my inner pilgrimage, I have to face tigers constantly. I must say as I've traveled these last few recent years, the tigers are getting smaller and I am able to hold my ground and let them pass more easily. The journey is long and difficult often, but it does get easier the longer you do it.


Often as we travel this pilgrimage journey, we must slow down and rest every now and then. This is where retreat comes in. In order to strike some sort of balance, we must step back, reflect, and listen from time to time.

Step Back

What often is the first thing that happens after an arduous journey? We usually have to rest up in order to go out again. I often need an extra day or two within and after vacations just to rest and recharge from the journey itself. Our bodies need that rest to rejuvenate and carry us even farther along the path. So too our hearts and souls need rest at various points on the journey.

Sometimes this retreat is simple, basic self-care: resting, pampering, comforting. Just as often, though, this stepping back is not at all passive. Within the time to rest is also time to reflect and survey the journey so far. With all the work of our sins, our emotional baggage and just plain getting stuck, we need time to look back on our journey for lessons, for celebrating coming this far, and for a little planning for what's next. Maybe all this doesn't happen all at once. Perhaps one retreat we reflect on where we got stuck last time so we don't get stuck there next time. Perhaps next time, we are all about honoring and celebrating the abundant fruit that is within us and right in front of us and is a direct result of the work of cultivation we've put in. If we are continually on the journey with no rest, we will miss that fruit, we will miss that lesson learned for the next time.

Still, Small Voice Within

Finally, we slow down and step back to simply listen. God is always there with us, guiding us and teaching us along the paths of our journey. While we are in the thick of the journey, we cannot always tell where we're headed next or what growth we've already made. The Divine Spark within us is there to point the way or guide us away from certain dangers. We will certainly miss them if we never become still and silent and listen to the movement of the Spirit. There are many, many ways to get still and silent: prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, walking a labyrinth, and so many others. Whatever method works for you, spiritual practice is key to retreat and listening to the Spirit of Life and Love that surrounds us always.

Call of the Wild

Pilgrimage is truly the call of the wild. Only the stoutest among us will set off into the unknown in search of spiritual adventure and growth often with no destination in mind. But often the way is easier with a guide or companion along for the ride. This companion will walk with you, pointing out beauty, pointing out things that shimmer in your life, lending a hand when you are stuck or being there when you just want someone to laugh or cry with. This of course is where the spiritual director comes in. We are here for you as guide, as companion, as holy listener. I am here for you, too.

Spiritual Seekers Need Both

If we are serious about the spiritual or contemplative life, a life of connection, justice, authenticity, and wholeness, then we will necessarily experience pilgrimage and retreat. The journey is often hard and challenging. When it is all too much or we need to check in on our progress or where we are on the path, then we retreat - at home for an hour or two, away in the country in groups or in solitude for days or weeks at a time, wherever and whatever retreat best fits your place on the path. Together, pilgrimage and retreat keeps us in some sort of balance between reaching out toward God through our own inner journey or toward another soul and just as often reflecting and listening in order to make some sense of it all. Within this journey of pilgrimage and retreat, we will often know more joy and more peace, more compassion and more generosity and it will all be worth it.

May it be forever so!

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