Advent Pilgrimage

Bede and I led our annual Advent retreat this weekend, assisted with soundscapes and musical reflections by Sr. Helena Marie.  Because people  loved a “pilgrimage” feature last year, we decided to expand the theme for the whole of this year’s retreat. 

What is a Pilgrimage?  A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place.  Ironically, the arrival at the shrine or spring or rock or church or grave is hardly the point.  (The destination might be shockingly ordinary – what did the shepherds or Magi see that first Christmas?  An ordinary newborn baby, yet, they didn’t go away disappointed.)   

First, a pilgrimage requires separation from the ordinary. For the duration of the journey you are neither there nor here.  The no-place between there and here is a liminal place, where you are vulnerable to the sacred.  (On the way to the cave in Bethlehem, the shepherds and magi had been prepared by angels and portents to see through the ordinary.)

You arrive at your pilgrimage destination with gifts to give, and you receive your token of success, a scallop shell, a cross, a “boon” to bring back. You turn around and go home.  But having been in the liminal place, having allowed yourself to open to the Holy, you return to the ordinary to find that you are changed.  And that is the point of going on a pilgrimage: to be changed.

The heart of the retreat was about the pilgrimage in sacred architecture. 

Monastery Church

Monastery Church

How from ancient times (Egypt, the tabernacle in the Sinai desert, the Temple of Solomon) the proportions and spaces of a holy place evoked modes of consiousness.  Grand cathedrals and ordinary churches also offer corners and alcoves and tricks of light, small spaces and open spaces for multiple moods and modes for prayer and meditation.  Bede guided us and let us experience these themes and feelings in the monastery church.

Our Advent pilgrimage acknowledged these middle days of Advent: the call to separation, of repentance, of conversion and change.  We thought about something in our lives we needed to separate from and wrote them and burned them (in the monastery church).  We washed ourselves with refreshing water (in the chapter room). We looked at the mysterious series of arches, leading from the chapter room to the dark hallways, saying “yes” like Mary, to the Unknown. We processed by candlelight to a cresche scene we set up in the enclosure library, enclosed in fabric and darkness, but lit from within with fairy lights and to which we brought our own light.  We rested there, absorbing the shocking ordinariness of this scene.   

Nobody said, “Hey these figures are only wood!”  Like children, our faces reflected the sheer delight of an inner revelation projected onto the scene.   You come on pilgrimage to be changed, and … surprised.

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One Response to “Advent Pilgrimage”

  1. Jenifer Says:

    Oh, to have been there. Your description of the liminal place reminds me of Therese of Lisieux’s vision of her Beloved taking her by the hand to to a tunnel, where it is neither cold nor warm, where the sun does not shine; where she hopes that her gloom will bring light to others. The “land of eternal fog.”

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