Having your sanity questioned, being daft, having a crazy idea—these are good signs you have started on the path of an intentional pilgrimage. Everyone must choose how he or she will walk life as a pilgrim. There is no one way. No right way. No best way. Only your way, my way, his way, her way, every pilgrim’s way. I’ve walked alone. I fasted most days. Walking twenty miles. Drinking only water. I’ve walked with one other person. I’ve walked with two people. With twelve people. I’ve walked with professional singers on a singing pilgrimage. Each experience was different. In some cases it was the opposite experience of my previous walk and much different than my expectations. And clearly, my inner journey was different from those I walked with. All my pilgrimages have been life altering in some way or another, major or minor, obvious or subtle.
Walking those roads has led me into some unexpected places with unexpected people. One such place was a tiny two-room apartment in the small village of Kildysart, on the Shannon River in southwestern Ireland. My spiritual director had invited me over to his home to meet another priest, a lifelong friend of his. We sat near the fireplace with one small log flickering, barely enough to heat the apartment. The room was spartan. A worn prayer book and a tattered Bible laid open on a ruggedly crafted table. My director’s friend wore a bright green polo shirt that bore the emblem of the local golf club. His black pants had the sheen of too many years and his black shoes were scuffed. When he sat back in the chair, he could have swung his feet like a child’s. He rocked his creaky straight-backed chair forward and turned his head slightly toward me, as if he were craning to listen to the final words of a dying man. His gentle brogue softened the tone of having lived an isolated life in the small villages of western Ireland.
“What are you doing here in Ireland, laddie?” I told him with a bit of unfortunate pride, “I’m on a pilgrimage.” He replied with a wry smile, “You wouldn’t be insultin’ God by lookin’ for him, now would ya?”
Hoping not to insult God, I was walking Ireland, coast-to-coast, from the eastern seaboard of Dublin to Glenbeigh, on the southwestern edge of the island. Counting all the steps I walked when lost, off trail, and having taken the wrong turn, I walked over 353 mountainous miles. Indeed, I was searching.
The object of my soul’s desire kept evolving. Originally, I thought the journey was about discovering my next purpose in life. Slowly, mile after mile, I began to realize this pilgrimage was about connecting with my inner self. Haunting questions emerged from the darkness within. The pilgrimage became about discovering my authentic self, then nearly sixty years old. Discovering the person I was comfortable living with, no matter what anyone else thought about me.
I have lived with years of feeling misunderstood. I’m constantly being told my ideas are too weird and my theology is not orthodox enough, not even Christian. But I have learned by living as a pilgrim that this is who I am and that I’m okay with me. I can live between the world of the seen and the unseen. It is possible for me to walk, breathe, think, and feel in the mystical world while at the same time staying grounded in my own understanding of reality, my conscious reality. Both are equally real. I can exist on the literal path and at the same time the imagined path.
Through my many miles of walking, I have learned that being on a pilgrimage is about the journey, both the real literal path and the real mystical path. Even when I am on the actual path of the Wicklow Way or the path of doing my job in Arizona, I am a pilgrim, a foreigner in a strange land. My pilgrimage is about negotiating with myself how I am going to live into the life of becoming transformed each day, step by step. Life is different now. Every corner of my being—mind, body, soul, and spirit—is being transmuted. Indeed, anyone who walks hundreds of miles will get in good shape. But will that person gain knowledge and develop a deeper relationship with the divine? Through Wisdom Walking, I propose, he or she will become acutely aware of the world of the seen and the unseen and discover deep wisdom. This profound awareness shifts the pilgrim’s very inner self so she simultaneously sees the past, present, and future. The pilgrim also begins to see herself as she really is. And she opens her true self for others to see. The outward mask is stripped away and the true inner self emerges—the integration of the body, mind, soul, and spirit begins.
To be a pilgrim is to make an intentional decision—first to be a pilgrim and second to go on pilgrimage. To be a pilgrim is to see life as a pilgrimage and to do the hard work necessary to reap all its benefits.
Gil Stafford, PhD, DMin, is Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and assisting priest at St. Peters Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, Arizona. Prior to being ordained a priest, he was the President of Grand Canyon University. He also had been the head baseball coach at the university for twenty years, winning three national titles. Life is a pilgrimage, and he has taken many, including walking Ireland coast-to-coast. Gil and his wife Cathy are co-founders of 2Wisdoms Way. He blogs at Peregrini. Wisdom Walking is Stafford’s first book.