from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 18 April 2013

on pilgrimage

This is the 13th writing retreat I've led on this island. When I co-tutored it with friend, fellow author and poet Ken Steven, we called it 'Into Blue Silence'. Since I've been leading it alone it has become 'Islands of the Heart', and I guess that title – both titles – flag/s up that it is more than a writing course.

I've always thought of this week as a pilgrimage. Iona is and has been a sacred place for millennia, but it's not just that – any place is sacred if you approach it in a certain, mindful, way (though it is true that there's a different quality, a heightened depth of something, to places where humans have brought their contemplations and prayers over time; it's as if the place itself carries an extra charge from all the human attention).

Coming to Iona involves, for most people on this course, at least two days' travel (and some people come from France and Switzerland, too), and several trains/buses/ferries, and, once you're north of Glasgow, through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, where human presence gradually thins out and the land has not been entirely subdued into submission.

How we do the journey is significant; the journey is also the destination, and changes us, if we let it. What's more, the destination of a pilgrimage, in this case the Isle of Iona, is a continuing journey.

The spirit of pilgrimage is to do with a change in consciousness. Somewhere like Iona, where 'the veil between worlds is thin', can lend itself to profound experience. We're led here, in shared solitude, to become aware of the possibilities for personal transformation; of peeling off layers of masks and personae, of leaving things behind. The process requires that we become more fully ourself. Imagination is given wings here; helps restore the heart, the vision.

The notion of ‘home’ and the idea of ‘pilgrimage’ are intimately linked. Certain places hold the ability to soothe, to uplift, to reorder a state of confusion: to bring us back to ourselves. If we choose to bring mindfulness to our travelling, our journey to such places is to a place where we might bring ourselves home, gather together the scattered fragments of ourselves, find a resting place out of the whirlwind of our habitual accelerated lives.

Albert Camus said: ‘We travel for years without much idea of what we are seeking. We wander in the tumult, entangled in desires and fears. Then suddenly we arrive at one of those two or three places that are waiting for us patiently in the world. We arrive there and the heart is at last at peace – we discover that we have arrived.’

And here's Daniel Taylor, in In Search of Sacred Places: ‘The tourist goes to see and collect memories and mementoes; the pilgrim goes to be changed. A pilgrimage is physical travel to a spiritual destination. The act of going is itself a vote for the possibility of meaning. It accepts risk – the risk of coming to harm, of being a fool, of wasting time and money and energy – for the mere possibility of a highly intangible reward. That reward, in part, is knowledge about how to live, together with the strength of will to transform right thought into right action.

‘Some people take away souvenirs and photographs from these islands. I take away some still small voices. These voices continue to whisper to me of increased possibilities for living. They whisper to me certain verbs – simplify, release, risk, commit, pray, bless, believe. They whisper certain nouns – peace, gratitude, contentment, solitude, discipline, friendship, reverence. Most of all they whisper that word which is both verb and noun, action and state of being – they whisper the word "love".’

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