For years I casually entertained the hopes I might visit the Northumbrian Community that produced Celtic Daily Prayer. Inquiries to the community recommended a minimum stay of two nights and three days. Required trips to the United Kingdom for PhD residency never quite afforded the wiggle room on either end to steal away for the time necessary. So, the hoped-for trip to the Northeast swath of England’s shoreline remained a will-o-wisp of the mind, never seriously contemplated, just a flirtation briefly considered for the merest of moments before the notion flitted out of my brain as effortlessly as it had entered. Even after arriving in the UK with an extended visa, I never dwelled on the thought, just placed the idea in a mental hope chest I labeled, “IF…”
Then, opportunity presented itself. The pipe dream became possible. Time and circumstances conspired so that I might travel and live among the Community. Not only was I going to go to Nether Springs, I was a registered participant on their retreat, “Celebrating the Saints.” The added dimension of being on a retreat with other Christians during All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day was of such significance to me, it’s hard to describe. Suffice it to say, the pipe dream was becoming a pilgrimage.
Despite cognitively knowing every Christian is a pilgrim traveling through this world, pilgrimage, to me, is something other people do. It is teens attending a winter youth event or persons who condition themselves to walk the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrimage did not seem to me to be part and parcel of our ongoing discipleship. I understood pilgrimage to be either a nice way to spiritualize tourism or an extreme commitment that wore out the soles of one’s shoes as the interior soul was similarly stretched to its limits.
And yet I knew I was doing more than simply attending a retreat. Something deeper within me than my casual hopes and dreams had been preparing for this moment. Even though I journeyed alone, walking a mere quarter mile to the bus stop that took me across town to the train station, where I boarded an express that carried me 180 miles northward towards the coast, where I joined others who arrived at the same platform by other routes, I began to sense that this was a pilgrimage of sorts.
A quote by Canon Stephen Shipley, discovered a few weeks after I had been to Northumbria after my first opportunity to explore Lindisfarne, confirmed that I was indeed on a pilgrimage:
Pilgrimage is far more than making a physical journey, it is being prepared to allow that restlessness which is in every human soul to entice us away from our security in search of something deeper; a clearer vision of the God who calls us to His service.
Viewed this way, pilgrimage is very much a necessary part of our discipleship. Pilgrimage might describe the whole of our Christian journey in this world, but the opportunity to experience a pilgrimage offers particular, defining moments along the way. Just as a person is justified when the heart is made right with God after prevenient grace pricks and prods the soul that may produce realized faith, I found a sacred centeredness after years of ephemeral hopes swirling about me. At last, I had, like Moses, been distracted from the daily demands and tasks “to turn aside and see” the work of God in an extraordinary way (Exodus 3:1-3). Pilgrimage to the coast of the North Sea provided me with a perspective about who I am as a child of God in ways I sincerely doubt I could have ever seen otherwise.
At Nether Springs and on the tidal island of Lindisfarne I encountered God in profound ways. Daily prayer with the Community. Meals shared with others. Conversation and new friends found. Retracing the lives of Aiden, Cuthbert and other Celtic monks on the island they first populated in the 7th century. Building a memory cairn from the weather-worn rocks at the prominent tip of the island. Walking over the grassy hillocks and along the rocky shoreline to which these men brought Christianity to England, I discovered spiritual roots that allowed me to draw deeply from the wellspring that feeds the soul of every Christian.
The nourishment I received alleviated a latent thirst that had gone unacknowledged for too long. My awareness was roused to understand pilgrimage as part of the rhythm of our ongoing discipleship. Experiencing pilgrimage allows each of us an opportunity for our lives to be focused afresh on our heart’s true home as we journey further towards our destination in God.