I am not any great expert on pilgrimage. I don’t have any authoritative advice to give others on how to find the “best” pilgrimage. What I can speak to is my own experience of what led me to make my first pilgrimage this past fall.
I have never been a particularly athletic person, nor would I describe myself as particularly “outdoorsy.” But sometime a number of years after the death of my husband, I discovered that walking in nature became a good way to work through stress and grief. It became part of my prayer practice to hike, though I wasn’t always praying every time I hiked.
The desire then became to do something with my walking that was more intentional and for a longer period of time. The only pilgrimage route I’d ever heard of was the Camino in Spain, so I started by googling the Camino. Around the same time, a cousin walked the Camino and posted pictures on Facebook.
Thanks to the algorithms used by Facebook, things about pilgrimage started popping up in my feed. That’s how I discovered that there are also pilgrimage routes in Ireland. That interested me because part of my heritage is Irish. I followed the Pilgrim Path page that is dedicated to these Irish pilgrimage routes. I visited Ireland with some friends in 2017, and my intention had been to walk at least one of the pilgrim paths, but the friends I was with weren’t up for it, so I let the idea drop, intending to get back there someday. And then I changed jobs, and then the pandemic hit with all its travel restrictions, and I put the dream on hold. But it was still there in the background, and still popping up from time to time in my Facebook feed.
In 2021, something about the Camino Nova Scotia popped up in my feed. This was intriguing. Something closer to home than Europe! The timing wasn’t right yet, though. Then in 2022, our College of Bishops announced the mini-sabbatical program for clergy, and they didn’t put any restrictions on how that time was used. The time was right. I knew that a pilgrimage in Nova Scotia was exactly what I needed for a sabbatical time.
Pilgrimage has been described as “praying with your feet,” and is a very intentional and physical way of using one’s body in prayer. There were practical things I needed to do to prepare for the journey: buy plane tickets, book accommodations for both sides of the pilgrimage (during the pilgrimage we slept at churches or church camps along the route), acquire items and pack as lightly as possible. Physical preparation was needed, too. The pilgrimage was in early October, so I started walking every day of my summer vacation in August, gradually increasing the length of the walks. The longest I’d ever walked in one day prior to this preparation was 10km. We had been sent the itinerary, and the longest day would be a 30km walk! My goal was to do that prior to the pilgrimage. I didn’t make it, but I got fairly close. Returning to my regular schedule after vacation, and with lessening hours of daylight, I wasn’t able to walk as far, but I still made it my goal to walk at least a couple kilometres every day in preparation.
The other part of the preparation was a spiritual one. The information we were sent about expectations clearly stated: “Walking pilgrimage is more than just a hike! Pilgrimage is travel for transformation. It’s an opportunity to mindfully experience yourself in relation – to other pilgrims, to the land, to history and to the transcendent. Camino Nova Scotia is designed to provide times for personal growth and spiritual nurture, all while undertaking a physical challenge, with an eye to appreciating Nova Scotia for its place, its peoples, and its past.”
We were asked to think about why we were making the pilgrimage, and why now. Of course, what I thought I was seeking ahead of time and what God chose to reveal to me by the end of it were two different things!
A pilgrimage is not just an external, physical journey: it is an internal, spiritual one as well. The two journeys are inextricably linked, however. What is happening while one walks informs one’s inner reflections, and one’s inner reflections inform how one sees what is happening around them as they walk. One of the pilgrimage leaders remarked that “when you walk, the land becomes a part of you.” By which she meant the act of walking helps you understand the land, and the land has a deep impact on you, in a way that riding or driving over it does not. As I walked, the landscape and the weather became part of my prayerful reflections about community, belonging and discernment. I had been seeking absolute certainty about what lay ahead, and what was revealed by the end was that even if things were “foggy” I just needed to trust the path and the directions I’d been given, and trust that eventually the fog would clear; but in the midst of the fog, to appreciate the beauty of that which was right in front of me. It felt really important to just be in the moment, and not let the lack of clarity about the future disturb my state of mind, heart and soul. In a profound way, I could hear God asking me to relax and to trust.
By the end, I had gone roughly 110km from Grand Pré to Annapolis Royal. And while the physical journey sounds impressive to some (and I am proud of myself for finishing it!), I think what impressed me more was the spiritual journey that was tied to that physical journey; the connection to land and community, and the learning that developed and came together over five short days.