Today we explore The Pilgrim’s Journey, not unlike many journeys of your own.
In fact, as you read through The Pilgrim’s Journey, you’ll likely have a sense of déjà vu: “Haven’t I been here before?”; “I know exactly what she means”; “This is the story of my life!”
Upon reflecting, you’ll soon find that your own journeys in life are reminiscent of The Pilgrim’s Journey, because both speak the same language: the language of transformation.
The Pilgrim’s Journey is fitting for transformation because the stages that a pilgrim goes through on the journey act as a microcosm of the greater journey of life. They offer a unique channel of transformation that reverberates into the everyday upon return. Many scholars of pilgrimage equate its notable transformative capacity to the classic stages of change, named by my number one mythologist, Joseph Campbell, as The Hero’s Journey.
The title might be new to you, but the story isn’t. Think Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Harry Potter in, well, Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Each tells a story of an unlikely hero, often on a surprise journey, always discovering what they were capable of all along and yet could not see. Campbell describes the power the journey has in the awakening of the self:
“Adventure evokes a quality of our character that we didn’t know existed.”
-Joseph Campbell in a collection of interviews entitled The Power of Myth
As a sacred journey, pilgrimage has the potential to reveal and transform as well. Using Campbell’s language of The Hero’s Journey, when we intentionally engage in pilgrimage we too become the heroes of our own story. And just as the hero goes through a cycle in The Hero’s Journey, we as pilgrims cycle through The Pilgrim’s Journey.
In The Art of Pilgrimage, author Phil Cousineau (who just so happens to be an expert on Campbell’s work) describes the cycle of this journey:
“The pilgrim’s cycle replays nature’s pattern of regeneration , a journey consisting
of departure, arrival, and return.”
-Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
It is through the initiation of the journey—the recognition of desire that cannot be dismissed—that the quest at hand emerges. I love what Phil Cousineau says about the origin of our quests in The Art of Pilgrimage:
“Questions tune the soul. The purpose behind questions is to initiate the quest.”
-Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
Basically, Cousineau is saying that our journeys are not informed by what we know, but what we don’t know. So much in this world is dependent on knowledge, it feels like a great relief that there is also value in the things which we do not know. In reality, it is possible that our questions tell us far more about ourselves than our answers do. But unless we accept the invitation that our questions offer us, our questions remain just questions.
To learn from our questions we must engage our questions, and to engage our questions we must turn our questions into our quest. There are many types of questions the beget quests—relational, vocational, spiritual, existential—but all questions worthy of quests have one thing in common: they are essential. And because these questions are of the essence, their answers can only be found in the essence—of the self, of the other, of the Divine. The well-known mystic and monk Thomas Merton confirms this:
“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find [God] I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find [God].”
-Thomas Merton on the True Self and the False Self
And so, the pilgrim departs on a journey in search of this essence, hoping to both discover more of the self and encounter the Divine.
Throughout the journey, the pilgrim experiences both trials and revelations that bring her closer to what she seeks. These trials and revelations peak in the stage of arrival (known as initiation or fulfillment in The Hero’s Journey). The arrival itself is the point of encounter—the place where the pilgrim’s journey and the Divine intersect. The seed for transformation was planted with the acceptance of the quest and has taken root amidst the journey’s trials and revelations, but it is in the stage of arrival where transformation truly begins to blossom.
The transition between the point of arrival and the period of return represents a time of impact and change. As the pilgrim begins the stage of return, there is an embrace of the experiences and new discoveries brought forth by the journey; a shift has occurred in the pilgrim’s very being, and she re-enters everyday life transformed.
The reason the idea of pilgrimage resonated so deeply with me initially is because as I learned about these archetypal stages of pilgrimage, I realized that my life was filled with pilgrimages.
Whether it was a quest of faith in my teenage years, my first time traveling on my own, or my season at The Seattle School, I was able to identify the places of departure, arrival, and return within these transformative journeys.
Sometimes the departure was birthed out of great pain. At other times it was sparked by excitement and longing—I couldn’t wait for my journey to begin!
The arrival, or sacred encounter, continually left me altered, but it didn’t always happen at once. While at times it was an “aha!” moment or an impactful event, more often than not it has been a slow and challenging shift that only blesses me if I am awake and willing to be vulnerable.
Sometimes the pieces don’t even fall into place consciously until the return. But there is no doubt that that change has occurred in some way, because departures initiate change. But this change is only possible if we are willing to journey.
Our role as pilgrims is to not tick off the stages one-by-one, but instead to surrender to the journey, trusting that we will return renewed—with new and precious parts of us and the Divine revealed that, just like the hero, we never knew existed.
This post first appeared on asacredjourney.net, a website devoted to spirituality and intention in travels and daily life. Learn more about Lacy's work and sign up to receive updates from A Sacred Journey and receive access to a growing collection of free guides here.