The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga

Phil Cousineau, spiritual author and an ardent advocate of contemporary pilgrimage, wrote a book in the early 2000’s that recently went into its second publication.  In The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seekers Guide to Making Travel Sacred, Cousineau writes: “The ritual act of pilgrimage… can happen halfway around the world… or can occur just down the road…. [It] can be communal….. or solitary…. What unites the different forms of pilgrimage is intensity of intention, the soul’s desire to respond and to return to the center, whether it portends ecstasy or agony.” (Emphasis added.)

Cousineau’s thesis bore out in my own and my family’s experience of pilgrimage on my sabbatical this past summer.  I counted over twenty pilgrimages to holy and revered sites over the course of the four months, most of them during our six weeks in Europe.  The places that we went with the most intention—places that I had long desired to visit, places we struggled or sacrificed to get to, simply places we went on purpose rather than accidentally (it is easier than you would think to make an “accidental pilgrimage!”)—these were the deeper experiences.  Intention is the first step of fruitful pilgrimage.

An Advent pilgrimage-in-place requires thrice the intentionality.  In addition to the intention required of all pilgrims, pilgrimage-in-place will require a special kind of attention in order to awaken us to our surroundings without the changing scenery travel provides.  An Advent pilgrimage requires its own special kind of intention: setting aside time to plumb the depths of this holy season, which our culture knows as the “holiday shopping season,” is necessarily counter-cultural.  Advent speaks to our souls, calling us to silence, stillness, rest, healing, waiting in this womb of the darkest part of the year for the coming of the Light, at the same time that the demands of the holidays pull us outside of ourselves.  Keeping a holy Advent is like training with weights on.

Question: What do you seek?

Setting your intention for this Advent season is as simple as answering that question.  Medieval and modern pilgrims set out for all kinds of reasons.  There is no wrong answer!  We asked this question at a staff meeting a few weeks ago in different terms: What does keeping a ‘real’ Advent mean to you?  How will you know if you have done it?  One staff person answered the first question, “Keeping one Advent tradition and finding time to play with my kids.”  Another answered the second: “When we arrive at Christmas the mystery of the incarnation will be able to move from my head to my heart, where I have made space for it.”

Wake up!  

That is a key message of Advent as well as a central motivation for pilgrims.  Pilgrims may be partially awake— awake enough to know they are not fully satisfied, that something is missing.  They set out, staff in hand, hat on head, letter of passage and a blessing from the local congregation, to seek it.  It may be that they discover what it is that they are seeking only bit by bit as they travel the road.  

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with our blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough…. We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion?”  Irenaeus, the second-century church father, famously said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  Perhaps it is this fullness of life, setting all our wheels in motion, that we pilgrims seek.

Theologian Richard R. Niebuhr wrote, “Pilgrims are persons in motion—passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”  Cousineau once more: “To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.”


In territory that is very much our own, in the midst of our everyday lives, how do we make that pilgrimage toward completion, following the spirit’s compass?  A few spiritual practices will help turn our intention into action.

Wake up!  Set yourself regular reminders—like a spiritual alarm clock (maybe an actual alarm on your phone!) to take a moment.  Breathe.  Pay attention— what do you hear?  What can you see— perhaps a small, beautiful detail?  What can you taste and smell?  What do you feel?  Is your body trying to tell you something?  Are there emotions bubbling under the surface?  Is there anything you need to let go of?  Breathe.  Make your exhale longer than your inhale.  Repeat a word or phrase that speaks to you of your intention.  Is there light, peace, gratitude, love, or joy lingering nearby that you can open your heart to?

Create a sacred space you can return to.  For Advent I toss a blue-purple cloth over my vanity and all of the things on it, only placing my candles and a few sacred objects on top.  When the “Christmas crazies” start to get to me, just passing by that simple, clear space brings calm.  Perhaps you have a special place in your yard or nature you can return to regularly, or make a habit of walking the labyrinth or coming to church.  Each of these small journeys, like each and every time we set aside for encounter with the holy, is a pilgrimage.

Placing a small talisman or touchstone in your pocket or on your person is another good way to remind yourself of your intention.  Cousineau describes how “touchstones” were originally stones that real gold would leave a mark on if touched to it.  A touchstone reminds us what is of value.  It could be something you found in nature, a cross, rosary, or something else sacred to you, that reminds you that you are on a journey as you are going about your everyday life.  In order to stay on the pilgrim path, find ways to renew yourself each day.

Finding the Center

Huston Smith in his foreword to The Art of Pilgrimage speaks of pilgrimage as a kind of spiritual training ground.  “In the course of this training,” he says, “we come to see quite plainly how essential it is to have a purchase on our surroundings by being centered in ourselves, not somewhere in the outer world. The person who is always expecting consolation from without is like a swaying reed or a boat on a stormy sea.”  

If the last few years have taught us anything, it must be that life is far less certain than we thought it was.  For those of us raising children now, most of us no longer have the understanding that we were raised with, that human progress will ensure that life is necessarily better for the next generation.  The only thing that can give us the spiritual resilience to face whatever life on this planet continues to bring is rooting ourselves in our spiritual center.  Bing Crosby carols and Christmas light displays (nice as they may be!) just do not go deep enough.

As grace would have it, what we are seeking is also seeking us.  “Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  (Matthew 7:7).  Ours is to wake up, and endeavor to stay awake (knowing that we in our humanness, like the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, will sometimes fall asleep!).  Ours is to take the first step, then another, and another.  God will find us along the way—and almost certainly, it will be surprising.

I had wanted to visit the 800+ year old labyrinth at Chartres, France, the original from which Grace’s labyrinth is copied, for 25 years.  We cut short our time on family retreat at Taizé and made a special trip to see the labyrinth during the few hours a week that the cathedral’s chairs are removed from it.  But it was not to be.  Travel issues, which plagued us throughout our time in France, intervened.  We did eventually get to Chartres, and I spent three awe-filled hours there.  More than half of the time I “hung out” with the labyrinth, choosing a chair near its entrance.  I tried to walk it with my eyes.  I suggested the children walk the rows of chairs over it.  I bought a small labyrinth medallion at the gift shop and tried to follow its path with a pencil tip.  All of these efforts failed.  And finally, I walked the labyrinth of the cathedral itself, spiraling back and forth past its holy relics and sacred art, going to my knees again and again.  When I returned to my seat there were just a few more minutes before closing time.  I still had not walked over the center of the labyrinth.  With my intrepid children at my side, I went to my knees at the entrance, and  knee-walked across the 14 circuits directly to the center.  We left still marveling at the beauty of the cathedral now lit up from the outside.  When we reached the train station, I realized I had dirt on my forehead from reverencing the center of the labyrinth.

Set out with intention, pilgrim friends.  Obstacles are only re-directions, a bend in the path.  Our Center is there waiting for us, in our very midst.


God of the desert highway, you make a way where there is no way.  We offer to you this Advent season our pilgrimage intention, asking that you bless us on the road.  Seeking you, help us to find you; finding you, help us to recognize you; recognizing you, help us to become your body for this hungry world.  In you only is our hope.  Amen.


The Greek myth of the labyrinth has the hero Perseus entering the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur, and following his love Ariadne’s thread out to safety.  Medieval labyrinths like the one at Chartres are still something of a mystery, but we know that they drew on this story and gave it Christian spiritual meaning.  As you set out on your journey home, what is your thread?

The Return, by Mary Oliver

The deed took all my heart.

I did not think of you,

Not ‘til the thing was done.

I put my sword away

And then no more the cold

And perfect fury ran

Along my narrow bones

And then no more the black

And dripping corridors

Hold anywhere the shape

That I had come to slay.

Then for the first time,

I saw in the cave’s belly

The dark and clotted webs,

The green and sucking pools,

The rank and crumbling walls,

The maze of passages.

And I thought then

Of the far earth,

Of the spring sun

And the slow wind,

And a young girl,

And I looked then

At the white thread.

Hunting the minotaur

I was no common man

And had no need of love.

I trailed the shining thread

Behind me, for a vow,

And did not think of you.

It lay there, like a sign,

Coiled on the bull’s great hoof.

And back into the world,

Half blind with weariness

I touched the thread and wept.

O, it was as frail as air.

And I turned then

With the white spool

Through the cold rocks,

Through the black rocks.

And the mist fell,

And the webs clung.

And the rocks tumbled,

And the earth shook.

And the thread held.