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The Practice of Pilgrimage

by Jerry R. Wright

The image of life as a mystical pilgrimage path has been nourished by my immersion in the Analytical Psychology of C. G. Jung, and by the experiences of leading pilgrimages to places and sites around the world that have been considered sacred. The archetype of pilgrimage has prompted me to lead pilgrimage groups to Iona, Scotland; Ireland; India; Peru and Machu Picchu; Africa; Vietnam; Cambodia; Thailand; and Laos. 

Pilgrimage has a long, rich history among those seeking to live a conscious spiritual life. To be a pilgrim, a soul traveler, means to follow in the footsteps of people across all continents and centuries, people who have traveled with spiritual intent and attention. Different from a travel tour, pilgrimage encourages spiritual and/or psychological experience and insight rather than mere sightseeing. A pilgrimage is taken at the urging of soul that hungers for sacred encounter, especially in times of personal or professional transition. In depth psychological language, a pilgrimage facilitates the individuation process.

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From a Jungian psychological perspective, pilgrimage may be framed as an intentional desire and practice to expand consciousness in general and religious consciousness in particular. These pilgrimage goals may also be considered the twin goals of the lifelong individuation process described by Jung.  

My first pilgrimage twenty years ago took me to Iona, a wee island situated off the western coast of Scotland. A destination for spiritual pilgrims for centuries, Iona was founded by St. Columba in 563 CE and became a center for the Celtic spiritual tradition that continues to the present day. With her remote setting, natural beauty, unspoiled body and beaches, and accumulated sacred intent of pilgrims over the centuries, Iona has beckoned me and my pilgrimage groups more than a dozen times. 

Iona has been one of those temporary homes to which I keep returning, like a mystical homing pigeon or a mystical migrating bird. On Iona, I touch something solid, real, ancient, and ancestral. More importantly, most often I am touched by that something. The holy happens. The sacred suddenly appears in surprising ways and I no longer feel like a lonely pilgrim, but like a part of a visible and invisible community. I would say that I experience something of soul; not always and not on command, yet surprisingly often. 

Iona remains an iconic thin place where the metaphorical curtain between the visible/invisible, outer/inner, and conscious/unconscious has been rubbed thin. There is a long-held belief that pilgrimage provides the possibility of participating in the flow of energy between the visible and invisible aspects of the one Ultimate Reality. Carl Jung once noted that “everything we want to learn about psyche/soul can be learned from Nature herself, as analogue.” The numinous natural world remains our wisest teacher. 

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The Celtic image -- thin place -- caught my attention when I first set foot on Iona and has enriched my imagination ever since. Archetypal Thin Places: Experiencing the Numinosum became the theme and title of my thesis at the completion of analytical training with The Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. 

Over the years, Iona and other pilgrimage destinations have become more than external sacred places. They have become internalized as aspects of soul, as well as metaphors for the sacred ground beneath our feet wherever we walk. The primary purpose of making a pilgrimage is to sharpen our awareness that every day and every place is sacred and to enable us to live as if that is true.

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