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Along the River - Pilgrims not Tourists

One of the things I’d like to write about is the imagery I use. I’ll start with the river. The one on the website comes from an oil painting by Peter Oyston. I love its mystical mood and the sense of a journey into the unknown.

In ancient days rivers were the easiest means of getting around – no hacking through dense forests, no lugging crippling weights overland. The huge stones for the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge, or the even more ancient Newgrange in Ireland were transported along rivers. Important centres of worship and commerce were set beside rivers until modern times.

Here’s the ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise, in the heart of old Ireland − founded by St Ciarán in 584, and chosen for its strategic position beside the River Shannon. I took this photo when I visited in November 2015. It is tucked away now along back roads although it remains a place of pilgrimage.

The feeling of something ‘unknown’, evoked by the river as it winds away into the distance, taps into a profound but bewildering subject with countless interpretations − the unknown dimension beyond our life span. Rivers also connect us with journeys, including metaphorical journeys that portray the unfolding of our spiritual path during our life on earth.

It’s easy to believe that this physical life is all there is. In our age of marvellous scientific investigations we can explore how we are part of this earth, and of the universe, how we are made up of the same molecular and chemical structures as a star, or an ant. We are built up in the womb from these substances and they are dispersed again as we decompose. This is a kind of immortality. It’s beautiful and true − on one level.

In this materialistic scenario, consciousness too is a product of neurons firing away in the brain. So in terms of human consciousness, before we are born and after we die there is nothing but nothingness. ‘Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again,’ says Shakespeare’s King Lear to his daughter. He wants more from her. And indeed, we come to a dead end if we dismiss the idea of anything beyond the physical. We close off enquiry into a vast realm of possibilities that impinge not only on pre- and post-physical existence, but also the full meaning of our earthly lives.

My whole life has led me to acknowledge a spiritual dimension to existence. And for me, this life is a school. We are here to learn. The meaning of life lies in discovering who we are, on the physical level, yes, but also concerning the nature of consciousness, which is often described as the soul or psyche. This is the area that psychology addresses. Sometimes it will include the spiritual aspect of self. More directly this subject is the core of many religions, unfortunately overlaid with centuries of irrelevant man-made doctrines. The Christian gospels are full of teachings about the spiritual self. John’s gospel calls it I AM. The gospels speak of this spiritual ‘I’ as a seed that we have to nurture. When it springs into life we will discover ‘the kingdom of heaven’ within us, that is, our soul becomes one with spirit. It’s obvious to me that we are a long way from that goal. Only reincarnation into new bodies can give us the opportunities to continue our schooling. I hope to explore this further in a future blog.

Meanwhile I look to a time when life’s curriculum is holistic, when body, soul and spirit are viewed as aspects of a full education into the meaning of life. This is where journeys of the imagination can push us into wakefulness. Such journeys have so many nuances. We might envisage a river being followed upstream to its source, or the destination might be the wide ocean. Each has its own connotation. Journeys also take on different qualities depending on whether they cross lands or oceans. The route and mode of travel also colour the meaning of a journey.

Memoirs are often about inner journeys. Biographies can be if they look deeper than what the person did next. Private musings, songs, music and artworks of all kinds take us on metaphorical journeys when they stimulate the imagination. My books often involve journeys where an outer journey mirrors the inward one.

I like to record my own experiences in words. It’s a process that came to life on a Himalayan trek in 1984 in beautiful, struggling Nepal. I’d never had a camera and didn’t want to be stopping to focus on its technical needs (this was before the digital revolution), so I kept a journal instead. I wrote each evening, really trying to choose words that caught the fullness of my responses to the land and its people. I found that word pictures could bring together outer events and my inner awakenings – back home as well − for me triggering remembrances better than photos could. It was about the resonances, the space for imagination within and behind the words. I guess this is why I am now a writer.

I’m not against photos and have hundreds from my most recent long journey, the majority taken by Stephen my husband. Here’s one of me on a bridge over a seriously famous river. A journey along this river certainly stimulates the imagination and is romance exemplified (clue: it’s in Paris, France not Texas).

Actual journeys we undertake can be transformational. They have been significant markers throughout my life, from setting out on a youthful adventure ‘overseas’, on a ship and then overland via five countries, to England (where I stayed for eleven years), to my latest one. In this I followed the Celtic spirituality trail from Ireland, via Iona and Lindisfarne, south through England, across to Burgundy in France and to Reichenau on Lake Constance in Switzerland (more about that soon).

Over the years in my journeying, I have come to recognize that travellers can be either tourists or pilgrims, and this is not dependent on where you go, or whether you are setting off into the wilds alone with a backpack or in a bus on a package tour. We decide whether we are tourists or pilgrims, and it has to do with our attitude of mind, what we are seeking and how we perceive events.

We are always on a journey, even if we never venture far beyond our home compass. What travelling can do is speed up the process of transformation, and when we return we see our familiar world with different eyes. Pilgrims seek this transformation open-eyed. They long to discover their full humanity and work to enrich their lives by consciously integrating and building on what they’ve discovered. At home or abroad, if you are on this kind of quest, you’re a pilgrim and I hope to meet you again here.

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