On Pilgrimage in a Secular World

The dictionary definition of “pilgrimage” is as follows:

  1. A religious journey; a holy expedition

  2. A journey to a place associated with what is well-known or well-respected

In a generation increasingly ruled by humanist rather than holy values, I confess I have become a typical (dare I say even cliche) millennial, slowly drifting from my weekly churchgoing, my spiritual meditations and my general devoutness, less in the name of any great philosophical shift, but more out of sheer exhaustion and the inability to check my life at the church doors. As the weight of career and the weariness of adult life started to eclipse my sense of wonderment, my ability to sit calmly with thoughts spirituality, virtues, and the Great Unknown has dwindled. So little is holy these days.

I’m reminded of my own spiritual disconnect as I walk through the airport on Ash Wednesday. Lugging myself through the terminal I note all the ash crosses on the foreheads of the devout. “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is my favorite holy day of the christian calendar, which sounds dark. But the beauty of Ash Wednesday is the comfort of feeling that connection with all other living things—we are born of and from the earth and to it we will return, all of us in our time. It’s a calming idea for a gardener. I think about all these things on my way to North Carolina, and I think about what it means to be a modern-day pilgrim.

I was searching for a way to reconnect with my own humanity.

I found it.

But I just can’t stay.

Daffodils.jpg

As most of you know, I moved back to my favorite place two years ago, and struggled to make it work financially, vocationally, and emotionally, and I eventually decided that Texas was a wiser choice. But I didn’t go quietly. No no, when it didn’t work out for me to stay in North Carolina, I did a lot of shaking my fist at God/The Universe/The Divine. “Why on earth did you lead me here just to kick me out?!?!”

Camellias.jpg
Heron.jpg

I walk through the gardens, I think, I weep, I stand, I observe, and I think some more.

I am in North Carolina not only for my own enjoyment, but to witness a the marriage of two faithful people. In an anglican wedding ceremony, not only the couple take vows — the whole congregation must promise before God and witnesses that we will uphold and support the couple through their marriage. I must also say, “I do.” It is a holy promise.

I must fill my heart with goodwill, I must fill myself with love as best I can, and I can think of nowhere more sacred to do it. And isn’t that what a pilgrimage is ultimately for? The cleansing of the soul, the releasing of the burdens, the finding of solace within “to dust we shall return”?

Magnolia.jpg

I stand under the grove of Japanese Magnolia and I smell pink. I luxuriate in these trees as though I’ve been dipped in their essence. Baptized, their beauty overwhelms. And at long last, I understand why I can not stay.

We can not live in the highest of holies. We can only journey there for strength and move onward. For a place to be sacred, we can not linger. Just as my beloved friends can not live in their finest, surrounded by friends at every moment of their married lives, I can not stay in my garden, I can’t live in a shroud of pink. From dust we come, and to dust we shall return.

I go home and dress in my finery. Sitting with my two best friends to my right and left, we promise to the couple “we will.” And I am full.

And now the merriment has passed. The rose petals thrown, the champagne popped, and I travel back home. I leave so I can know the sacred more fully.