Lessons from the Trail: The Practice of Pilgrimage

by | Jul 18, 2022 | 0 comments

Lessons from the Trail: The Practice of Pilgrimage

by | Jul 18, 2022 | 0 comments

In April ’22, Heartward Sanctuary co-founders Julia Hartsell and Jonathan Edwards went on pilgrimage to the valley of Rieti, the “umbilicus” of Italy, seeking nourishment, healing and inspiration. Jonathan’s personal account of the trip, which unfolded on foot over 100km and two weeks, can be found here.

What follows is a conversation with Jonathan on pilgrimage, walking, learning to trust ourselves, the good kind of weird, and bringing inspiration back to root at home.

Editor: So what led you and Julia to go on this trip?

JE: I had a kind of inexplicable draw to the area. For months I didn’t know why I was zeroing in on this not-very-well-known place, Rieti and its surrounds; I had to take it on faith, but I’ve learned to trust those feelings. I also had a soul-deep longing to get out and walk for days on end, and to do that in Italy. That desire had been building for well over a decade and finally ripened about a year into the pandemic. At that point the trip started coming into focus.

Was there a traditional religious angle? Was it a devotional trip?

Yes and no. Even though we were walking on the Way of St Francis, the devotion in our case was first and foremost to the holy earth, the body of the divine feminine, who’s revered as the Madonna, Santa Maria.

Sounds very Italian.

Well, it’s no coincidence that a culture so oriented towards beauty and the sensual is also steeped in Marian devotion. That goes back way before the Christian era, by the way. Old wine, new bottles…

So what makes for a true pilgrimage?

Pilgrimage can mean many things to many people. When we travel seeking healing or communion, we enter a different space than if we were simply going on vacation. We prepare ourselves in some way for an encounter with the numinous. Things can get a little weird.

Weird how?

Not in the pejorative sense, more in the root sense which has to do with fate and destiny. The ‘weird sisters’ were the fates who spun, measured and cut the threads of our lives. What’s weird in us has to do with how we’re wired, what’s unique and special, even if it’s not always comfortable. And to bring it back to pilgrimage, we meet all those parts of ourselves on the trail when we walk day after day. The journey out is a journey in, and the two aspects–inner and outer– come to reflect one another. It’s hard to explain, but I think anyone who’s been on a certain kind of soul-led journey can relate.

Can the weird magic of pilgrimage happen anywhere?

Well, I’ve yet to hear about a convincing pilgrimage to a mall. But it can happen on trips to very personal places that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as pilgrimage spots in most people’s minds. It can be unique to the individual and what s/he holds dear. The umbilicus of Italy isn’t exactly a pilgrimage destination for most, but it turned out to be very significant and meaningful for us.

That said, there’s also something about joining a larger current, as people have done for millennia, to communal pilgrimage sites such as Mount Kailash, Mecca, and Santiago de Compostela.

Is there something as well about going on foot?

There really is. Walking slows you down and allows you to get in touch with yourself and with the land and people around you. It simplifies everything, though it doesn’t make things easy. Walking is a kind of slow alchemy that gradually brings things to the surface. It works things through a step at a time. Partly it’s the rhythm, partly the connection to this basic human activity and to all those who’ve walked before. Partly it’s the encounters along the way. Partly it’s the discipline, the rigor of it, which can be considerable. Partly it’s simply taking the time to slow down and be present.

Could other people take a ‘pilgrimage to the holy navel,’ as you called it?

There’s no reason they couldn’t. What we did is basically a modification of a part of the Way of St Francis, the section in northern Lazio / southern Umbria. The official route splits in two, heading around both sides of Rieti’s valley. We stitched those two together, made a few modifications to fit our schedule, and basically made a loop around Rieti. I liked the idea of a circular route and it fit the theme of the trip. This way we were able to visit all four of the Franciscan sanctuaries in the area and the famous Beech tree of St Francis, which was a real highlight, beyond what I could have imagined. If anyone is interested in doing something similar, I’d be happy to be in touch and point them in the right direction.

Any plans for bringing other to places like Rieti that have been so meaningful to you?

Not at present, but I’ll admit it’s crossed my mind. If there are others who feel called to the particular medicine of this place, I could see myself returning in a guiding capacity some day. Participants would have to be willing to forego some predictability and trust themselves to the trail. And walk plenty. But it’s Italy, so you eat well, the landscape is beautiful, and the people are warm. We met some real characters.

Advice for those seeking to have meaningful travel experiences of their own? How can people get into the spirit of pilgrimage?

First thing I’d say is ‘trust yourself, trust your desires.’ It took over a decade for me to recognize and validate this desire that I’d had to walk in the Appennines–it ripened slowly, I guess. Ask yourself, what impulses do you have, what places speak to you? And then: what would be a next step in turning the dream into reality? Do you need to get a paper map and put it on the wall? To read up on the place in question? There are plenty of practical hurdles, but I suspect for many of us, the biggest hurdle of all is listening to ourselves, to the quiet voice of the heart. That voice is all too easy to override, out of fear or the limiting stories we’ve internalized.

There’s usually fear and uncertainty to face into–what if it’s a disaster, what about the language, etc. Preparation may be required, whether in the form of some language learning or physical training. In my case, I brushed up on my Italian (which I had studied a bit in college) and Julia and I took a number of practice walks with our packs on. And spent a ridiculous amount of energy finding the right footwear. (And good thing we did.)

And then there’s a piece around surrender and trusting the journey, which may have an agenda for you that overrides your agenda for it. There’s a way in which whatever happens on pilgrimage is sacred, even if it’s really difficult.

What kind of difficulties are we talking about?

Well, for example, I had this weird thing happen where I poked my eye on a twig, scratching my cornea, and was semi-blinded for the last two days of our walk. It was painful and very humbling. At times I had let myself be led, eyes closed–and since Julia had broken her glasses, it really was the blind leading the blind [laughs]. When we arrived at La Foresta, the final Franciscan sanctuary in our route, I had a scarf wrapped around my head to protect my eyes from the glare. And it turned out Francis had also had eye problems at that very place, there was a fresco depicting him with his head wrapped like mine (or rather, mine was like his). I think in a way, by walking his path, we were making ourselves available for that sort of resonant experience. Sharing a bit in his mystery, part of which was suffering, and humility. That’s not something you’d consciously choose, but it was meaningful. It was part of the journey.

Another difficulty was in finding food. We were walking in early April, just after the official Covid state of emergency had been lifted in Italy, and not a lot was open. Some towns had no restaurants at all. But there was medicine in that, too. There was always enough. We learned to say ‘yes’ to what was offered and ended up feeling very deeply nourished.

Any other lessons from the trail?

We got a great tip from a German guy who recommended walking backwards on the downhill stretches to give your legs a break. It sounds crazy, but it’s much easier on the knees and quads, and you get the hang of looking over your shoulder. There was something metaphorical in that, since in life we’re essentially walking backwards: we can see where we’ve been more easily than where we’re going.

At one point, though, we got a bit cocky about our backwards-walking skills and ended up missing a turn. We strolled backwards right off our path and ended up visiting an off-trail town where we felt distinctly unwelcome. That was our only brush with anything remotely ominous, and it was an eye opener. Eyes were kind of a theme.

What’s next? Will something else unfold from this experience?

The answer is ‘yes,’ but I don’t know what exactly. I’m definitely hooked on this kind of walking, and plan to make pilgrimage as regular a practice as I can. It fed something deep in me. And one way or another I do hope to share the medicine of some of these places, even if only through writing.

On a personal level, after this trip, I’m carrying a new image with me, a kind of orienting principle: seed-saving. Not just literal seeds but metaphorical ones, nuggets of wisdom and nourishment to bring back and nurture. You have to be willing to go pretty far afield to find such things, and I do feel the pull of a couple other places.

How do you see the seeds you brought home from this trip taking root at Heartward Sanctuary?

I mentioned how the seed-saving is metaphorical, and it is, but I’ve also been much more attuned to literal seeds, more conscious of how I can tend to preserving genetic heritage right here in the Heartward garden. Along those lines, we’ve recently applied and been accepted to the United Plant Savers network of Botanical Sanctuaries, places committed to protecting and promoting plant biodiversity.

And then around food and nourishment, eating habits, taking time for food, Julia and I have been making a real effort to keep that thread of Italian culture alive since returning. It goes against the grain of American culture, it’s actually not that easy to eat well here. But I feel so much more balanced and able to give when I really slow down around food and let myself be nourished deeply. We have some ideas about how to share some of that kind of nourishment with the community in the time to come.

So yeah, very earth element focused for this trip. The next one may be more about water.

You mentioned other places – where else is on your radar screen?

Sardinia has been on my radar screen for a while. It’s technically part of Italy but in reality it’s a place apart. I’m interested in the rugged rural interior of the island where a number of amazing old traditions persist. Some of the local dialects are amazingly close to Latin, and the musical styles sound absolutely ancient–polyphonic singing and this multi-reed pipe that’s a bit like bagpipe without the bag. The carnival celebrations are primal and intense. There are fascinating legends, unique culinary practices, mysterious ruins everywhere…there was a cult of water during the Bronze Age and a few incredible holy wells that remain intact…there’s so much to get into. And the landscape is stunning.

In an ideal world, where pilgrimage is something I could embark on regularly, I’d love to go to Ireland, Southwest England, France, the Caucasus, to return to the Himalaya…one other place I’m drawn is Japan, again to rural and out of the way parts.

Speak any Japanese?

Practically none. And I would want to get at least a foundation in the language before heading there. They’ve got two separate phonetic alphabets plus a few thousand imported Chinese characters so…it’ll be a while. I’m trying to take the long view.

Thank you for sharing from your experience, and ‘buon cammino…’

Buon cammino a Lei. Grazie mille.


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