How Pilgrimages Can Be the New/Old Life Transformation Practice

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 14 seconds

Yesterday I began wondering about the plot of the movie in which I am starring. Some scripts came to mind. But I have found another which has more integrity and authenticity.

The Pilgrimage Model

While doing some work for Fairfield United Church I ran across a framework first suggested to me by Vanessa Hammond. Both theological and practical, the eight stage structure is that of a pilgrimage. The model fits my current physical and spiritual state, providing guidance and sequence to my wondering.

Discernment probes the matter of heart’s desire. What is it I really want from this time? This requires such honesty that it is difficult for me to sit with this question for very long at any one time.

Preparation requires facing the question: What do I really need (not want) now? What needs to be put “in order” because I will never return to my former life. For me, on a practical love, this requires a sorting and shedding of books and files and mustering the courage to enter the spiritual and physical storage areas where I have simply stuffed things to be dealt with later. Now is the later. Plus larger matters hover. How long should we plan to stay in the house?

Departure involves both blessing and intentionality. My family, friends and colleagues have provided ample blessing and encouragement for me to “get on with it.” Intentionality means I will actually leave some old habits, practices and sources of identity behind in order to face a new future. I step away from the comfortable and predictable. Not sure I like this part!

Separation means moving out of the familiar. Part of this comes with retirement. The regular cheque no longer arrives. I seldom HAVE to be anywhere. Sundays are no longer the inflexible axle around which the week revolves. Even caring for grandchildren has more flexibility.

Travelling means I need to commit to and enact some new things. On a management level, this means my wife and I actually have to sit and shape the calendar so that dates for things to which we have said “yes” do not just appear like popcorn. Two, three-hour commitments, eight days apart can rule out two weeks of potential physical travel, for example. Travelling means it is also time to “fish or cut bait” on some practices and dreams that have too easily been excused because of lack of time. Am I going to do it or not or just simply dream/fantasize about it?

Communitas requires paying attention to the new group of people with whom I travel. Many previous companions simply came with the work; now the trek may bring new and unexpected mates. Will a glimpse of a new purpose emerge as I become part of a new gang waddling along?

Arrival. I do not know whether the model works at this stage. Does one ever arrive? Perhaps that complex of new relationships, patterns, and foci that settle in after a few years of retirement might be called an arrival. I don’t know.

Moving Forward. My hope is that this stage will mark much of the rest of this chapter. What I learn from the first 7 stages will set the direction for the next few years and then, perhaps, the pilgrimage begins again.

Graphic: Vanessa Hammond

This pilgrimage model is a good model.

I like it better than the more neutered word “transition” because I feel this time can be more than just a natural progression, like getting grey hair. (And because of this, I think it also fits the state of many congregations. But more on that another time.)

Pilgrimage is more than a tourist journey or a stroll in the park. This powerful practice can help reset a life.

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Like all pilgrimages, I do not expect this time to be a stroll in the park. There will be chafing, blisters, soreness, a discovery and testing of limits.

However, it is also true that possibilities exist; deep yearnings need to be identified; and attention given to the sacred.

Q: If you thought of your life as a pilgrimage, which stage would most accurately describe your current state?


  1. I too have just retired. So glad are open with your process of pilgrimage.
    My fear is being swept along by others needs and never getting past the discernment stage.

  2. I am planning a trip to Mexico in January and February because I really dislike the weather here in that time of year and always have. I finally asked myself what’s stopping us from being gone then and came up with the recognition that the answer is: Nada!

    So that meant I should go to Mexico, a place where I also have declared I would stay away from having being resorted to death. But I remembered Gene Miller telling me about the amazing city, Guanajuato and showed me a video he had produced about being there. This is not a tourist city. It’s beautiful, cultured, with very scenic surroundings, and it’s not expensive, thanks to airbnb.

    So here’s the point I’m coming to: This is turning into a kind of pilgrimage. We are panning to learn some Spanish this fall through classes. I am setting up conditions to connect with care clowns in that city and will likely take my clown along (He is easily hurt when left at home too long.) I want to also connect with some meditators there and I want to explore the beauty of the place, since beauty is a topic I am interested in with respect to where the understanding of beauty originates in human history. There’s more to all this story but enough may have been reached. Thanks to Keith for this idea. It has provided a new context for what this trip will mean (I have already thought of returning and also….well, uh, what if I don’t want to come back?) More later.

  3. Hi Keith, thanks for this blog post and the question. I’m guessing that most of us are engaged in multiple pilgrimages at the same time. So what stage we are at would depend on which of the pilgrimages we were thinking about.

    For myself I am constantly “separating” in order to “travel” and each new departure creates “communitas”. But that’s my perpetual circle. “Arrival” does not seem to be in the cards. Your model hints at one journey completing itself before another begins and that is not my experience. Mine tend to be concentric circles.

    Perhaps my satisfaction with the continuous circle is the wonderful people that I get to journey with. Perhaps I’m not anxious enough to arrive anywhere, I wonder.

    1. Thanks Gordon. You are correct that the length of time people spend at arrival varies considerably. ?

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