Seasons of the Soul
Ancestral Pilgrimage: Journeying to Places of Family Significance
Each time I prepare for these journeys with excitement and anticipation, as well as fear and trembling, knowing I will have to confront the shadow sides of my family system. But it is in facing the dark depths that I no longer have to live in fear of them.
"If your journey is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous. Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren't trembling as you approach the sacred, it isn't the real thing. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion," writes Phil Cousineau, in his book The Art of Pilgrimage.
I believe, along with psychologist Carl Jung, that the stories of our ancestors run through our blood and the unhealed wounds and unfulfilled longings continue to propel us forward or keep us stuck in old patterns. The stories of our grandmothers and grandfathers are our stories and we can help to heal the wounds of the past and in the process heal ourselves by telling those stories again, giving voice to the voiceless, unnamed secrets and to the celebrations, insights, and wisdom gathered over time.
Jung introduced us to the concept of the collective unconscious, that vast pool of ancestral memory within each of us. It is a kind of deposit of ancestral experience. He believed it comprises the psychic life of our ancestors right back to the earliest beginnings. Nothing is lost; all of the stories, struggles, and wisdom are available to us. Each of us is an unconscious carrier of this ancestral experience and part of our journey is to bring this to consciousness in our lives. "I became aware of the fateful links between me and my ancestors. I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete or unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors," he wrote.
Consider making a pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of your own ancestors, those everyday saints who struggled with life's heartaches and suffering. Spend time in the places that shaped their imaginations and their dreams; speak the language with which they whispered their most private secrets to one another, the words they used to express their aching sorrow and profound joy. It doesn't matter if you know nothing of the details. Walking, being, listening, and noticing the impact of trees, rivers, mountains, and sky on your own spirit is enough.
A pilgrimage doesn't have to be a long journey overseas. It might be to a nearby cemetery or a phone call with a living relative to ask about stories you have never heard before.
Practices Along the Way
Rather than moving from city to city, or place to place, linger in one place for several days. We are not traveling for the sake of checking destinations off of a list, but to have a genuine encounter with a landscape and culture that might change us.
Keep a journal of what you encounter and experience along the way.
Notice synchronicities and write down your dreams. Often when we are seeking connection with our ancestors, the veil between worlds becomes thinner.
If you have a photo of your ancestor from this place, bring it with you.
Read about the cultural history of the place—what were the events that shape its memory and beliefs?
Learn a few words of the language. Sit in a café off the main tourist route and listen to people engaged in conversation around you. Imagine they are your ancestors. What do you hear?
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.