The Thin Veil

On a chilly day in early April, we ate lunch together on the Duke University campus.  Carol, Cathy, and I were all cancer survivors and now, Relay for Life team members for the Congregation at Duke Chapel.  I told them my plans to take a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland.

“The veil is thin there,” Cathy told me.  She went on to describe this veil as the place between life on earth and the life that awaits.  She’d been present in that space when she sat with critically ill hospital patients who were near death.

Later, I read about that thin place in my book, Iona: A Pilgrim’s Guide by Peter W. Millar.  He says that Rev. George MacLeod, the founder of the ecumenical Christian community of Iona, saw the patterns of weaving vines in Celtic crosses pointing to the intertwining of heaven and earth.   Rev. MacLeod said that Iona itself was a ‘thin place’ where the material and spiritual came close to each other.



I remember experiencing that kind of space when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Having a potentially fatal illness, makes you look more closely at life on earth and life beyond death.  Later, when the crisis had passed, I wished I could stay in that ‘thin space’ in order to keep a proper perspective on life.  I wonder how I’ll experience this at Iona.

Part of me keeps away from any space that’s in between.  Uncertainty raises my anxiety and causes me to feel a bit off-kilter.  When people say of faith, to “live into the mystery” I’m not sure how to do that.  Don’t we all spend our days trying to be more certain?

My solo journeys start with a feeling of stepping into the unknown.  I remember when I traveled to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State.  I chose that destination after I was mesmerized by the movie setting for Snow Falling on Cedars.  Was it foolish to take a trip across the country based on what could be whimsy?

I stayed in Friday Harbor and took the ferry to Orcas Island to hike up Mt. Constitution.  The path coursed through a forest that looked like the one in the movie.  Climbing that mountain gave me time to feel God’s presence and think about the path of my life.


The next day, I took a ferry to Victoria Island, Canada and visited Craigdarroch Castle.  I watched the full moon shine down on the roof with its angles and turrets.  A security guard standing nearby asked me where I was from and how I’d chosen to travel there.  I told him about my solo journeys then asked where he was from, curious because his accent sounded Scottish.

“Well, it’s a long story,” he said.  “Twenty years ago my life turned around when I became a Christian.  I came here from Nova Scotia to make amends with my Dad.”  He went on to say his father died not long after that.

“I’m a Christian, too,” I said.

“I know you are,” he said.  “It’s no accident that you’re here.”

That ‘divine appointment’ made me feel that I was on a path meant for me, that it wasn’t just whimsy.  Now, as I prepare for my trip to Scotland, I’ve been reading the history of the Highland Clearances, how folks were forced off their land and out of the country.  Nova Scotia and North Carolina received some of those immigrants.  I may share a heritage with that security guard whom I met nine years ago.

That ‘thin veil’ of Iona awaits.  I wonder what discoveries I’ll make in that place, what divine appointments there’ll be with the people in my path.


altar for my Iona journey

What about you?

Has there been a time in your life when you’ve experienced that ‘thin place’ between earth and heaven?

How did that experience impact your life?

Have you stepped out into the unknown and later discovered you were on your unique path?

Packing Grandma for Pilgrimage

When I was a girl, my only grandparent was Ola Gilchrist Smith who was my mother’s mother.  She lived on a farm about twenty miles from my house and was a pillar of her small church– Cedar Rock Presbyterian in Harnett County, North Carolina.  There are lots of Presbyterian churches in that area where Highland Scots settled after they entered the state via the Cape Fear River in the mid-seventeen-hundreds.

We spent many Sunday afternoons with Grandma.  Her home was simple with a combination family room-dining room that was furnished with rockers and hardback chairs.  The room was decorated with family pictures, bric-a-brac, and a map of The Holy Land pinned to the wall  She often read her Bible and taught Sunday School Classes and Bible studies.  Grandma was a natural teacher.

When we visited, she sat in her rocker and looked like an old Granny, not like the grandmothers of today.  She was always glad to see you and conversations with her never felt superficial.  Grandma liked to pose a question and let you sit with it.  She’d say, “Now, Connie, what do you think . . . and then ask about a situation, a portion of scripture, or whatever she deemed important at that moment.


There was one question I remember asking her.

“Grandma, if you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

She didn’t take long to respond.

“I’d go to The Holy Land,” she said, “so I could walk in the steps of Jesus.”

I don’t know if Grandma thought of that as going on pilgrimage.  She never took that trip to The Holy Land, but years later, my mother did.  I wonder if Mama thought about Grandma’s desire to go and if Mama felt she was going there for her mother, too?

On my ninth birthday, Grandma gave me my first diary.  How I treasured that little book with a lock.  I began my practice of journaling, going between printing and my first awkward attempts at cursive.  I felt like Grandma validated my thoughts and my writing in choosing that gift.


the treasured gift from Grandma

In thinking about what I need to pack for my upcoming pilgrimage to Iona, I look again to Christine Valters Paintner’s words in The Soul of a Pilgrim.  She speaks of Jesus going into the desert on a pilgrimage where wild beasts and angels are with him.  Paintner calls on her ancestors to assist her on pilgrimages, as saints who travel beside her offering wisdom.  When I think of Grandma accompanying me on the journey, I think of how she planted the seed of interest to go to Scotland by telling me of our Scotch ancestry.  I’ve discovered that her maiden name, Gilchrist, means “servant of Christ” in Gaelic– which she truly was.

My Info sheet for the Abbey states I should bring a Torch as there are no street lights on Iona and I’ll need it for leaving the dormitory at night.  At first, I had the image of fire from a tiki torch and then it came to me, “Oh, they mean a flashlight.”  I put one on my stack of things to pack and decided that a lighted candle will be the third item for my altar.

Grandma lived by Psalm 119:105 (KJV), “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  The candle will be a reminder of the light Grandma provided and how that path is leading me to Iona.



What about you?

Is there an ancestor you carry with you on your pilgrimage?  What wisdom do they provide along the way?

How has their life helped prepare you for the journey?

How will you pay tribute to them when you reach your destination?

Traveling Light

Before my journey to Iona, I’ll spend time traveling with my husband, David.  Our trip together will celebrate being a couple for forty years– thirty-nine of those married. When I take the train from Edinburgh west to Oban, he’ll head to the airport for his flight home.   In a way, I’ll be packing for two trips; what we’ll need for cities and day tours, and what I’ll require for the changing weather of the Hebrides.  From reading travel blogs, researching average temps and rainfall, and talking to people, the advice I’ve received is twofold: wear layers and pack light.

One of the goals of a pilgrim is to travel light.  Pilgrimage is a metaphor for life—we don’t want to carry things that weigh us down.  I’ve certainly been guilty of packing too much on many of my previous journeys.  Sometimes that’s made me more tired and frazzled—trying to keep up with so many items, cluttering my mind and my travel space.  This has been true in my daily life when I’ve taken on too much and eventually felt it was a heavy burden.



I want to be more intentional this time and thoughtfully choose what I’ll carry.  In reading Christine Valters Paintner’s The Soul of a Pilgrim, she points out that in the preparation for pilgrimage there is much letting go that needs to happen.  This is true for choices about tangible items we pack as well as attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and stories we tell ourselves about the journey.  It’s easier to identify our patterns of packing too many clothes than our attitudes we cram into hidden pockets.

Part of my preparation will be self-searching to discover what those attitudes might be.  I know that because of my strong imagination, I sometimes think I know more about a place than I do.  My tendency is to be so excited about an upcoming trip that I overlook the inevitable travel challenges.  Or I could be disappointed because what I’ve seen in movies, read in books, or in posts on social media looks better than what I experience.  It’s hard to go on a milestone trip without high expectations.


London, one of the cities David and I will visit

When we set off on a pilgrimage, we don’t know what we’ll discover.  While the first portion of my trip will not be solo, it’ll be with David, it will be part of the pilgrimage, too.  For many years, a symbol that has been used to represent the pilgrim’s journey is the scallop shell.  In ancient cultures, these shells had practical uses for the traveler as a drinking cup or bowl.  The shell is a rich symbol with its grooves that represent different journeys we take but we all come to the same place.  David and I will be journeying together to a new place with new experiences, then my journey will continue on to Iona.  When we return to North Carolina, we’ll have a new awareness of what home really means.  In pilgrimage, we’re called away and then return to realize that all the while we were traveling to our interior home, which was with us all the time.

To my altar with the Celtic cross, I’ll add a scallop shell.  It will remind me of this journey and what I discover along the way and what I’ll find when I return home.

Scallop shells as symbols of Pilgrimage



How about you?

What items do you need to let go of, tangible and intangible, on your present journey?

What steps can you take toward making your burden light?

How is the scallop shell a symbol for your pilgrimage?


Pilgrimage: Invitation to the Unknown

Pilgrimage is an invitation to the unknown.  This year on my solo journey to Iona, Scotland, I’ll be going to an ancient pilgrimage site.  I’ve reserved my week at the Abbey where I’ll live in an international community of staff and guests.  My information sheet gives me some idea of what it’ll be like; it’s not a retreat with lecturers, or a week of serious-minded conferences with endless discussions (thank goodness!), not a center with meals provided by invisible hands.  We’ll all help in the chores of chopping vegetables, cleaning toilets, washing up and setting tables (sounds like home!).

There’ll be discussions around our theme for the week, “The Pilgrimage of Life.”  These will be led by Alistair McIntosh from Glasgow, originally from the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Services will be held in the Abbey church throughout the week and sometimes guests are invited to take part in preparing and leading services.  There are evening social events as a time of enjoyment and to use whatever talents guests have—and evidently everybody has some talent (hope this won’t be embarrassing!).

Every Tuesday there’s an organized pilgrimage of a seven-mile all day hike around the island (proper walking boots with good ankle support, and waterproofs, are essential!)

All Photos - 1 of 1

Wonder what I’ll discover that week, I think to myself, after reading the information sheet, my first glimpse into being one of the guests.

I know that like previous pilgrimages, it will be a physical journey to a new place, and more importantly, an internal journey to what’s inside of me.  This year, I’ll take my first solo journey outside of North America.  Along with the other guests and staff, I’ll be in a covenant to live together as a community.  My previous journeys have prepared me for Iona.

Living in a community is about sacrificing for the good of the whole.  I’ve stayed in hostels where we shared food, helped each other find needed gear, and gave fellow travelers advice to smooth the journey.  We do that in our home communities—without taking a trip away, by working together in soup kitchens, letting go of petty complaints to make a more peaceful environment, and overlooking differences in political opinions in order to honor our relationships.


Staying in hostels has helped prepare me for Iona.

We can travel to a community that’s foreign to us— by going to another country or by crossing the divide of our city, getting to know those we’ve been separated from by race, affluence, and opportunity.  Either way, God can work in our lives to give us awareness of what that physical place is like, whether it’s the capricious weather changes of the Hebrides, or seeing our city from a different vantage point.

To prepare my heart for this pilgrimage, I’ll use Christine Valters Paintner’s suggestion in The Soul of a Pilgrim and create a space in my home as a retreat area– a special place of prayer.  This space will be dedicated to the journey ahead.  We can all do this, whether it’s for the journey into each day or for a pilgrimage to a faraway place.  She suggests placing a meaningful symbol or two on the altar of the retreat area.

On my altar, I’ll place a copper Celtic cross that I purchased at the gift store of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.  It reminds me of my first pilgrimage and how I felt grounded in God’s presence at that time of upheaval in my life.  I remember lighting candles and saying prayers for my future in the quiet space of that magnificient chapel.  Now, sixteen years later and preparing for my fourteenth journey, I’ll pray for Iona.  How will I experience God’s call in that unfamiliar Celtic community founded by an Irish monk?  I’ll see as I take each step along this pilgrim path.


How about you?

Are you being called to a pilgrimage in your community or in a faraway place?

How can you create a retreat space where you can prepare for that journey?

What meaningful symbols will you place on your altar?

Scotland Calling

In one month, I’ll take off on my yearly solo journey.  This time Scotland is calling me to the ancient and sacred island of Iona located in the Inner Hebrides.  Ten years ago, the seed was planted when I was in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  Riding the island shuttle bus, I met a man from Glasgow and we had an interesting conversation about country music and Scotch Presbyterians.  He described the stunning beauty of the remote islands of the Hebrides, and the deep-rooted faith of his sister and others who lived there.  Later, I said to myself, “Maybe I’ll go there on a journey some day.”


The shores of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland

Yearly solo journeys have become intentional pilgrimages for me.  They started with that serendipitous trip to Sedona that interrupted my struggle with the toxic job and breast cancer.  During that time, I experienced the freedom and transformation of moving to God’s spirit in an unfamiliar place that led me to a deeper knowledge of myself.

Later, I landed on the right book at the right time when I discovered Phil Cousineau’s work, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred.  I learned that my journey had the elements of a pilgrimage.  Cousineau taught me, that even travel through your day if experienced with an intentional focus, can be a pilgrimage or “a transformative journey to a sacred center.”  We don’t need a passport for that. 

Recently, I found Christine Valters Paintner’s book, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within.  In preparing for Iona, I’m using these steps and will build them into my upcoming posts.  While my journey is intentional, Paintner points out that there are also unintentional pilgrimages.  We all have experience with journeys we would not choose, like cancer or other illnesses, divorce, care of an ailing parent– just to name a few.  While we don’t intentionally choose those paths, we do make the choice of how we walk them, whether they’re meaningful and soulful journeys or times of bitterness and unmet longing.


The Right Books at the Right Time

Our family has had the unintentional pilgrimage of journeying through our mother’s dementia.  We’ve experienced seasons of grief in our slow loss of her former self, and have been surprised by joy in new ways of knowing her.  I’ve seen aspects of myself in responding to Mama’s changes, that have been both pleasing and disappointing.  It has truly been a journey into the unknown, a foreign land where you walk by faith and not by sight, never knowing what is just around the bend.  The only thing I’m certain of is that God has been faithful each step of the way.  We’ve had people in our path that have helped us and we’ve seen Mama bring light to others through her sweet smile and loving presence.

If she could understand that I’m preparing for Scotland, she’d be excited– except for the part about me going solo.

Years ago when I shared my plans to travel to Sedona, she asked, “Who’s going with you?”  When I said that I was traveling by myself, she responded, “It’s not safe for a woman to travel alone.”

I saw that determined, I’m-your-Mama look on her face and knew there was only one way to settle this.

“I won’t be alone,” I said.  “God will be with me.”

She was quiet for a moment, then responded, “Well, you’ll be in the best of hands.  But be careful.”

I’ll continue to prepare for the pilgrimage to Iona, knowing I’ll have to leave Mama behind.  She’ll be in the best of hands.  And so will I.


Mama in her journey at Parkview

How about you?

Are you feeling the call to take a journey?  How can your trip become a pilgrimage?

Is there an unintentional journey that you’re on that’s making you feel trapped and bitter?  Is there a way to reframe this experience and make it more meaningful and soulful?

It’s About the Future

I sat on a rock overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains on that Sunday morning in September.  In the stillness that was shrouded in fog, I felt the burden of trudging through cancer treatment and my toxic job.  I prayed for God to lift me out of that pit, and waited for some sign that God was listening.  Eventually, the answer came in that ‘still small voice’ in the words, “It’s About the Future.”

I continued sitting there, wondering what this message meant for me.  I thought about the future when I was first diagnosed, asking God to spare my life.  With my aggressive treatment regimen, my oncologist was confident that I’d be okay—and I believed him.  But where I mired down, was in feeling that my future would continue as daily struggle with my health and my career.  It was hard to look beyond my present.  How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?


How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?

The answer didn’t come that morning on the mountain.  In fact, that message became a question that stayed with me; what is it you want me to see in the future, God?  There was a sense that I wasn’t to stay in my present state of anxiety.  While that conversation with God didn’t change the fact that I had to return home to chemo and work, I did feel lighter—like God was starting to pull me up from the pit.

I continued to look for the meaning to be revealed.  It seemed that God was showing me to avoid getting bogged down in the negative climate at work.   It was a temporary place. I was to do my best while I was there, but eventually I’d move on.  With my cancer regimen, I should focus on the treatment in front of me, engaging with the infusion staff and the family and friends who accompanied me.  I would be present to the moment but moving toward the future.

By April I’d finished treatment.  I was tired from the radiation, but now I could fly to a research meeting in Arizona.  Afterwards I took my journey to Sedona then traveled on to the Grand Canyon.  That evening, I watched the sun setting over the South Rim and was reminded of that morning in the Smokies.


Watching a hawk flying near the canyon walls, I remembered the message, It’s about the Future, and this time there was more:  Don’t be weighed down by what’s happening now.  Get through today but look ahead to the future I’m providing for you.

I remembered Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Hope and a Future.  This was a promise of God’s faithfulness to see me through, to pull me from the pit and place my feet on a solid rock.  I couldn’t see the future God had for me, but I did feel assured with that promise.

Eventually, a way was provided from that job to one in a healthy environment.  The cancer treatment was successful and I’ve had years of being cancer free.  There have been times I’ve gotten bogged down again, but I hear that same message and know to keep moving.  Those steps forward have led me to solo journeys that have become pilgrimages for my soul.

Years later, in my future, I sat on the banks of Lake Champlain in Vermont and remembered that message.  The answer had now come to me fully;  Stay in God’s presence each moment and He will lead you to the Future, one that is filled with Hope.


What about you?

Have you had times of being so weighed down in struggle you couldn’t see a hopeful future?

How could you find your way to greater hope?

What resources are available to help you when you feel overwhelmed?


Frontier of Silence

Last summer I took my solo journey to Kentucky where I had a two-week writer’s residency at Artcroft.  It was very quiet there in the countryside without the noise of television, wi-fi, or conversation– since there was no other artist joining me.  The only interruption to the silence was an occasional bird call, mooing cow, or vehicle passing by on the dirt road outside my gatehouse.

The days I stayed in to write instead of driving to the Paris-Bourbon library, I felt myself slow down to the pace of silence.  It reminded me of a word I first learned when I read the book When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd.  In her story, she tells of her season of waiting– as if she was in a cocoon and knew she couldn’t rush the process.  She learns from her mentor, Dr. Beatrice Bruteau, the meaning of the word entrainment.

“It’s the phenomenon of two rhythmic beings gradually altering their movements until they’re moving together in the same rhythm,” Dr. Bruteau tells her and gives examples of pendulums, crickets, and people talking.  “We tend to align ourselves with the rhythm and pace around us.”


We align ourselves with the rhythm and pace around us.

I felt that Dr. Bruteau became my mentor, too, as I read that book and considered the frenetic pace of my life.  As a nurse in a middle school, I worked in an environment of constant adolescent chatter, as well as staff and students rushing about the chaotic hallways.  When I left work, I played music on my drive.  Once home, I often turned on the television to watch the news or listen to some show while cooking dinner.  Sometimes on my evening walks, I made phone calls.

I keep myself immersed in noise, I realized.  No wonder the quiet of my new Kentucky home was so unfamiliar.  At first, I was a bit restless, wanting some background music to keep me from feeling unsettled and alone.  It reminded me of the awkwardness I experienced when I began taking solo journeys.  Over time, with each successful trip completed, the unfamiliar became familiar and even comfortable.  Silence could be the same way.

Once I let go of my restlessness, I saw that time seemed to expand when you allowed the day to be quiet.  I paid attention to nature’s cycle with the sun rising and setting, and the moon announcing the end to my day’s labor.  I could dive deeper into writing my memoir without distracting sounds.  Years before when in college, I discovered that I studied most efficiently with better recall when isolated in a library study carrel.  All these years later and I was rediscovering the benefit of solitude and silence.


My new Kentucky home

During my stay at Artcroft, I grew more comfortable with silence.  I wasn’t startled by the sounds of animals or the occasional car traveling past my home that interrupted that still space.  The days when I used the library wi-fi, I noticed that compared to the house, the library was almost noisy.

When I traveled back to North Carolina, I realized that the boon, or blessing that I returned with, was a new capacity for silence.  I planned to be more intentional in how I created the space around me.  It took going west to find a land of silence and I wanted to make that discovery a part of every day of my life.

What about you?

Do you keep yourself immersed in noise?

How would it impact your life to have more silence in your day?

What are ways you could take control in creating a more quiet environment?

Finding the Divine in the Everyday

The evening after my third chemotherapy, I was lying on my bed and barely able to lift my head.  My nausea and fatigue had increased with the cumulative impact of the medicine.  It was distressing to think I had to go through three more infusions, scheduled once every three weeks, and after that thirty radiation treatments.  In my cast down state, I turned to the Psalms my go-to book of the Bible.  I identified with the cries of the Psalmist and had just enough concentration for the pithy verses.

Thumbing through the chapters, the first portion of Psalm 86:1 (NIV) caught my attention: “Give me a sign of your goodness.”  I could think of nothing good, only the daily strain of dealing with cancer treatment, trying to maintain our home life, and struggling with my job.  In the darkness of that hour, all I could do was pray the Psalm, “God, give me a sign of your goodness.”


Give Me A Sign of Your Goodness

I wondered if that prayer would make any difference, given my situation.  I found myself changing “Give” to “Show me your goodness.  Was it because I needed the eyes of my heart opened?

I waited and watched, almost like I was daring God to do something.  Some of me was dug in, determine to be despondent—like I could get something good from a martyr’s stance.  Finally, I began to notice what could be answers to that prayer.

In my mailbox arrived a stack of “Thinking of You” cards that matched the number of medical bills.  A co-worker offered to help me sort through the insurance statements that totally overwhelmed me.  A friend called to invite me to go to the mountains for the weekend.

Some days nature was the provider of that goodness; our Heavenly Blue morning glory vine delighting me with a mass of those stunning blooms; my Golden Retriever, Molly snuggling next to me as we sat together on the porch; a beautiful walk at sunset with a horse neighing as a blue heron landed over a neighbor’s pond.  All of these reminded me of the steadfast beauty of creation, how nothing could change that.


My first Golden, Molly

While it’s been years now since those days of cancer treatment, I still look to that Psalm when I lose my way.  When I’m discouraged and everything seems to be a challenge, I try to remind myself to step back, take a moment, and pray for a sign of God’s goodness.

I’ve thought about whether God causes new things to show up, or were those things present all along—waiting for me to have the eyes to see?  I think maybe it’s both.

When I’m listening for God’s direction in my life, through that ‘still small voice’ inside of me, sometimes I’m directed to do things for others.  I get the nudge to make a phone call, an impulse to send a card, the courage to approach that stranger that God has put in my path.  The longer I live, the more I see that when I, and others, follow that intuition—that leading from within, people receive what they needWhen I’m moving in my own direction and paying attention only to my agenda, some of these needs undoubtedly go unfulfilled.

By opening the eyes of my heart, God prepares me to receive the gift that will meet my need.  While these things may seem very everyday—the phone call, a colorful sunset, the comfort of your dog, they become Divine because their source is our Creator and they are a healing balm for our souls.


What about you?

Have you seen God’s goodness show up in the Everyday when you most needed it?

How did that sign make a difference in the direction of your life?

Have your actions supplied that Divine sign for someone?