We Gather

We gather.  Forty-one of us from around the world, pilgrims to Iona, Scotland.  We share stories of our lives, in one-to-one conversations across the table, in our dorm rooms as we prepare for the day, in dyads during morning sessions.  How interesting what has brought each person to this place– all unique yet with the common thread of seeking.

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We share our life together in our work through our chore assignments.  I’m in the Seal group and we ‘lay up’ the dinner meal.  I tell the others that where I’m from a lay up is one way to make a basketball shot.  At the Abbey it means setting the table– a long wood rectangular table with wood benches on either side and chairs at each end.  A seal sits in each chair and serves all the guests and then cleans off the plates.  The refectory hall where we eat is quite noisy with all the chatter of people making new friends.  Afterwards, we share in handwashing all the dishes.  I know my family and friends will laugh at me doing this job, which I’m known for hating.

Actually, the task isn’t so bad. We all work until the job is done and the young volunteer from Uganda often sings.  She has a quick and beautiful smile and will be leaving soon to return to her country to get married.  She told me my turquoise scarf is the color of her wedding dress that the women back home are making for her.

The food has been excellent– except for the porridge.  If I were home, my oatmeal would be much tastier with lots of cinnamon, walnuts, and dried cranberries.  Each day we have soup at lunch with homemade bread, jams, peanut butter, fruits and vegetables with hummus.  We have meat every-other-day.  It’s so different eating meals in a community compared to eating alone or with just my husband.  Sometimes I prefer the chatter, and other times I’d like to have the quiet.

I feel an affinity for this group– all with an appreciation for being open to how God is showing us our path.  Our speaker, Alistair McIntosh is originally from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  He brings the history of Celtic Spirituality to life with his dramatic voice and his long laugh.  I’d read his book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage, before I left on my trip and now I can hear his voice reading it.

Yesterday, many of us took a six-hour hike to the significant historic sites from the days of St. Columba.  The wind is a constant force here– some days more fierce than others, and on our hike it was at about 30 miles an hour when we climbed to the highest point.  The view was stunning looking out over the rocky outcroppings, to the machair or common grazing land that goes down to the edge of the water, the Atlantic stretching out below.  I touched the water and imagined all the times I’ve experienced that same water on the Carolina shore.

I’ve tried to stay with my intention to be present, to absorb what’s around me, and to be open to this experience.  As I stood on top of that high point yesterday, I was struck by the vastness of the world before me, both the physical space of the wide Atlantic and the relationships I’m building with my fellow residents– from Holland, Austrailia, New Zealand, Latvia, Idaho, Minnesota, England, Scotland, Canada, Mexico, and Wales.

How beautiful it is, to hear all their voices, their accents as we sing the simple songs of faith in our worship in the ancient stone chapel.  I feel deeply blessed to be one of the gathered in this special place.

(Please excuse this rushed post.  Pictures aren’t loading but you can see them on my Author Facebook page at Saved by Sedona–thanks so much! Connie   p.s. must rush back to the Abbey to ‘lay out’ dinner!)

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Arrival on my Pilgrim’s journey

Path to Iona

We parted in Edinburgh–David for the airport and I  headed for Waverly Train station.   The remainder of our trip together we were able to do the things we planned, just more slowly and with more caution.  I felt that tension of transition, saying “Goodbye”to David, praying for his travel with a crutch, and moving into  my role as solo traveler.

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We say our goodbyes in Edinburgh

Now I joined those pilgrims from other  places, stepping  onto the path to  Iona.

My seat to Oban was  across the table from a  very friendly  Scottish  couple, Agnes and  David. He lifted my  luggage  into the overhead  bin and  was eager to share  information about places along our route.  He was an avid golfer and loved seeing my photos of my son’s  course near Charleston.  Agnes eventually warmed to the conversation and by our destination, showed me pictures of  their seven grandchildren.

We said goodbyes and wished each other safe travels.  I hurried to the ferry ticket office, heeding the caution in my instructions from the Iona Abbey to not  linger at the  nearby shops.  Once on the boat, I found a  quiet spot, needing the  fresh air and solitude after a richly stimulating morning.

After the forty-five minute ferry ride, I climb aboard the West Coast bus to Fionnphort.  We crossed the isle of Mull with its stunning and remote beauty, rarely a house  in  view, hills dotted in white, sheep grazing on the brownish-green grass and other vegetation.  After riding  more than an hour, we arrive at  our destination.

My lodging for the next two nights  is Seaview B & B that overlooks  the sound. I can  see Iona and think, I’m really  here.  After all my dreaming, planning, praying– I’m now at the  threshold of Iona and my week of living in the  community of the Abbey.

I’m glad I have some time to rest before  I enter that  space.  John and Jane, who own the B & B, are  wonderful hosts.   Jane prepares  a  delicious  dinner of lamb and potatoes on my first  night and  a hearty  and  tasty breakfast both  mornings.  John describes himself as  “the chatty  one” and provides essential information, including  to take  the early ferry this morning  when I departed.  High winds may  shut  the  ferry down in the afternoon.

The crew prepare  for the walkers and one car to board  the  ferry.  I look across  to  the Abbey and wonder; what will it be like to live in a community  for a week?  how will I fit in? how will I manage with no possible escape route  like I usually  have  on my journeys?   Like  before, I just  have to step forward  in  faith, trusting this as  the  right path for me.

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I’ll end  this post  early and ask readers to  understand that  it’s been difficult to post this  in real time– spotty  wifi, problems loading current pictures, using a tablet keyboard with so  many problems.   I’ll  post a day  early while I can.  But I persist because  I want  you  to join me  on my journey and  make it yours.   We take  the path to Iona and through life together.

Peace to  you.

 

Tea at Two

Tea at Two.  That’s what we’d agreed on, my new online friend and me, fellow breast cancer survivors from either side of the pond.  We’d have tea near my hotel at Hyde Park in London.  I was excited to meet her in person and to have a real British teatime.  I envisioned a table covered in a linen cloth and a floral teapot and cups.  She’d have to advise me on which tea to choose– since I’m naturally a coffee connoisseur.  I assumed they’d serve scones– hopefully ones with berries.

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But that’s not what happened.

Everything had been going so well– David and I enjoying our first experience of Paris.  By Friday evening, with tired legs from hopping on and off the bus, we would end our visit with a night view of the city from atop the Montparnasse Skyscraper.  We rode the elevator to the fifty-sixth floor and then climbed the two flights of stairs to the observation deck.

Wow, what a view, I thought as we observed the city from such a different vantage point. I felt deeply satisfied that all my planning had payed off.  We watched the Eiffel tower burst forth like sparklers on the fourth of July– much more than ‘twinkling’ like someone had described.  David saw a news update on his phone that London was on high alert for a terrorist threat after an explosive went off in the subway system.  I won’t let anything ruin our wonderful time, I thought to myself, and focused on the sparkling tower, refusing to worry about our trip the next afternoon to London.

It was time to leave and we took the steps slowly– David complaining that his knee was hurting.  Right when we were about to reach the bottom of the first flight, he missed his last step and turned his knee.

I heard him cry out.  Later he told me he saw white light and felt like he would faint from the pain.  After he caught his breath, we slowly made it down to the street and to the taxis for a quick ride to the hotel.  I was dumbfounded by our sudden change. I switched into my automatic ‘school nurse mode’ and thought we have to get him off his feet– elevate, ice, and rest his left knee.  Right when I get the ice pack in place, I see a message on my phone.  My friend can’t meet on Monday for tea; she’s had something unexpected to interfere.

Ironic that I’ve had something unexpected, too, I thought.  I’d done everything for David that was familiar, but the greater challenge was how I was going to handle the unfamiliar; seeking medical care with him immobile, using travel/medical insurance in another country, canceling and rescheduling reservations for the train and hotel in London.  Would he need to fly back early?  And what about my solo journey, would I need to cancel it?  My mind tends to think first of the worst scenario– and that was certainly true that night as I tried to go to sleep.  My prayer was that God would help me to stay present, focus on just what I needed to do one moment at the time.

The next morning, the hotel desk clerk told me about the SOS Medecins– doctors who made house calls.  She contacted them and within an hour a physician knocked on our door.  He provided prescriptions and notes to authorize an extension of our Paris stay– giving me the paperwork the insurance company required.  Afterwards, I set out, to pick up the meds and crutches and then to buy food for lunch.  We’d planned to have a picnic in Luxembourg Garden’s, but that wouldn’t happen now.

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London had to wait

With the cool, fresh air and the streets bustling with Saturday, my mood brightened.  Things were working out, not as I’d hoped, and not ideally for David who’d been in pain. And they continued to work out, with our extra night in Paris, and our brief stay in London.  I was sorry that our trip had been impacted by David’s injury, and sorry that I didn’t get to have that tea time with a new friend.

But injuries, like illnesses, make you slow down and force you to be present.  We’ll always remember this trip, and how one mis-step changed everything and we went through it together.

 

 

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Paris Can’t Wait

Paris Can’t Wait.  That’s what my friend, Jennifer, named the Pinterest board she created for me.  Madame Sparrow has been my friend for sixteen years since I met her at our middle school.  She had lived in France for twelve years and taught French to our middle schoolers.  Over the past months she’s been educating me and inspiring me.  Now it’s time for the student to use what the teacher has given her.

My husband, David, and I make it to our hotel in a dazed state, mostly unable to sleep on the flight.  I’m glad he’s with me for this leg of my journey, not only for time together but for the security of not traveling alone.  David’s been brushing up on French phrases, and I see his pleasure at reviving his language skill from years ago, a stellar French student in college.  We set out in search of strong coffee and fresh air.

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a much needed expresso

I’ve had a feeling, the ‘still small voice of God’ speaking to me that has said to be patient, present, and to just absorb what’s going on.  I want to enjoy being with my husband, and I want him to enjoy France.  There’s always a pressure when you go to a new place to cram in too much activity.  I’ll let him take the lead now, and try to curb my tendency to just take off.

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David considering dinner options

We start out in the neighborhoods near our hotel.  I find it hard to focus on following the map because I’m awestruck by the beautiful architecture, the ancient buildings that are dappled in early afternoon light.  We make several navigational errors trying to find Luxemburg Gardens and right when we find the entrance, David has a call from a colleague.  He moves to a spot under the trees to talk while I admire a statue flanked by flowers.  I think to myself,  Really, you can’t leave him alone.  He’s a psychologist and in our thirty-nine years of marriage work calls have frequently interrupted our time.  I feel my irritation rise and then I remember– Stay present, be patient.

The call doesn’t take a long time.  One of the adolescents he works with had to be seen for an emergency evaluation by the colleague.  He’s very conscientious, so responsible.  Part of the reason I married him.

The gardens are lovely in the mid-afternoon light.  So many statues with plantings in multiple hues and textures that enhance the total picture.  We stroll up and down the neighborhoods with buildings that have tall shuttered windows and interesting balconies.  We hear tolling of bells and realize we’ve made it to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  We enter the worship area to hear the mass in French.  While I don’t understand the words, it’s lovely to hear the passionate words flow beautifully in the native tongue.

We’re both tired with aching feet from concrete and cobblestones.  I’m ready to eat and to try a cafe’ near the hotel.  But David wants to stop in a shop in the Latin Quarter to find a beret.  Do we have to do this now, I think, my hunger alarm sounding and my patience used up.  He tells me a man who runs their office cleaning service has asked him to find a navy beret, size large.  David searches that store and another and finds a beret.  He is happy that his quest has been satisfied and I am happy that I have remembered David’s kind and generous heart.

I have benefitted from Madame Sparrow’s introduction to Paris, and from the reminders on this journey with my husband of some of the reasons I fell in love with him forty years ago.

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Go Fund Me

Today I take off on my trip and feel deeply grateful.  I remember back to the end of March when I retired.  Our school staff and my nursing colleagues honored me and later there was another party with friends.  What I didn’t expect was a surprise party given by my family.  I was shocked and speechless– a rare state for me.  When I learned that my younger son had set up a Go Fund Me page for my travel, I was totally overwhelmed.  All I could say was, “But I’m not having a transplant!”

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Me and Madison on the Go Fund Me page

He wanted to make it easy for family and friends to donate toward the travel I’d dreamed of– a trip to Europe with my husband followed by my pilgrimage to Iona.  Now I think of all those who’ve given money, encouragement, prayers, and advice to help with this journey.

I’m praying for God’s protection as we travel and for my family back home.  I feel a tug at leaving Mama, ninety-four and in the nursing home.  It’s always a bittersweet time when I tell her “bye” at the end of a visit.  She doesn’t understand where I’m going or how long I’ll be gone.  While physically she’s pretty healthy for her age, I know that one day when I tell her bye, it’ll be for the last time.  It always gives me pause when I hug and kiss her, look back at her sitting in her wheelchair, and tell myself it’s time to leave.

When I started working on travel plans, I was concerned about leaving Madison.  At over thirteen-years-old, I knew she could have problems.  After a sudden illness, she died in July– while I was home.  I’ve missed my sweet dog; the clicking of her paws on our wooden floor, her excitement when we made popcorn and she heard the pinging against the lid of the pot, taking walks with her gracefully prancing like a young girl.  At least I don’t have to worry about her while we’re away.

Last Sunday I attended my church, Duke University Chapel, and after receiving the sacraments of communion, I stepped into the small memorial chapel to dedicate my trip.  Lighting a candle, I was reminded of doing the same thing at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona.  On that first solo journey, I prayed about moving forward from cancer and the toxic job.  Sixteen years later, I watched the flame from the votive and prayed for my travel with my husband and pilgrimage to Iona.

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I knelt at the altar and our minister annointed me with oil and placed his hand on my shoulder.  While he prayed over me, the choir was singing and the pipe organ filled that gothic space, a crescendo of blessing.  In that moment, I felt like part of the church universal, joining with pilgrims from ancient times receiving a blessing for the journey.

My heart is full as I depart, thinking of all who have ‘funded’ me with bountiful gifts from my community of support; family and friends who’ve contributed money for my travel, those who’ve offered travel advice and cautions; a Pinterest board created to help us enjoy Paris; a floral umbrella to cover me during the UK rain; a multi-colored scarf to keep me warm and remember friendships; a picture book of the Hebrides to enjoy the islands even before I arrive; journals to record my thoughts and feelings.

I think of my Go Fund Me community of support, and while I’m not having a medical crisis, I have been blessed by accepting these gifts from the people in my path.

I go forth in Peace.

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I place my Thanksgiving on my journey altar.

How About You?

Have you been the recipient of the gifts from a community of support?

How did that change your life?

What are gifts that you provide to others?/

The Path of the Storm

I ran my travel errands amid the reports of Hurricane Irma approaching Florida and two other storms, Jose and Katya, also churning the waters.  Watching the predictions of Irma’s path, I’m focused on Atlanta and Charleston, the two cities where my sons live, and then I watch for our area of central North Carolina.  Besides buying water and canned goods for hurricane preparation, I pick up my order of euros and pounds from the bank and stand in line at the post office to stop mail service.  I have an unsettled feeling about the storm, but some of that restlessness is about leaving on a journey.

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The critical voice in my head has been growing louder, saying, “Why did you plan a trip in September when hurricanes are most likely?”  The gentle voice responds, “You’ve always wanted to travel in September, and now you can.”  This year, when I felt the pull to go to Iona for my pilgrimage, I looked up the themes they had for the Abbey.  The last offering for the year in the last week of September was, “The Pilgrimage of Life.”  I said to myself, “That’s perfect.”

I’ll celebrate my retirement from twenty years of school nursing by taking a trip in September—the month that had been the hardest in that job.  First, my husband and I will celebrate forty years as a couple—thirty-nine of those married, by traveling to Paris, London, and Edinburgh.  We’ll part in Scotland.  He’ll return to the States while I’ll board a train for Oban and on from there to Iona.

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So now, I feel pulled wanting to go and wanting to stay.  I’ve experienced that same tension with other journeys when there was no hurricane.  Some of it’s the feeling of wanting to hunker down at home and stay safe, to not push myself to travel to the unknown.

I return to Christine Valters Paintner’s The Soul of a Pilgrim.  She talks about how going on a pilgrimage is in part a practice of being uncomfortable.  While my solo journey to Iona will start when I board the train in Edinburgh, the beginning of the pilgrimage really starts at home with the anticipation and preparation.  Whether it’s our trip together or my subsequent journey in Iona, it would be tempting to think of only the good things.  People tell us how lucky we are and how much fun it’ll be.  And that’s how we all like to think of travel, of journeys away from our everyday life.  Paintner points out that we’re often taught that we should just feel happy when in actuality, we have ambiguity and contradictions in our experience.

Getting ready for any trip away from the safety of our home routines can be anxiety producing—even when there’s no threatening hurricane.  There will be wonderful experiences in Europe with my husband, but there will also be times of tension and frustration, of tiredness and wishing we were in the easy routines of home.

The best I can do, or we can do as a couple, is to embrace what each moment has to offer.  Right now, I have to accept the uncertainty.  I can’t jump ahead to knowing the impact of the storm, if we’ll have to alter our travel plans, if it will change the course of our trip.

I will put my anxiety on my pilgrimage altar and pray for each step into the unknown, to know the assurance of the still small voice of God that leads me on the path.

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putting all my worries on the altar

What about you?

Do you experience anxiety when you’re preparing to leave on a journey?

How do you handle the pull to go and the pull to stay?

How can you embrace the ambiguities of life with gentleness and acceptance?

Chicken Man of Chincoteague

I wanted a picture of the sign by the road, my final snapshot from my journey to Chincoteague Island, Virginia.  It would be a gift for my chicken-loving-friend in Baltimore.  Pulling out my camera, a man came over to me.

“Mind if I take a picture of your sign?”

“It’ll cost you some silver,” he said, and a grin spread across his face.

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the person in my path

We stood there in the noon heat of that July day and he told me about his life on the island.  What an easy manner he had.  His description of living there made me wish I could be a part of that community.  I started each day of my journey praying for the ‘people in my path’ and this man, while his name was Joe, has been set in my memory as the ‘Chicken Man.’  His lighthearted manner brought me joy that day.

From taking thirteen journeys, I’ve met many interesting people.  Our conversations have opened me to new ways of viewing life.  Some have been from other countries and have given me a glimpse of their cultural perspective.  Others have done things that have helped me as a solo traveler.

This was never more true than when I became acutely ill from altitude sickness in Colorado Springs.  I rode the Pike’s Peak Cog Rail train to 11,500 feet, and literally lost it, throwing up and becoming weak with fever and chills.  Embarrassed but relieved, I curled into a fetal position with my coat pulled close until we finished the ride.  Staggering off the train, I took the soda the gift store clerk offered me and rested until I could make it to my rental car.  How I wished my husband was with me to drive back to the guest house.

For the remainder of that day and the next, I barely left my room, sleeping from the extreme tiredness that accompanied my low-grade fever and headache.  Barely awake from my in-and-out sleep, I heard a scraping sound just outside my second-floor window.  I looked out to the snowy parking lot and saw the owner of the guesthouse scraping the ice from my windshield.  He knew I had to leave early the next morning.  What an act of kindness.

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Not only a great cook, a kind man

On another trip, I remember a young college-age girl, Angela, who was working as a wrangler at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.  She was one of the summer staff who directed the trail rides.  She was quite competent in her horseback riding skills being a competitive barrel racer.  I told her I really wanted to ride, but was afraid since I hadn’t been on a horse in over twenty years.  She told me she would be right there to help me.

When my huge horse, Tequila, tried to push out in front of the others, Angela took control and coaxed Tequila back into the line.  With Angela riding behind me, we were able to talk.  She shared with me about her father’s cancer and feeling guilty that she wasn’t back home with him.  I was able to encourage this concerned daughter, telling her what I wanted for my sons when I had cancer treatment, assuring her that her father wanted her to go on with her life.

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Riding Tequila

Each day people show up in our path.  I’m grateful for the gifts of Joe the Chicken Man, and the owner of the inn, and Angela.  Whether we’re far from home or just down the street, if we’re present to each person, we find ways we inspire and help one another.  It just takes being open with a pilgrim’s heart.

How about you?

How can you go through your day being present to the people in your path?

In what ways have you experienced people as unexpected gifts?

How can you slow down and be that for the stranger you encounter?

Walking to the Depths

My third solo journey was to the Sea of Peace House of Prayer, a center for contemplation at Edisto Island, South Carolina.  I was searching for pastoral support to examine my life.  Sharon, the spiritual director, described the tools available including one-to-one sessions and walking the labyrinth.  When I saw that sandy path edged in stones and shells, I was skeptical that walking it would produce anything of value.  I was wrong.

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photo by Susan Klavohn Bryant

Sharon introduced that seven circuit path with only one way to the center.  At first, I walked it too quickly, but gradually I began to slow down.  After several mornings, I saw a brown oak leaf in the center of the path.  For a moment, it appeared as if the word pride was written across the center vein of the leaf.

What has pride got to do with anything, I thought.

That evening in my one-to-one session with Sharon, I told her how hard it was to let go of striving to accomplish.  I described my busy, overbooked life as a wife, mother, school nurse, and volunteer with my church.  I told her about my walk around the labyrinth.

“There was a leaf in my path, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the word pride written on it.  I’m not sure why.”

Sharon waited while both of us sat in silence.  Then she said, “Sometimes it’s the ego, the false self that tells us we have to be in charge, that we have to accomplish more.  If we let go of the control then God can show us how to rest.”

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I felt the startle of recognition in what she was saying.  I’d shared with her about my breast cancer but not about being fired from a job.  It had been five years and I’d told only a few people.

Now, I read another female spiritual leader’s words, Christine Valters Painter’s description of how we walk a pilgrim path.  In The Soul of a Pilgrim, she describes the inner pilgrimage descending into our depths to the places where “wounds and shame dwell.”

Looking back to that session with Sharon, I saw how my pride was underneath the need to feel competent.  Being fired had wounded my confidence and left me feeling ashamed. Paintner points out that we need to “retrieve these lost parts and welcome them back into the wholeness of our being.”

Years after that retreat at Edisto Island, I finally recognized how deeply I’d buried my shame.  Last summer in the quiet of the kitchen at Artcroft in Kentucky, I worked on my memoir, Saved by Sedona.  It occurred to me, that I’d written about cancer but not about my toxic job.  I’d been submerged in it a year before I was diagnosed and at times the job was worse than cancer.

That still small voice of God within me said, “You need to go back and tell the whole truth.”

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My kitchen table that became my writer’s desk

While I rewrote the chapters, I experienced the painful cleaning out of that festered wound, writing through tears of anger and sadness.  Gradually, I was able to forgive myself for my part of the problem and be thankful for the good that came from that job.

Now, I go back and mentally trace my steps to the center of the labyrinth and remember the leaf.  I marvel at what a simple path of stones and shells, along with the intention of traveling to the depths of those inner hidden places, can do to bring light to my journey.

How about you?

Have you found walking a labyrinth or another spiritual practice that has helped you travel to the depths on an internal pilgrimage?

How have you used what was revealed to you?

Is there a spiritual practice that you would like to incorporate into your life?