A friend recommended A Pilgrimage to Eternity knowing how much the Camino de Santiago meant to me—my walk and the aftermath, what I learned about myself. I confess I thought I’d be wading through a lot of historical minutiae reading this book. But I was pleasantly surprised, moved and entertained.
Timothy Egan’s mother was a progressive but devout Catholic. After her passing, he decided to make the pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, an ancient route actually older than the Camino de Santiago by about two hundred years. It begins in Canterbury and ends in Rome. The Via passes through England, France, Switzerland and Italy, a length of 1100 miles.
Egan self-identified as a “lapsed” Catholic. One reason for his undertaking such an incredibly testing journey was the sheer physicality of it. But there were two other reasons. He really wanted to get to the bottom of how early Christianity—whose tenets were love, gender equality, charity and little dogma—transitioned to what it is today. He also wanted to reactivate his own spirituality, and see if he could find those original core precepts in action in the present-day Catholic Church.
This is Egan’s account of his own personal pilgrimage. By his very reasons, it included a fine examination and accounting of where the Catholic Church fell from its early grace. The Inquisition, murders, sexual abuse, bias and politics are already commonly known. But this writer fills in the gaps and pinpoints specific immoral deeds, contradictions, greed and subterfuge— often told with wickedly irreverent, biting humor. He doesn’t cut them any slack.
He came into the pilgrimage already carrying his own personal grief and strikes against the Church, which are relayed in the book. One had to do with Father Patrick O’Donnell who lived across the street from his childhood home, back then a 31-year-old priest. Egan’s mother welcomed him, a frequently invited guest. The priest was charismatic and considered a Pied Piper with kids. We know this familiar story. In 2002, a Spokane paper broke the story of dozens of accusations against the priest for sexually abusing boys across his priestly career, and how he’d just been moved by from one parish to another when things got too dicey. When Egan’s grown friend read the news, trauma came flooding back…what he’d kept secret. He subsequently took his own life.
Egan takes the Church to task about their fear of women’s power and sexuality: “Sex got stuck, just like those clerics who were never able to move beyond the boyhood trauma of arousal. The best women—Mary the mother of God, Joan the Maid, and Brigid of Ireland—were [made] virgins. The best men—Augustine, Jerome, and Benedict—renounced sex.”
He goes on to talk about Pope Gregory VII’s edict in the 11th century against clerical marriage. This when nearly half the clerics had wives or mistresses. There’s a lot more on that subject. But you’ve got a taste.
Here’s an accounting of high shenanigans I hadn’t known. When in Geneva, Egan sought out the repository of a special, preserved document issued by the pope—a “passport to paradise” of which who knew how many were sold. The purpose was protection from hell. The cost of the document depended on how many years the buyer wanted to reduce their time in purgatory. They could do so for themselves or a deceased relative. The fee lined the pope’s and clerics’ pockets. Thus were palaces built and feasts laid out…while peasants gave what money they had to the Church and their families went without enough food. The practice came to a halt after Martin Luther made a public exposé of this and a plethora of other instances of vast indulgences and greed by the Catholic Church. So began the advancement of Protestantism.
Along with informing us of the Church’s misdeeds, the author shares his experiences. This one is quite remarkable. He visited the crypt of Saint Lucia Filipini located in Montesiascone Cathedral in the town of Montefiascone, Italy. She died in 1732 at 6o. Her body remains incorruptible. On his visit, Egan looked closely. Her eyes were half open. Shooting a number of photos, he zoomed in and observed “a slow but discernible movement. The eyes are opening wider, to a half oval.” It jolted him with a sense of direct connection to the saint, the body. The next day he returned to the crypt. The eyes were completely closed.
He introduces us to the Abbey of Saint-Maurice along the Great St-Bernard Pass. Yes, the one with the rescue dogs. Perpetual prayer and chanting has endured 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for centuries. These days the monks who perform this duty are known as the Sleepless Ones. A site for contemplatives, there’s a draw for retreat.
Why truly would someone, and particularly the author, want to make such an arduous pilgrimage on the Via? “Wonder is a simple virtue. Like childhood, it’s grounded in innocence, taken for granted until it’s impossible to reclaim. One of the reasons I’m on the VF is to see whether I can maintain my wonder of what could be, while never forgetting what was.”
Now I’m dreaming of doing it myself. Well, maybe a truncated version at least.
I had been listening to this young man for the past hour recounting significant aspects of his life’s story — a pilgrimage really — moving over the past decade. We were sitting in the upper level of Xapiri, his gallery a couple of blocks off Cusco’s main square, with Amazonian art all around us. He was winding down.
I’d been enthralled. “That’s incredible, you know.”
He offered a sardonic smile and said in decidedly Oxford English, “Yeah, that’s the brief story. There was a lot of randomness in-between.” Jack had a delightful way of laughing at himself that was attractive. But there were elements beyond his charm that spoke to greater substance and make-up.
Earlier that morning I was having breakfast in the tiny café of the family hotel El Balcón where I had long lodged my spiritual travel groups to Peru. A young North American woman, interning in hospitality services there, sat down across from me. We’d talked several times about what we were both doing in Cusco. This time she said, “I think you should meet Jack Wheeler. He’s got quite a story.” She gave me just enough to pique my interest and directions on where to find Xapiri. I took a chance that Jack would be there during my free time, and he’d be open to telling a complete stranger his personal history on a moment’s notice.
For a limited few, the trajectory of their life is laid out with certainty — and they’re quite satisfied with that. Satisfaction is key in this distinction, being bred in the bone to the extent they wouldn’t have it any other way. For the rest of us, conscious of it or not, we must seek our grounding. We know we’re not there when there’s an underlying feeling of discomfort, the rumblings of angst, a sense of just passing time, filling a slot, or waiting for something to happen. The tragedy of settling for the uneventful life is not discovering who you are. That’s not much of a legacy to pass down.
Jack had led into his tale, “When I left college, I wanted to follow one of the normal careers. I started working in a bank in my home city of Birmingham. It’s called the second city, London being the first. I’d worked there for two years. Although I was successful with promotions and really good money for my age, I definitely wasn’t happy. So, I started to travel. I took three months off and went to Peru, the first place I visited. I was twenty years old. At that point, I had no idea what I wanted. I was lost. I was traveling just because I wasn’t happy in England.
“But still I went back there. After a few years in the bank, I started a business with my older brother Tom. We worked hard, and it took off within six months. For many people it would appear to be a dream come true, creating something and being your own boss. But again, even though I was making money, I had no fulfillment — like it was at the bank. It wasn’t feeding my soul. So again, I decided to travel,” Jack punctuated his story with chuckles.
“That was about 6 years ago. I had a big, big trip where I traveled for a year…from New York all the way across the Americas…Central and South America, all the way to Patagonia. Big, big travel. Amazing travel. But looking back now, it was ticking boxes. I was going from place to place, spending a week in each place. It was enjoyable but not getting deep. It was more a standard backpacking trip.”
I pointed out to him a lot of people stuff their discontent instead of doing something about it. So much depends on outside influences and belief in what’s possible. There’s also the question of risk, stepping outside what’s familiar. Typically, if someone is going to answer what Joseph Campbell spoke of as a Calling, it’s after they’ve got more years on them, and the sacrifices have mounted up. I was speaking from experience.
“I think I was lucky to realize it at a young age. I put it all down to the traveling. At the beginning, the traveling wasn’t so deep. I wasn’t yet involved with Indigenous cultures. It still opened my eyes! When I came to Cusco the first time, I stayed in an orphanage volunteering for three months. I saw humanity, and it woke me up a little bit. The idea for Xapiri didn’t come at that point. I didn’t yet understand what I needed for fulfillment. It was a slow process. But I realized I couldn’t handle all the money and success back home.
“After the three months? I went back to England. Yeah, the story’s crazy!” With this last admission he produced a subdued bark, a commentary perhaps at the expense of his not-so-much younger self.
It’s seldom understood in the moment. But wandering is rarely aimless if we’re engaged, alert and open to possibility. A sorting process occurs beneath the surface, a recognition of what fits and what doesn’t. It takes putting ourselves into new, sometimes off the charts, experiences. In this way, we get hits over time, self-correcting so that when the full unveiling comes, it’s like we knew our passion all along. It’s no stranger to us. What at first may seem accidental, becomes the realization of personal destiny.
“My brother had relocated to Sweden. I went and spent the summer. I got back involved with the business in a different role with the idea I’d get more connected. But again…I didn’t. Yeah, I traveled again.
“This was a common theme. I was always traveling as an escape looking for something, I guess. It was on this travel when things began to click. I was in Venezuela and then Brazil where I had contact with the first Indigenous communities. I suddenly realized this is the work I wanted to do — to be involved with Indigenous people.
“At this point there were still no projects, no idea to work with the arts. Only later, I stumbled into this art gallery called CANOA in the town of Paraty. It was founded by Nina Taterka who was doing amazing work with over fifty ethnic groups in Brazil. A few months later I met her son Tui Anandi who became an important part of Xapiri from the beginning. He had all his experience having grown up surrounded by his mum’s work. Now Tui is a great friend, Xapiri partner and photographer for when we visit the communities.
“The moment I walked into Nina’s gallery, I knew I needed to be involved,” He nodded emphatically. “Somehow I persuaded her to listen to me. We had some meetings. The initial idea when meeting her was to show this Indigenous art to a European market. We made the shipments, sending the art work from Brazil to England…and that’s how Xapiri was born six years ago now.”
There’s an interesting thing that happens once the seeker finds life purpose. The traveler comes to rest in the comfort of self-knowledge. Seeking goes to the wayside, and they find solid ground, even if it’s invisible in the moment. Having sought outside the box, all manner of potentials will become apparent that heretofore were hidden. The more clarity existing within your intent, the more those elements will naturally come to fulfill it. Synchronicity becomes a common occurrence. It’s not that blocks don’t appear, but we recognize alternatives to skirt them, an important part of the learning process. In this initiation, a foundation is built.
I was curious how Jack gained entry into the Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. I knew he had some help initially from Nina when he was in Brazil. Beyond that, he would definitely enter foreign territory where some remote ethnic communities would have had little to no contact with Westerners. It could be sketchy to just show up — without invitation. Even with an invite, it was a fearless move. Jack had to harbor such strong intent that he was on the right track. At any rate, a lot of people want to do things but don’t have the how-to, especially given the unusual path he had chosen.
“I can give a few examples. The way these relationships start are always different with each community. You’re right. In the beginning, I had this connection with Nina in Brazil. She was the first person to introduce me to some communities. The first expedition we went on was to visit the Asurini people of the Xingu river six years ago with Nina and her photographer friend, Alice Kohler. It was because of their relationships we had the invitation to go in.
“Since then it’s been Xapiri — the team and me — creating the connections in many different ways. The Matsés are the most remote community we work with, as an example. For sure, they had very little contact with outsiders coming into their territory. A number attempt to get into their land but don’t succeed. Once they get to the military outpost on the border of their lands, they get no farther. You really need to have connections and invitations. How it happened with the Matsés was through a nonprofit called Acaté Amazon Conservation. They’ve been working with the Matsés for about ten years and have created many amazing projects with them.
“Acaté is a nonprofit that does super work. Their cofounder Christopher Herndon sent me an email at the beginning of Xapiri five years ago saying we’ve had some meetings with the Matsés women, and they want help selling their arts. Chris and I connected on our first conversation, and we agreed to begin with sending a few bracelets created by the Matsés women to Xapiri. That’s how the relationship started — very slowly. I think we had ten bracelets in the beginning. They started to sell. We asked for fifty bracelets, a hundred bracelets and so on. I would say over the first year that we were building this trust, with both Acaté and the Matsés, from repeat orders. Soon, it developed by asking Matsés men to make many lances and arrows, to keep it fair with the women.”
“We started to hear stories. There were still some elder women making ceramics in the remote villages. Slowly, more of their arts appeared, their baskets, bags and so on. On that trip we also made direct contact ourselves. It became this beautiful project where we were selling through Acaté. After a year when this trust had been established, we had the invitation to go visit the Matsés. It was from the Matsés leaders and the nonprofit. The first time we went in was three years ago. We started having a direct relationship with the Matsés creating media documenting how they live, telling the stories of their lands. With the Matsés, it happened slowly with the help of the nonprofit. Now I’d say we’re really close with the Matsés. We were there again in 2019. Every time we go, we present our work to different villages and communicate what we’re doing.
“With other communities, we’ve made contact through recommendations from friends. Tui and I have done long expeditions into the jungle. We’ve gone exploring. Three years ago, we went from Manaus in Brazil to Peru to the Colombian border to Pucallpa. This was a three-month trip where we stopped off and visited different communities and made contact with different nonprofits. We were working out which nonprofits we could partner with on the ground to help us. That’s how we made contact with the Shipibo in Pucallpa through the nonprofit Alianza Arkana. On that trip we made contacts ourselves with the Ticuna on the border with Colombia. Along with that, a lot is happening in communities near Cusco through direct contact and through friends we meet in the gallery.
“Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region, is considered the entrance into the southern Amazon jungle. In this region, you have the Yine. By visiting that city, we’ve had contact with some of the leaders and had invitations to some of the villages. It’s lots of trial and error. Lots of the connections we make never materialize. The communications are very difficult. Lots of times there are no phone signals. It’s really face-to-face relationships and building trust in person before anything develops. We try to make many relationships and a few stick. So now we’re working with ten different ethnics. That’s how it is.”
When lifework comes together bit by bit over time, especially when focused on the everyday process, there can be a tendency to take the journey for granted. I asked, “Do you ever look back and wonder how in the world you got here?“
“Of course. There are often these moments in Matsés land, and you’re spending the whole day in the canoe. These are the times you reflect. I look at Tui. It’s five years ago we were just dreaming. We were just following our passion, and now we’re doing this really important work. We have to pinch ourselves! It’s emotional these moments. It really is — all this hard work coming together. Spending time with the communities, this is what it’s all about. Back from these expeditions you feel like different people. We’re ready to put all this energy into the work back in Cusco and what we do day-to-day. Waiting for the next expedition and time with the Indigenous… It’s the cycle. It’s beautiful.”
I wondered about the effect Xapiri has had on the Indigenous peoples within their focal point.
“The sheer number of people we’re supporting now is well over one hundred artists. These artists are normally the only people bringing money into their families. I can’t tell you how many phone calls Xapiri gets from Indigenous people asking us for support. For instance, someone is asking for two hundred Peruvian soles for medication because a family member is sick. We send this money and know within a month they’ll send art as a return. There are these examples where we’re supporting these individuals who have no other option when they get sick or want to send their grandson to university. Without Xapiri’s platform, it really wouldn’t be possible. They call on Xapiri as the trusted people they know who will help. On a very simple level, we’re supporting many people now.
“What’s so important now is engaging the Indigenous youth with our work. It’s the grandmother making her art and selling. Then it’s the granddaughter seeing this, and she wants to know how to make the basket or the bracelet. She gets connected again to her culture and this can bring a sense of restored pride. If we can keep doing this — getting the young people engaged in the culture — that’s the biggest thing Xapiri can do is connect with the youth.
“It’s proving to be one of the hardest things. But when it’s working, this is one of the most important things. These traditions will continue…the art, language, medicinal plant knowledge. It’s all connected. If the Indigenous are strong and connected to their culture, they will continue these aspects. That’s presently one of Xapiri’s biggest missions. It’s for these pieces of wisdom to continue. If we can help support that…that’s our mission.”
One of the important aspects of finding our place in the world has to do with recognizing resources and undertaking subsequent strategies as a result. Frequently, people overlook the most preeminent resource of all. Acknowledging their own capabilities, whether innate or learned, creates a stronger foundation. It’s something to count on. Self-acknowledgment builds baseline confidence to move ahead — even in the dark days.
I wanted to explore this with Jack. “I love your story. Also, I recognize there’s something within you. You possess capacities that allow you to put things in place and be so successful. Starting out, even when you were back in England, everything worked like clockwork for you. I think that’s an important point because some people will stay in a job because it’s lucrative, and they’re able to do it. For you, that wasn’t enough. You’re adept at creating relationships as well.”
Jack considered the past. “I agree. One of my greatest strengths is in relationship-building and the small steps we’ve taken to get to this point. Those first years in England where Xapiri was born, that was the foundation. I read book after book on history and different Indigenous matters. You’ve got to make connections with different activists, nonprofits and anthropologists. That was the base, doing my research. Without that time, Xapiri never would have taken off in Cusco. Throughout these past years, there have been these careful steps. Very slowly, but building it in a careful and really deep way. Every relationship we make is sincere. It’s aimed to be super long-term and sustainable. It’s not something we’re doing for a few years. I know it’s long-term because it’s such a passion. That’s why I’m happy to move slowly and do it right. I know that if I keep taking these steps for ten, twenty, thirty years…we can do some amazing things.”
In such a way spiritual identity is developed. It’s more than a public face. Like Indigenous peoples who maintain their traditions, connections to their communities and ancestral lands, roots run deep. Everyday life is lived through deeply held beliefs. There’s no compartmentalization. Any task or direction is reinforced through sacred threads they hold as generative. One thing is woven into the other, creating wholeness.
That morning I introduced myself to Jack, there was a specific prompting I received in my early morning conversation with the young woman who suggested I meet him. Not knowing his story exactly, I was quite familiar on a personal level of the elements it might contain. I was curious as to what compelled Jack specifically to undertake this venture. It could even be considered a holy one. Such rites of passage always involve risk, unfamiliar territory, uncertainties and potential failure.
All who submit to the journey will have their own details within the elements just as Jack did. One thing is certain. If the intrepid explorer follows their intent all the way through to its true and logical destination, they will experience a quickening. It will allow them to find — not merely footing — but grounding within their own finely tuned home in the world.
An Intimate Pilgrimage from the Highlands to the Lowlands
In December, I was honored with a formal invitation from the traditional Matsigenka village of Shipetiara, located in the shoulder area of the Manu Biosphere of Peru, to bring a group for an immersion experience. I have opened a spiritual travel program in September 2021 and am now taking registrations.
It is a privilege to sponsor this special program focusing on sacred traditions linking the peoples of the Andes and the rainforest. A portion of tuition is tax-deductible supporting the Xapiri Matsigenka Storytelling Project, and sponsoring a small group of Q’ero paq’os traveling with us.
This should be considered a pilgrimage of respect for sharing traditions and experiencing nature. Intrepid travelers understanding this honor and willing to take the COVID-19 vaccination to protect these Indigenous people, who have little to no contact with outsiders, are welcome.
This program is co-sponsored by Kenosis and Kenosis Spirit Keepers, the nonprofit arm of Kenosis. I founded both, the former in 1999 and latter in 2007, and have been sponsoring spiritual travel programs for more than 20 years.
I had been eagerly awaiting this film by Werner Herzog, even turning over the thought of a trek down to Phoenix to view it. That’s an indicator of the level of my anticipation. Then the pandemic hit, and that potential went out the window. Finally, it’s available streaming.
At a time when I am so constrained from my own usual travel, Nomad has given me much needed relief by living vicariously through Herzog’s romantic documentation of Bruce Chatwin’s wandering life. But he wasn’t an aimless wanderer. I had already read Chatwin’s first book In Patagonia and then The Songlines about Indigenous Australians, their sacred lands and the Dreamtime. I knew he was interested in digging into place, culture and tradition in such a way that celebrated their unique properties and attempted to translate what likely challenge western minds. He would often blur the line between nonfiction and fiction.
Herzog described Chatwin’s mission as a “quest for strangeness”—not unlike his own. They both sought other than what we know from our everyday life, far from it. Given that, the film wasn’t strictly “in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” but overlapped Herzog’s own.
The film transports us from the Australian Outback, where an Elder speaks of dream tracks, to the standing stones of Avebury—reviving my own memories there—and on to Wales. In the southern Sahara, Wodaabe tribesmen in elaborate attire were engaged in a ritual courtship dance, showing off the whiteness of their teeth and whites of their eyes. I readily remembered them from photographer Jimmy Nelson’s coffee table book Homage to Humanity, a gift I treasure.
A good portion of the documentary was also devoted to passages from Chatwin’s books and testimony from his wife Elizabeth Chanley, friends and colleagues. There’s also footage of Herzog and Chatwin together in different locales.
Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare described him as “a fiery ball of light shedding flickering illuminations on obscure pieces of knowledge connecting countries, people, books and texts.” Some thought him an eccentric and narcissist. Some accused him of misinterpreting and simplifying what he experienced. Others believed he would have grown into his full genius if not lost to this world in 1989 due to HIV/AIDS, still young.
Found in his journal, these are thought to be the very last words he wrote before dying: “Christ wore a seamless robe.” I have to wonder what story Bruce Chatwin might have spun from there. Or maybe it was his documentation.
A quote from Herzog I so resonate with: “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” But there’s something I’d add. It also changes you. You become revealed to yourself. To me, that’s a clear message from this remarkable film. I remain moved by it.
Streaming on You Tube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.
I’ve now been in stay-at-home mode for 60 days. That’s 2 weeks before it became an order here in Arizona. Suddenly, I had all this open space stretching out in front of me. Like everyone else, commitments—work and otherwise—were cancelled at least for a few months. Part of me was relieved. I haven’t had this much open space in…well…I couldn’t remember when. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The only other times I could come up with, other than a few weeks here and there for personal travel, was when I’d undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. But now I’m well beyond that in time by 23 days with uncertainty when I’ll emerge.
On May 10, 2015, I donned my pilgrim suit and officially began walking the Camino Francés, which starts on the French side of the Pyrénées in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Now, it’s a complete synchronicity that I decided to sit down and begin this writing on the same date five years later. I didn’t plan it. Nor did I remember the date I began my walk. I discovered this fact when I just pulled up my blog from that time, The Essential Way, looking to reference something.
But these are strange times, and the synchronicities have occurred with regularity for me in the last several weeks. Maybe I’m more sensitive to the vibrations around all of us carrying information, or more able to note things clearly visible beneath the surface, since I’ve been wrapped in silence most of the time.
I remember having a sense that something big was coming for some time, and when it finally dropped, I did elect to go into retreat here at home, formally setting aside 10 days of this sojourn framed by long meditations each day, being in silence, ruminating on what came through, writing and artwork. In some ways, I feel it frivolous to even share these things—when others are undergoing great suffering. Not just minor inconveniences. But the fact is my more introverted nature thrives on such opportunities of emptiness.
What is so different between my 2015 pilgrimage and what we’re undergoing now in 2020? Choice. Even though I’ve never been able to articulate it in words, I was called to the Camino. It was my clear choice, and the same for most who have walked it since Medieval times. That’s unless, as happened back then, some who found themselves forced to do so as penance for some crime. On the other hand, this pandemic came out of nowhere, imposed itself upon most inhabitants of the planet. For crimes? Maybe. It’s stopped us all short and threw the human world into global chaos, while nature continues to do what nature does.
The Camino path is well marked. If you’re a pilgrim in that setting, you know where you’re going at all times. There’s even a recognizable symbol: the scallop shell. Pilgrims are identified by the shell hanging off their clothes or knapsack, and the directional signs, even in the middle of nowhere, are marked with it.
There’s no clear cut path for us now. It’s empty, hazy at best. We don’t have any measures of distance or time. Many of the foundations we thought we had…have crumbled. Illusions. We’ve been shown the dark underbelly and the essence of light.
If those are differences between a well-marked trail and the pandemic, what are the similarities?
In the Chiapas highlands of Mexico, the Maya petition the owner of the land—the Earth Lord—for protection or other things they want. But the Earth Lord also demands payment, a sacrifice. Consequently, the Maya alternately revere and fear this Underworld being. But if you think about it, isn’t this a Universal truth? Sacred reciprocity. The Indigenous people of Peru call it ayni and live by it. Something transformational always involves releasing, letting go, in order to receive something more. It’s just the ego self that balks.
Prior to embarking on my Camino, I told friends I felt as though I would be placing my feet into the very footfalls of all who had walked there before…all the way back to the Middle Ages. Be careful what you project especially if, in a sense, it’s true. The 4th day out I sustained what is still a mystery injury that resulted in not being able to put any weight on my right foot without excruciating pain. That’s a story. The pain barely dissipated but I chose to continue on. Now I would say I was making payment. What did it do for me? It forced me to slow down, way down. I shuffled s-l-o-w-l-y along the Camino leaning on a walking stick, and what beauty I noticed that I would otherwise likely have missed. What insights I had. No matter I had to undergo physical therapy upon return home.
It’s usual for pilgrims to leave notes or prayers at shrines beside the trails. I distinctly remember doing so at a particular shrine. But I have no memory at all what that piece of paper said. I have no need. I left that part of myself there.
Most pilgrims never forget their Camino. To a one there was suffering of some sort. It’s arduous. And we’re different once its end has come.
Won’t this also be true of the pilgrimage called the pandemic? How we undertake this walk? The sacrifices? The suffering? We’re being called upon to be our Best Self ever. Some are wholeheartedly answering this call while others go in a different direction.
Here’s a truth: The follow-on to chaos—if we’re wise—is a sorting process that can lead to a more identified, aligned existence. If mindful, the Collective We can identify the world we want to live in and lay out, to degrees, how it unfolds. That’s an intent. We have choice within a framework: how to make the most of the time given.
On the Camino, there’s companionship with complete strangers. Some of those turned into lifetime friendships. We helped each other. We’re compassionate. We recognized there’s no difference between ourselves and others. We’re the same. We’re all in it together. Don’t we have a multitude of examples such as this now, during the pandemic, from around the world?
On the Camino, we underwent a metamorphosis. We were different than when we started. I’m willing to bet that, whenever we come out the other side of this pandemic, we’ll also find this to be the case.
During the Camino…
Somewhere along the way, once I got the rhythm down pat, I began to note somewhat tongue-in-cheek differences between daily life on the Camino and home. But the more I listed the more I realized it’s an intimate glimpse of common pilgrim experiences you normally wouldn’t be aware of unless you’d undertaken the journey. I also began to have insights, reminders and resolutions related to some of them…
After I got home, I documented all of those I wrote down while walking. On that blog post, I called the first section I’ll Know I’m Home When… Here are some from that list.
… I’m no longer looking for markers every few minutes to tell me where to go, except perhaps subliminally.
… I’ll no longer hear the well wishes Buen Camino spoken to me by nearly every pilgrim and so many locals, or say it myself, as we pass each other.
… I’ll have more than one change of clothing.
… I’ll have more choices to wear on my feet than hiking shoes or flip flops
… I’ll know on a consistent basis where I’ll lay my head each night.
… If I’m sleeping in a roomful of people, I’ll know them all ahead and never in numbers between 12-100 in one room.
I called the second section My Take-Aways.
It’s important to be alert to the lay of the land to avoid becoming lost or overlooking tell-tale signals that things are off track or hidden. I resolve to sharpen my peripheral and x-ray vision.
Flexibility is a virtue. It’s also important to set your limits and abide by them. I resolve to identify with even more depth and breadth what is true for me.
A simple life in the best sense is a pure one, devoid of clutter in the mind or unnecessary material goods, anythingthat weighs down the spirit. I resolve to up-level my sorting and pitching process.
There are more that I’d written. All still true for me now. But this one particularly caught my attention as I read through the post.
I undertook this journey through willing choice. If you look at the list, you may notice there are aspects that are similar to those whose lives often aren’t through choice but circumstance. In a certain way, I had a light taste of what it’s like to be homeless, to experience restriction. The more days I walked the more this awareness settled on me. It increased my compassion toward anyone who finds themselves in such a place and has difficulty finding a way through. There’s always a way across a threshold. It also deepened the great gratitude I hold for having the life I do, and the capability of coming up with strategies to navigate the tricky times.
I’m going to start my list for the pandemic, what I’ve noticed and how I want to be on the other side. Some of these will be the same. Some will be new in the sense of further revealed.
On my 2015 pilgrimage, when the going got physically rough for me, I invoked a Sufiwazifa.* On the in-breath I would chant Ya Fattah. On the out-breath, I would repeat Ya Fattah. Over and over and over. That beautiful name got me up mountains and down the other side when I sincerely wondered if I would make it.
Here’s holding these pandemic times are embedded in our Collective Consciousness in a good way and direct tomorrow. There’s a choice in every moment.
Ya Fattah! Ya Fattah! O, Opener of the way!
May all beings be happy. May all beings be well.
*The Sufi wazifas are the 99 Beautiful Names of God that, when chanted, seeks to call upon the person any sacred attribute that is named.
It’s normal for a state of connection to wax and wane, to sometimes experience great spiritual presence and other times less or none at all. We’re human and influenced by so much swirling around us. That’s so even with a strong, consistent spiritual practice. Mostly, if we attend to it, we can weather the ups and downs. But when the absence of connection extends itself for months or longer, when instead there’s an ongoing emptiness, flatness…life feels brittle and sense of purpose becomes lost or heavily questioned…it begins to affect every aspect of our life.
When this happens, we’re actually receiving a special calling…not to succumb…but to evolve…to expand and deepen. I can say this because it happened to me.
In 2011, I traveled to northern Scotland with good friends Phoebe and Paul Hoogendyk from Australia, Jo Elliott of New Zealand and Lucinda Brogden and Doug Easterling of the US…in December. Prior to that I’d felt cut loose for quite a while. I may have hidden it well from others, but it was there.
I’d had a long ‘empty’ spell with my painting, and I was unable to get excited by much, akin to what’s called spiritual dryness. We went in December—Isle of Skye, Isle of Lewis with final destination the Orkney Islands. Paul had had a strong message that time of snow and strong, snatch-your-breath winds was the span to complete a ceremony in a long string of other ceremonies Phoebe and he had undertaken across the world. We especially spent time at standing stone circles.
That spare landscape did something to break me open. For years, I’d often call myself a monk. At some point in our travels, I’d decided that probably wasn’t a metaphor I wanted to embody—at least with some of the elements it contained. At the Ring of Brodgar, a place of significant lightning strikes, I spontaneously undertook my own ceremony, putting my back against each of the 27 remaining standing stones and ‘released my monkish ways.’
When I returned home my creative energy was so strong, I turned out a series of paintings in a flurry dedicated to the Druids, embodied in the stones, and landscape of Scotland.
At a certain point in human time The Light appears, inviting us all to join our ancestors. In the next phase of the journey, the body is no longer needed⏤thus vacated. Our imprint on the landscape is left behind as legacy, as memories and deeds, touching those who will come after us. Connection endures.
The Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis in northern Scotland inspired this piece. When I visit such places, I see the stones as Druids who were transported en masse, through ceremony, leaving the physical remains as a testimony to timelessness.
Simultaneously, I picked up a barely begun manuscript for a novel, I’d put away in a drawer 7 years prior. The story fairly flew out of me, as a movie in my visual field. I merely had to write it down. Portals to the Vision Serpent was finished 3 months later.
The ‘dryness’ had left me through that journey in Scotland and has not returned to block my creative urge or sense of spiritual purpose. Paul was directed to hold the ceremony they had come for, and we others were to witness, at the very edge of the sea, right outside the isolated house we’d rented. A few months later, there was a discovery. Archaeologists had found another stone circle covered by water, just off the shore, where our final ceremony was completed.
From the point where I am now in my life, I look back on that journey and all it personally produced with amazement.
When you receive a strong calling, in essence you’ve been chosen. You’re being directed by a higher sensibility to depart the places known to you—through conditioning, mindset, outgrown choices, geographic location and culture—and strike out…to open up to the wider world beyond the point where you’ve been rooted. You’re being asked to enter a land foreign to you, to partake of things outside your usual influences that strive to keep you tethered in the same old place. You need a disruption.
In order to take this step, time and space must be set aside from the ‘normal’ life, to the point it becomes sacred. It must be something finite, not a glancing thought or empty promise you make to yourself that you’ll get to it someday. It must be something clearly intended and acted upon so that it becomes a spiritual journey, in whatever form it may take, wherein you give yourself permission for everything to be presented that will usher you through the threshold, producing an evolution over time. Perhaps one never even imagined…until you look back on the path you’ve taken and realize who you are now.
On another personal note: I’ve been sponsoring spiritual travel journeys for 20 years for those who are drawn to take a leap through the threshold this way. Leading these programs and making my own pilgrimages has led me to consistently deepen my appreciation for the human condition—including my own—and informed the choices I’ve made. I’ve found myself undertaking things I never even dreamed of and live with great gratitude for the outcome.
As you’re drawn, here are upcoming spiritual travel programs.
Imagine a people whose origins were once lost to time but who are now thought to have come from northwest India…who—in their own region—endured plunder, massacre and enslavement over 500 years and beyond at the hands of foreign rulers. The result finally creating a diaspora, spread over the world, in search of home…over 1500 years to present day.
When doors were shut to them, the road and their culture endured. It was a way of life. They were so close knit—for mere survival—that, for many of their present-day groups, it’s still a taboo to associate with outsiders except for livelihood…when they themselves are considered so. They’re communal, strict about their traditions and syncretic religion. They’re known for passionate song, music and dance, having influenced jazz, flamenco, and even classical music. They are mostly entertainers, artisans, laborers and trades people. Along with the Jewish people, they were the first target for annihilation by the Nazis, and their women underwent forced sterilization. Despite this, their culture maintains the heady expression of freedom, along with protection of their own.
For the rest of the world, they largely retain an air of mystique and are reviled or barely tolerated. Objects of fear. After all, they live outside the mainstream. They’re different. How can “other” be good?
Their names for themselves vary depending on country—Romanichal (England), Romansæl (Norway and Denmark), Sinti (Germanic countries), Manush (France), Kalo (Spain, Wales and Finland)—or clans—the Kalderash, Machvaya, Boyash, Lovari and others.
The Romani or Roma people are known to non-Roma by a number of names depending where they are: gitans, ciganos, zingari,gíftoi and others, along with the derogatory term gypsy.
Dispersed as the Roma are, in late May, from great distances, they stream into a diminutive French town in the Camargue on the Mediterranean Sea. In a massive gathering, they come to venerate, celebrate and reunite through the passions of devotion, music and processional.
For it is here the three Marys, Sarah—and some say—Lazarus and Maximin landed safely on the shores of Gaul in their tiny boat, site of the present-day Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. To the Roma she is known as Sara-la-Kali, Sara the Black, their patron saint, an adolescent Egyptian maid who accompanied the Marys. To others, Saint Sarah is the daughter of The Magdalene and Jesus.
And we will be there…women on pilgrimage of spiritual travel…sourcing the ways of love and light. We will be there for the music, dance, making our own prayers as we witness Sara-la-Kali…Saint Sarah in her glorious vestments carried from the church on the shoulders of the Roma, accompanied by the famous Camargue white horses, into the sea.
In Latcho Drom—meaning Safe Journey—you can catch a glimpse of this passion toward the end. Latcho Drom is a 1993 documentary about the Roma by filmmaker Tony Gatlif, himself Roma. This film is a cinematographic masterpiece telling the story of a people through song, dance, music and community. It subliminally tracks their geographic diaspora until you finally realize the whole by the end of the film.
This version of the documentary includes sporadic English subtitles of lyrics, just enough to emphasize the beauty and—later—the poignancy of the scenes.
In one with exuberant music and celebration that continues late into the night until the fire has burned out, a man sings and gestures first to a woman in their circle and then to the moon…
…I have placed my bed in a delicious spot. How can I sleep without you?
…In the grounds of my coffee cup, I see your image…It drives me mad…
And much later in scenes toward the end…
…We are cursed to wander all our lives…Deliver us from our trials…We fled from hate…No one will ever change our way of life…Me? I am a black bird who has taken flight…
Latcho Drom may be viewed in its entirety streaming online for free. This is a haunting, inspirational depiction of a beleaguered people with a rich heritage not widely known. Highly recommend. 1 hour, 38 minutes.
I want to say upfront this is the most remarkable film of its type I’ve seen. Just in the first seconds of the documentary, before an actual image came, the hair rose on the back of my neck. My skin tightened into goosebumps. The staccato chant I heard was well familiar to me.
Bali Temple, 2007. Photo: Carla Woody
The film is specifically focused on the phases of ritual trance dancing of Java and Bali, particularly the horse dance where the dancer becomes the ‘horse’ he is ‘riding.’ It features elements to induce a trance: dance, drum, chant, whip, hyperventilation, meditation and acting ‘as if.’ Once entering trance, there’s no question the dancers are in another dimension altogether. To the point, after the ritual is complete, their fingers will not loosen from their stead or their body is completely rigid. These are no actors. You will see the dancers guided into and out of trance by the village shaman.
I appreciated the film underscored that these were ordinary people transformed into extraordinary personage through spiritual intent…and so affected return to their everyday lives. The shaman in one part was also shown in his work-a-day world as a government official in his village. One trance dancer was normally a farmer.
I know these things to be true through examples. Long ago, I remember participating in a Sufi retreat with a particularly adept Sufi teacher. At home he was a barista. I work with Maya religious leader-healer Xun Calixto who lives in a hamlet above San Juan Chamula in Chiapas. When not attending to his sacred duties, he works as a gardener.
Another interesting aspect highlighted is the syncretic nature of the religions in Bali and Java. Before other influences moved in and overtook them, Indonesia practiced pure animism. In Java, Hinduism arrived first, which the people incorporated for 800 years until Islam made inroads and prevailed. At that point, Hinduism moved on to Bali and remained. But in each instance elements of their original animism were maintained and expressed in isolated villages or special holidays, depicted well in the film.
To diverge a bit more, it made me think of the Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala, especially in San Juan Chamula. The church there was taken back from the Catholics in no uncertain terms. Yet, they have Catholic processionals on a saint’s day and allow the token priest to take part. The saints in glass boxes still line the walls. But the pews are gone and Maya forms of healing and prayer occur instead. It was a curiosity to me until I learned that the saints may be there, but the Maya people have their own stories about them, resoundingly connecting them to their land. The place is imbued with a sense of the sacred felt viscerally every bit as much as what’s shown in the film I’m reviewing.
You may be wondering how it is I immediately recognized the staccato chant that recurs throughout the documentary. In 2007 I was in Ubud, Bali presenting at a conference and elected to stay on afterward to experience more of its beautiful traditions. One night I attended a dance performance. I had no idea what it was but came highly recommended to me. I was myself entranced the entire time, not moving a muscle even for a while after it was over. It had a number of the same components I’ve discussed here—the ongoing staccato chant rising and falling—but also fire dancing and throwing with no one harmed. It was done at night. Mesmerizing. It’s stayed with me over the years. Whenever I thought of Bali, what I witnessed that night automatically emerged. Yet I had no reference for it until I watched this film. After I viewed it for the third time, I did some research and found the traditional Kecak ritual dance as a type of exorcism. The version I saw was created in the 1930s for Westerners by German artist Walter Spies and Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak. Not exactly what was in the film. But still… Below you’ll see a good example of the Kecak dance I saw back in 2007.
It’s incredible the filmmakers—Elda Voelkel Hartley and Irving Hartley—were able to document these rituals, obviously done with great respect, which is why they gained permission. This 29-minute documentary is a true tribute to such sacred traditions. It doesn’t matter that if was produced in 1976. These things are timeless.
Watch the Hartley Productions full documentary Sacred Trances of Java and Bali for free streaming here.
Imagine you live in a rustic, tiny village and have barely ventured beyond the next town. Few westerners can imagine confining themselves to a small radius within the region of their homes. But in many parts of the world, it’s normal for any number of reasons. Now imagine if you were invited to travel beyond the borders that are familiar to you…all the way into another country? Would you go? Your answer will be telling as to the filter with which you experience the world. It’s usual to have at least some questions or trepidation about venturing into the Unknown. But would you let it hold you back? Or would you instead leap at the chance?
Totik Xun laying an altar in his home. Photo credit: Carla Woody.
I’ve known Totik* Xun Calixto for about ten years. He’s an important fixture during my Maya spiritual travel program when we visit his home in a misty hamlet above the Maya village of San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico. Xun came to his calling later in life, enduring a process that involved a number of hardships (not unusual for those sought out for that kind of sacred responsibility). He holds a private ceremony for us according to Tzotzil Maya traditions. Xun retains spiritual responsibilities within his community and is also revered as a healer. In his tradition, he listens to the blood by pulsing the wrist, and is able to determine the cause of any malady – spiritual, mental
Listening to the blood. Photo credit: Carla Woody.
or physical. The transmission he receives determines the coding – size, color and number of candles and specific accompanying prayers – of the curing ritual he does before his altar. Xun is quite forthcoming in describing to us what he’s doing and why from within his traditions, an approach that describes things in metaphorical fashion, often otherworldly. Sometimes a stretch to understand from a strictly western reference. But the curing isn’t for the mind’s understanding anyway, which can certainly get in the way if someone is too attached to intellectual knowledge.
This year’s Maya journey could be thought of as a pilgrimage. It took us through southern Guatemala, over the Mexican border to the Chiapas highlands and then down to the rainforest lowlands. I wanted to sponsor Xun on the Guatemala portion so he could experience and share traditions with Maya cousins. But I didn’t really know if he would consider going. It required him to travel on his own by bus, a long trip from his home all the way to our starting point in Guatemala City. Air travel was out of the question. I shouldn’t have wondered though. Xun was over the moon at the invitation.
Pure enjoyment. Photo credit: Bekki Davis.
It sometimes happens that, when any of us decide to take that leap outside our comfort zone, there are tests…as if to say…are you sure? Travel required a passport, which turned out to be a several months’ long, challenging process of back and forth travel to the large city of Tuxtla Gutierrez because Xun had no birth certificate. Without on-the-ground liaisons to accompany him there would have been a different outcome, and I’m in their debt. Just shy of two months prior to our launch, he finally had passport in hand. It was nail-biting time for me on the day of his anticipated arrival at our lodging in Guatemala City. The long ride required changes along the way, perhaps daunting for one who hadn’t traveled. When the front door sounded that night, I finally exhaled. Then took in the light of his ear-to-ear grin and added my own to his.
Pure absorption, textile museum in Guatemala City. Photo credit: Bekki Davis.
An invitation to spin wool in San Juan La Laguna. Photo credit: Carla Woody.
Maximón. Photo credit: Carla Woody.
It’s a safe bet to say that Xun’s experience was one of bewonderment. I don’t recall ever seeing an adult be so open, just taking things in at every turn. A good role model for any of us. I never saw him rejecting anything unfamiliar but simply accepting, an appreciation of difference.
One of the most touching moments for me was when we were in the Tz’utujil Maya village of Santiago Atitlan and visited Maximón. Known as Rilaj Mam, Beloved Grandfather or Venerable Ancestor, Maximón is a trickster diety and protector, disguised in effigy, who may be petitioned through prayer and offerings of alcohol, money or tobacco, and interventions by his attending curandero. This tradition only exists in several towns in western Guatemala. Thus, unknown to Xun. Yet when we entered the small ceremonial house, Xun immediately dropped to his knees and began to pray before Maximón. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an outpouring. In his own dialect, he chanted. Soon tears were springing from Xun’s eyes as he gestured, taking in all present, asking for blessings and healings for everyone. It was sincere and humble. He was present, no show for effect. It wasn’t long before my own eyes began to feel wet with emotion.
Xun (2nd from right) in the home of Maximón. Photo credit: Carla Woody.
It’s impossible to orchestrate each person’s journey and I wouldn’t want to. Each has their own reasons for setting out on such a venture into the Unknown, even if not consciously known to themselves. Openings, difficulties and beauty occur. Resolve and resolutions integrate as they will over time, a part of the spiritual path.
I am very much looking forward to seeing Toltik Xun again next year, in expectancy for what these travels have come to mean for him. It was a real honor and blessing to have him accompany us.
*Toltik means Spiritual Father, a title of reverence in the Tzotzil Maya dialect.
We are pleased to announce our 2019 spiritual travel journey to Peru, an immersion experience in sacred ways linking the Indigenous peoples of the Andes and High Jungle.
We begin in areas outside Cusco with Doña Vilma Pinedo, born into a long lineage of respected Quechua paqo’s— traditional Wisdom Keepers and mystics. Through her teachings and rituals we first experience ayni — sacred reciprocity— and how to guide through dreams and divination.
In a nighttime audience with a well-known Altomisayoq, high priest in the Andean Way, we touch the invisible world in a session where the mountain and earth spirits manifest and answer our personal questions. Then encounter condors, representatives of the Upper World, in their natural habitat riding the air currents in front of us. A beautiful sacred site by a Pachamama cave is the place that frames a day of ceremony and community with Q’ero paq’os, ushering us fully into the world of the Andes.
Q’ero despacho ceremony. Modesto Machacca Apaza breathing prayers into a coca kintu (prayer offering). Photo credit: Cécile Sother.
Transitioning through the Cloud Forest, we float down the Alto Madre de Dios — High Mother of God — deep into the jungle to the pristine, wild surroundings of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. There we come to engage with Huachipaeri-Matsigenka ceremonial teachings and medicine ways of the jungle with Elder Don Alberto Manqueriapa. It’s said he carries the rainforest in his soul.
Despacho with Don Alberto Manquierapa, 2-day ceremony in high jungle. Photo: Carla Woody
Throughout our travels Carla Woody guides the grounding of your experiences so that you may take them home to inform your life in transformational ways.
Sponsored Guests Through your tuition and private donations we are sponsoring a Native Wisdom Keeper from the US to join us for the entire journey.
Sacred mountain Apu Ausangate. Photo: Carla Woody
This is a journey of ayni — sacred reciprocity. We sit in ceremony of all these traditions, become an allyu — spiritual community — honoring all that sustains the planet and our own wellbeing. We come together with blessings, prayers and share the daily activities of all pilgrims.
Registration is limited to maintain the intimate nature. A portion of tuition is tax-deductible to help preserve continuity of Native wisdom traditions through the support programs of Kenosis Spirit Keepers, the nonprofit extension of Kenosis.
For detailed information including itinerary, tuition, bios, and how to register, go here.
Early registration discount ends May 31.Register now to hold your space!
Registration deadline September 20, 2019.
For questions call 928-778-1058 or email email@example.com.
I am privileged to bring you such a special opportunity – one you’re not likely to find on your own. I have been offering this program since 2000 and have developed relationships with authentic spiritual leaders and healers who serve their communities. Join me for this Adventure of the Spirit…and know that you are supporting continuation of the invisible, sacred threads that hold the world together.
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
The Lifepath Dialogues Gatherings
Topics here are meant to open conversations and self-reflection. For more information, go to the "About" page.