But how could it feel safely enclosed, with so many missing stones and open spaces? I wondered as I looked out from within Stonehenge. The ancient stones gave a clear feeling of sacred space, of a timeless, dimensionless spot, an enchanted circle rooted in the land of the Salisbury plain, from which the wider Universe could be observed. Even with most of the stones gone, and many of those that remained felled by time, the Romans, or others – the feeling was still there, with both enclosed protection and a feeling of expanded vision and clarity outward. That vision grew with the growing light, and suddenly, someone called out. I don’t remember what was said, but all eyes turned to the Southeast, from where the first orange rays of light came as the Sun now peeked over the horizon. The Sun’s position was surprisingly close to the main Summer Solstice Sunrise axis of Stonehenge, even though it was several weeks after the Summer Solstice. I felt I could be seeing any of the hundreds of thousands of Stonehenge sunrises, that I could be, for a moment, a different person – perhaps one of my Ancestors- in a very, very different time, at this same sacred place.
The short time I spent within stones at sunrise live with me now, and the feeling, the place, the time are at my call when needed or wanted. There is, of course, a lot more about my pilgrimage to Stonenhenge that I could say – the many feelings are too deep to express in words, and certainly would take many pages. But this post is not about only that pilgrimage, but about the powerful source of spiritual power that awaits us in pilgrimage itself.
Pilgrimages are one of the those spiritual practices that is so basic that its origin is long lost in the mists of time. Long before any of the major scripture based religions around today existed, people were traveling to places known for spiritual power of many different kinds. Many of these travels were to solve specific problem, such as curing at a healing spring, or answers from the Oracle at Delphi. Sometimes they were done based on compelling feelings, without knowing exactly what the goal was, while many were to see or experience the place itself. Until recently (well, recently compared to the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been anatomically modern humans), spiritual pilgrimages were self-motivated, and not required by an overall religious doctrine. I’m thinking specifically of the Islamic Hajj, which is so important that is it one of the “5 pillars” of their religion, a journey of often thousands of miles, required at least once in the life of every Muslim who can do so. At ~1,400 years old, that’s a mere blip in human history. Pilgrimage is, of course, an important part of all major, and most smaller, religions across time. With all that history and pilgrimage being an important part of the religions of nearly all cultures, I find pilgrimage to nearly be part of being human – and as such a good way to connect us to all other humans, alive and dead. Are we the only species to go on spiritual pilgrimages? I think so. With traveling being one of the main ways we have always learned new knowledge, and with understanding being so important to a naturalistic worldview (because when you love something, you want to find out the truth about it – and that certainly applies to our real world), pilgrimage seems to fit any naturalistic spirituality well. With that (and our wealth of sacred places, as described below), I’m tempted to suggest that taking at least one spiritual pilgrimage be a “requirement” (“strong suggestion”?) of Naturalistic Pagans, at least once in your life (or maybe 1 a decade, or even once a year?). In fact, we are already in good practice. (Feel free to add more examples in the comments).
These are of course subjective, but for me, there have been many benefits of the spiritual pilgrimages I’ve taken. They bring vastly more knowlege, for starters. And not just dry data, but rich, emotional feelings, remembered and tied to a place and to ideas that otherwise would not nearly be so strong and visceral. They help me feel the gratitude and awe about our wider Earth – of a least a small fraction of all the wonders that are known and unknown. I use them to remember my Ancestors, to connect with my Ancestors, and to the wider web of life and our Earth. They help me feel gratitude and happiness for my own place and home – simultaneously building up both home and the wider world. They are an effective way to break me out of a rut, a way to make sure that I’m enjoying every minute of my finite life. This also spills over to how I treat others – when happier and more secure myself, it’s easier to be a blessing to others in my life – family, friends, co-workers, everyone. I guess all of that goes for most of my spiritual practices – but hey, it’s already written, so there it is.
Today we have access to vastly more knowledge – literally at our fingertips – than even Kings had access to as recently as when our grandparents were born. This knowledge, at least for me, offers even more power to pilgrimages, both in the many locations that would otherwise remain unknown, as well as the depth of understanding and emotional power at those locations. To know more deeply, to know of more connections between all aspects of the pilgrimage (including connections between the location, yourself, the wider web of life, deep time, other locations, people we know and love, and more) can make a spiritual experience stronger. As Naturalistic Pagans, we are invited to draw on this knowledge to deepen our experiences, to feel that powerful understanding that we are part of this Universe, not separate from it. This is not only true of any spiritual work we do, it is also an especially potent tool for pilgrimages, allowing us to both choose where to go each time, and intensify our experience while there. Learning about our real world is, to me and many other Naturalistic Pagans, a sacred activity in itself, whether done in one place or through the time-honored method of traveling.
I don’t think that a spiritual pilgrimage needs to be extremely far to be effective – as long as it pulls one out of one’s ordinary, day to day life. After all, we don’t see magical forces, ley lines, or supernatural portals as making one place more magical than another, and so all of our Universe is sacred. Yes, some places do have a different history or other factors that make them especially powerful for learning or emotion, and hence good candidates for pilgrimage. With the sacred everywhere, and the facts that our history stretches back literally billions of years, and that there are so many wonderful natural phenomena have given us many, many places with a specially connection to some aspect of reality. Thus, regardless of one’s means, some location worthy of pilgrimage is likely within reach to everyone. In fact, many of us are not all that far from one of the most awesome events on Earth – a total solar eclipse, just a few weeks away. As you may have read in an earlier post, I’ve been waiting for this exact eclipse for over 30 years! To share this with a child in your life is to give them a gift, a memory that they’ll treasure for their whole lives. This short video shows how astounding this eclipse will be.
Pilgrimage Locations (sacred sites)
The long history and many aspects of our Universe do indeed give us a very rich legacy of sacred sites. I hope one day to travel to Chicxulub – to stand on the ground that was shattered by the impact that allowed we synapsids to reclaim the earth after over 100 million years, to visit Darwin’s Down house, and to see the Tiktaalik fossil, the Antikythera computer (or a replica on this continent) and the Gundestrup Cauldron, among other pilgrimages. There are of course many more – especially some of the wonderful ones that I’ve never heard of. We learn of them as we go through life, with wonder after wonder appearing, both near and far. The Great Story site has a page of sacred sites, all of which I’d love to make a pilgrimage of. Here is that list, first with completed pilgrimages, then with additional sites.
PHOTO-ESSAYS OF ACTUAL PILGRIMAGES to Sacred Sites of the Epic of Evolution
- The Grand Canyon
- Arkansas River Pleistocene Dreamtime
- Spotted Salamander Pond: Gaian Symbiosis in Miniature
- Back to the Ediacaran in a Pool of Ophyridium Blobs
- A Mammoth Memorial Service (South Dakota)
- Lake Missoula / Scablands / Columbia Flood Basalt
- Cretaceous Interior Seaway, KS
- America’s First Dinosaur Discovery (Haddonfield, NJ)
- Dinosaur Ridge, CO
- “Wall of Diversity”, American Museum of Natural History, NYC
- Little Colorado River, AZ
- Passenger Pigeon Monument, Wayalusing State Park, WI
- Sand Path at Down House, Darwin’s Home in England
- Ice Age Refuge: Apalachicola State Park, northern Florida
- Archaean Encounter at Yellowstone
- NASA’s Apollo Flight Center, Houston TX
- Type Specimen of an Ancestral Whale
Other Examples of Sacred Sites not yet written about
- The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs SD
- La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles CA
- Coelacanth, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, Cambridge MA
- Meteor Crater, Winslow AZ
- K/T Boundary exposures (various places)
- Galapagos Islands
- Rhynie Chert, Scotland
- Big Bone Lick, KY
- Sue (T. rex), Chicago Field Museum
- Waingara Fossils, Australia
- Living Stromatolites, Shark Bay Australia, Gulf of California
- Ginkgo trees (wherever planted)
- Metasequoia trees (wherever planted)
What to do when there?
Of course, we each build what spiritual practices work for us, yet I’ve found that pushing to complete a spiritual practice deliberately – even if it feels odd at first is sometimes needed to establish habit and familiarity. For many of us, this will apply to spiritual pilgrimages as well. Here are some steps that I’ve found to be important. Feel free of course to add or change this list, but whatever you decide, it may take some sticking to it before it takes root.
- Be Intentional. Plan where you will go, and why, and mark it off in your mind as your spiritual pilgrimage (whether it’s your first or your 50th spiritual pilgrimage). Learn about the location or object of your quest. Think about the deep roots of this, of where it fits today in the wider web of life, of how your connect to it and how it relates to you, and so on. Make this a spiritual pilgrimage from the start, instead of getting somewhere on a “vacation” and thinking “Hey, I’ll make that a spritual pilgrimage in retrospect!”. At least for me, I feel that these are much more than “vacations” (even if part of a larger vacation), and the deliberate mindset of pilgrimage from the start is important to how it feels during and after the experience.
- Have some specific actions ready. Think about what specific actions will help you feel the experience of this place – maybe meditate, or have a reading ready to be read out loud, or any of many other options. Thinking about this in advance will help make sure that you aren’t there wondering what you are “supposed to do”.
- Don’t be too scripted. Balance point #2 above against the fact that our spirituality is what we make it, and so the perfect action may come to mind when you are there. Your mind may make you feel drawn to abandon your script and perform some other meaningful practice.
- Greet and say Goodbye. If you like, feel free to personify the place, object, spirits of the memories of this place, etc. Greet them as you approach. Ask permission from them. Remove your shoes (if appropriate). Ask them to charge your object (see below). Offer a gift (for me, aseema/tobacco), or whatever fits your practice. Thank them/her/he. Say goodbye.
- Charge an Object. For me, I’ve sometimes used the site to put energy (in my own mind) into a bead on my Cosmala. I’m going to do that for an eclipse bead, for instance – by bathing it in the darkness of the moon’s shadow on August 21st. This also works well for ritual tools.
- Drink it in. While you are there, remember to just be. Maybe for a short while or a long while, depending the circumstances and what your deeper mind says to do. In some situations, part of your pilgrimage may be to sleep overnight there, waking up to the sacred place – or many other possibilities.
- Remember it well. Did it go as planned? If not, that’s OK. This was for you and your spirituality, so don’t beat yourself up if you feel you made a “mistake” at some point. This was for you, and you can thus put it in a positive light. Was it “perfect”? Great! Don’t expect everything to always be perfect according to some script – it’s perfect because it works for you. After all, it’s not like we are trying to appease some otherworldly goddess or god.
- Use the spiritual power to help the wider world. Remember that Naturalistic Paganism is not just about feeling good, but also about making a better world for everyone. By helping yourself you can better be helpful to others. On top of that, perhaps there is a way to share your experience, or something learned from it, with others – especially kids?
Wherever you go, whatever you do, may this practice be as powerful for you as it is for me.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.