Bringing Back the Boon: Life After Pilgrimage by Kate Brunner

Kate BrunnerI made it. Last month, I actually made it from Australia to Wales and back on an official Sisterhood of Avalon/Mythic Seeker Pilgrimage called The Priestess and the Healer. I also overnighted in Brisbane, passed through the Netherlands for a couple of days to see an old friend, and even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Glastonbury, England, in addition to my itinerary that had me trekking all over Wales. But all of it- every stop- turned out to be an integral part of my Pilgrimage experience. Much more so than I could have predicted when I first set out. And now I’m back. Back home with my children and my partner. Back at work with my writing. Back to chores, bills, & daily rounds where life is bright, loud, and busy– even as it is joyful & beautiful. What now, then? While the life I’ve returned to is virtually unchanged, something has subtly shifted under my feet in the fortnight it took me to tread those distant lands.

Traveling is always a great learning experience for me, but a mindfully undertaken Pilgrimage is a different creature than a casual holiday. In his fantastic work, The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau breaks down the pilgrim’s journey into phases: the Call, the Departure, the Arrival, & the Return. He relates this journey to the walking of a labyrinth, something Dr. Lauren Artress also explores at length in her book, Walking a Sacred Path. My experience resonates strongly with this metaphor. In retrospect, I can indeed pinpoint the moment of Arrival. (I sat down to eat a nourishing meal at a long, wooden table full of fellow Avalonian pilgrims in front of a window looking out on a late summer sunset in Dyffryn Nantlle.) The realization of that moment, small and simple as is was, shifted and opened my experience even deeper. The ritual of a labyrinth within  a physical Pilgrimage is a special encounter. Those who manage to carve out the resources to engage in it undergo an intense experience, whatever their spiritual tradition or destination. But what happens when it’s over? What comes next? This is where I am left now.

The ultimate aim of the quest, if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others. ~Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By

If one is to return. If. I will admit that there was a moment, somewhere in the atmosphere over the portion of the earth where the borders between Europe and Asia start to blur, where the wicked notion of not coming back floated to the surface of my long-haul-travel-addled mind. The Mother, Wife, Eldest Daughter & Responsible Human Being in me shouted the notion down immediately. But about a moon cycle post-Pilgrimage, I find myself suspecting that little voice was speaking at least a kernel of truth. While the travel is intense, the expense significant, & the experiences memorable, it is in the Return, in bringing back the boon, that the largest amount of labor waits. It is after one exits the labyrinth, carrying the full weight of the journey within, that the true work begins.

“How will you remember to remember when you return home?” Cousineau asks me as I re-read the last chapter of his work in preparation for writing this post.

Dinas Dinlle Photo credit: K. Brunner

Dinas Dinlle
Photo credit: K. Brunner

I arrived in Wales and joined a group of seventeen other fellow pilgrims, setting off to connect with the landscape of the Mabinogion; the ancient tales of the Cymru and the source of the Pantheon of the Sisterhood of Avalon. At each stop throughout Wales, we connected with each other, with the sacred landscape, and with the Lady of Avalon to which the site belongs.  That first day, in Narberth, I was nothing short of ebullient. Dancing up Gorsedd Arberth, singing to Rhiannon the whole way. Here I am! I’ve made it! At last, at last! But it was at Dinas Dinlle, straining for a glimpse of Caer Arianrhod, that the work of my Pilgrimage began to truly unfold. There, Arianrhod challenged me to claim my sovereignty as a Writer, as a Healer, and as a Priestess, She demands I face my fears of Failure & Rejection, of my own Healing & my powers as a Healer, and ultimately of Death itself. She made clear- at that place, in that moment- that I must work with and through these fears if I am to achieve what I seek in this lifetime. If I am to rise to my calling. I wept. Sobbed is probably a more accurate description. It took the embrace of two of my Sisters to help bring me back down. It was a triadic challenge that felt insurmountable. How on earth was I to accomplish all that in just a few days in the Welsh countryside? But on another day, an afternoon with Blodeuwedd on the banks of Llyn Morwynion reassured me and a to-do list received from Ceridwen while sitting on the banks of Llyn Tegid gave me new direction.

At Llyn Morwynion Photo credit: J. Telyndru

At Llyn Morwynion
Photo credit: J. Telyndru

And now I am home. Remembering to remember. I have pre-Pilgrimage life commitments I intend to continue to honor, but now I also have the boon of Pilgrimage; not an instantaneous transformation, but the germinating seed of a greater calling to Service. This marks the start of the next phase in a period of learning and growth for me. It is time for me to embrace my own healing and my calling to claim the path of Healer. It is time for me to work with Death as I have previously worked with Birth- to come to a place of intimacy with both Holy Portals of this life and to serve those who look to cross through them in a sacred manner. It is also way past time for me to fearlessly tell my tale; to fully BE the Writer.

“The story we bring back from our journeys is the boon. It is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of our journey.” Cousineau tells me. “All these must now be passed on.”

Tell what you have learned from your journey.”

Kate Brunner is a freelance writer & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is an American expat, living in Queensland, Australia and homeschooling her children, with the world as their classroom. Before motherhood, Kate earned a Bachelor of Arts from Tulane University, while studying Economics, International Relations, & Religion. She served four years as a logistics officer in the US Army, after which, Kate became a doula and holistic birth educator.  She is a regular contributor to The Sisterhood of Avalon’s online journal, The Tor Stone and is active in the Red Tent Movement. Kate volunteered in Houston as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas. She enjoys international travel, perfecting her cooking, reading great books, & having fascinating conversations with friends, old or new.

Categories: Death, Earth-based spirituality, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Healing, Paganism, Pilgrimage, Sovereignty, Spiritual Journey, Spirituality

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18 replies

  1. “My experience resonates strongly with this metaphor.” Me, too, thanks for this fascinating post. Your travels are so brave, Kate!! On all portals and on what comes next, a poem by Dickinson —

    The Blunder is in estimate.
    Eternity is there
    We say, as of a Station —
    Meanwhile he is so near
    He joins me in my Ramble —
    Divides abode with me —
    No friend have I that so persists
    As this Eternity.

    ~ Emily Dickinson


    • Sarah- your labyrinth work is really stunning! When are you going to write a Guest Post for us here at FAR on Emily Dickinson & your work? In all seriousness, I strongly encourage you to consider it.

      You’ve sparked another theme for me to explore in my writing, I think. I need to explore this connection between travel and bravery. People say this to me often enough that I think it’s probably worth turning my attention towards. It’s interesting because I do work through an assortment of fears before every journey, but I still resist the idea that I am being brave by undertaking them. Hmmm.


  2. Your photos are gorgeous. I know you are a writer, but have you thought about painting…..???


    • Thank you. I do paint some, thought not as much as I’d like to. Right now, I am in the process of learning more about photography at as art form. During this trip, I kept my DSLR out of Auto mode almost the entire time. Shooting the Sacred Landscape I was visiting was absolutely another way of deeply connecting with those spaces. By looking through the lens, I learned to look at different angles & scales I might not have engaged otherwise.


  3. Kate, it sounds like you had such a powerful experience, and I very much resonate with your post. The imperative to ‘bring back the boon’ – to share what we gain with others and not think that our transformation is simply for our own sake, is so very important. It seems to be part of our be-coming, growing into the fullness of ourselves, and extending our lives as far as they will go. I love that. Your post is a good reminder to me as I try to keep my work on the dissertation (and my motivation for it) grounded on its larger purpose. Thank you!


    • Xochitl- I feel that way sometimes with my Seminary studies. I get wrapped up in the work itself and if I get behind, negativity can creep in. Reminding myself why I engage the work- both for my own benefit and in order to continue working towards the call to Service- helps a great deal in re-centering me.

      I like your phrase “extending our lives as far as they will go.” It evokes a powerful image for me and one that it similar to a vision I had during one Pilgrimage working. I saw myself in the valley beside the lake, at the end of my life and behind me were all the people whose lives I had somehow touched positively. I was astounded by how many of them there were. That is what working to extend my life as far as it can go has the potential to manifest if I commit to it. When I get discouraged, I hope to hold on to that vision.


  4. Thank you Kate. One experience of retreat – like and not-like your pilgrimage – left me with a number of ‘callings’ to work through and over 5 years I have been finding that I can offer to other people things I have discovered since that retreat. Some things – like the loss of an awareness of the presence of the divine – felt negative at the time but have proved fruitful in unexpected and beautiful ways. Others were more immediately positive – working through emotion on the death of a dear friend – and have resourced me to listen and respond to others. I honour you for seeking to bring back the gifts you have found / been given and know that you and those you encounter will continue to benefit from them for years to come.


    • Thanks, Margaret. And thank you for the reminder that this work ahead of me can (and should, really) take years. Sometimes I can get impatient with myself- feeling like I’m not affecting change fast enough or manifesting acts of service as much as I should. Of course, I often get in my own way by doing that. There is time for the work to unfold.


  5. Thank you for this lovely testimony … a knowing that sharing our stories is empowerment to self and others, that pilgrimage can open wide this portal of story. Beautiful!

    When I returned from pilgrimage a couple years ago, I wrote and published my memoir of that journey. I ended it with:

    Throughout my journey, I heard whispered messages of the Minoans, like this one:

    “See and honor the grace of Goddess within your own nature,
    and there you shall find your soul purpose.”

    The touchstones from my pilgrimage are not images set in marble, not commandments to limit or boxes to restrict. Rather, they are questions to return to again and again that will guide me through the continually shifting labyrinth of life.
    In what ways can I continue learning from and through Gaia?
    What wisdom can I uncover from the past—my own and that of other people and cultures?
    What fills my heart with passion, yet also brings joy, peace and love?
    How can I share—within the realization and honoring of my own true nature—the resonance of these vibrant touchstones with others?
    I finalize this script of memories while residing far from Crete, yet I still feel the island’s breath upon my cheeks. I see saguaro cacti instead of olive trees, vast desert instead of ocean, but the sky holds the same air and when I inhale, the Goddess of Crete breathes into me.
    I am still a pilgrim.


    • Darla- this is so inspiring! I am working on a collection of travel stories and the theme of Pilgrimage is emerging as a strong one in them. Your questions for reflection are indeed powerful. Once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim, I wager. After treading sacred landscapes, a piece of that place lives inside you. Just as a piece of you, remains in that land.


  6. Kate, your journey so resonates with so many of us, for a journey is a pilgrimage, no matter where it leads. I share your sense of “What do I do now”, for I’ve been wondering that for over three decades now. I spent two years in Somalia, a tough environment. Yet I learned. This was a spiritual learning on a level I never expected. I wish I had the gift of a writer to convey the lessons there. You are a much stronger writer, and I suspect a much better artist, than I can ever hope to be. I hope you continue to bring your lessons to us; I look forward to it.


    • MaryAnn- I would love to hear more about your experiences in Somalia. We all have teaching stories to tell, don’t we? I find I learn so much from deep listening when others share their journeys too. I encourage you to try writing of your travels, even if you’re the only one who ever sees it. Write exactly as you would talk if you were telling someone about your experience in person. That’s how to find your written voice. I find writing out experiences often brings me insights after the fact and leads me to a deeper level of processing.


  7. I’ve never been on a pilgrimage such as you describe, but the four phases you describe – the calling, the departure, the arrival, and the return (and all that happens after the return) — resonated so deeply with me. So many life experiences that are not travel-related — serious illness, grief, the making of a creative work, a numinous experience of finding wonder in nature — have the same four phases and it brings a whole new perspective to consider them as “pilgrimages.” Thank you for this new way of thinking about them!


    • Carolyn- You might enjoy reading a book called Pilgrim Principles by Lacy Clark Ellman. She explores this concept of bringing Pilgrimage into life and shares some perspectives on what makes a pilgrim of the everyday.


  8. A pilgrimage, Kate, how wonderful. I almost feel jealous. But instead I think I will try to remember that every day can be a pilgrimage if I just remember that I’m in a sacred place at a sacred time. And as pagans, I think you’ll probably agree with me that all places on Earth and all time in the yearly Round are sacred. Blessed be!


    • I firmly believe all of these experiences & interpretations of the pilgrimage spectrum have value to the seeker- to the one who declares him or herself a Pilgrim- in unique ways.

      That being said, a pilgrimage doesn’t have to be to the other side of the world. I am a big advocate of the day trip. When we first got to Australia, we got lost in the stress & minutia of trying to settle in to a new house, a new job, a new schedule, a new culture, etc. At some point, I said enough is enough. My husband got home from his Saturday shift (he was on a 6-day work week) and I told him we were leaving town on Sunday, even if it was just for the day. By just driving an hour north to explore the next nearest large town, we were able to step out of the noise of “everyday” and reconnect on many important levels. It was so healing for us that I started fortnightly “Adventure Sundays” and made a point of getting us out into the world every two weeks for about the next year or so. I guess that’s sort of a middle ground between a pilgrimage to a far off place & everyday pilgrimage.

      I do agree that all space and time is sacred, but I also do believe there are spaces where humanity has invested markedly larger chunks of spiritual energy than average. Those places have become reservoirs of specific energetics because of this, which is why- across traditions- it is still so powerful for pilgrims to strive to experience those places in the flesh.


  9. All places are sacred and that may be one of the things a pilgrim learns. But the essence of a pilgrimage is “leaving home.” Victor Turner speaks of “liminal space” crossing a threshold from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This opens the pilgrim to focus on something other than the tasks and commitments of ordinary life. It seems that in ancient Crete pilgrimages were to mountaintops that were only a few hours journey from home. So it doesn’t have to be a two week trip. Another important aspect of pilgrimage named by Turner is communitas or community. A pilgrim joins with other pilgrims and shares stories along the way. This is not a side benefit of an independent, inner, or solely personal journey, but integral to it.


    • Carol- Thank you for referencing Victor Turner. I have yet to explore his work and after a quick internet search, it looks like I absolutely should do so. The community aspect of pilgrimage was extremely valuable to me during my experience as I alluded to in my post. Not only was the emotional support provided by my fellow pilgrims crucial to me, but also, on many occasions the words one pilgrim spoke about their unfolding experience became the key for other pilgrims to unlock a part of their own journey.


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