“May the road rise to meet you…”
-Traditional Irish blessing

In Phil Cousineau’s seminal travel book The Art of Pilgrimage (1998), the now 71-year-old American author, lecturer, scholar, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker shies away from a strict definition of pilgrimage. Instead, readers are offered an array of ideas, quotes, opinions, and experiences from across the ages and around the world.

“Over the years, I have learned that there are as many definitions of a pilgrimage as there are people who take a pilgrimage,” shares the scribe via Zoom from his home in San Francisco. “However, there are a number of common traits that are inherent to all.”

In The Art of Pilgrimage, Cousineau condenses those characteristics over seven chapters; The Longing, The Call, Departure, The Pilgrim’s Way, The Labyrinth, Arrival, and Bringing Back the Boon.

“It is a circular journey,” he explains. “And that journey can be found in just about every country and culture on Earth.”

By way of example, he points to Mecca, the Islamic Holy Shrine in western Saudi Arabia that draws millions of Muslims each year. “Part of that ritual involves walking around the Kaʿbah inside the Great Mosque in a circular fashion. It is incredibly stirring to see thousands of worshippers having this deeply profound experience – one that is both collective and personal at the same time.”

“There are countless variations on that tradition, actually,” he continues. “Medina, Jerusalem, Rome, India, Istanbul…some cultures see the journey as a labyrinth, with some sort of Higher Power or Sacred Self at the center.”

Although many of these sojourns are spiritual in nature, Cousineau notes that there are pilgrimages of other sorts as well.

“How many people visit Elvis’ gravesite at Graceland each year? Or take tours of celebrity homes in Hollywood? Or climb the old wooden stairs at Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris because Hemingway once frequented there? Or light a memorial candle outside the home of Kurt Cobain? That doesn’t mean that these experiences have no inherent value – in fact, many of them are transformative. Perhaps, then, it is a question of intent.

“I believe it is important here to distinguish between pilgrimage and travel,” continues Cousineau. “Lots of people travel – in fact, a few years ago I read a report in the New York Times noting that the tourism industry had surpassed the military industrial marketplace as the world’s biggest business sector. And, aside from the two years we lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are travelling now than ever before.”

Part of that is due to what has been called “revenge travel” and – despite the ongoing impact of “funflation”- the trending “experience economy” bounced back in record numbers in 2023. A recent report by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis noted that Americans spent about $100 billion last year on travel-related concerts, sporting events, and live entertainment – up 23 percent from the previous year, and 13 percent higher than pre-COVID 2019. Many forecasters expect those numbers to climb in 2024 and over the coming years.

Still, the majority of those people are taking trips for business or leisure purposes. Fewer undertake pilgrimages.

“Well, there is a big experiential difference there,” says Cousineau. “Tourists tend to look outward, snapping selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace or wherever. Whereas for the traveller – or pilgrim – the journey is inward. And that isn’t often easy. I mean, there is a reason why the word travel descends from the French word travail – because it is work.”

Whether vocation or vacation, he notes, the important thing is that people follow the call.

“Whatever the reasons, something stirs us to move, to get ourselves geared up and into gear, and to set our wheels in motion…”

Interestingly, the word pilgrimage finds its roots in the French pèlerinage – taken from the Latin terms peregrinus (foreign) and per ager (going through the fields).

“Given the landscape of the day when those first treks were taking place, the word is probably quite fitting,” smiles Cousineau.

While there is some debate about the origins of the pilgrim experience, there are thousands of recorded testimonials from times past and present that testify to the transformative power of putting one foot in front of the other.

“Travel writing is one of the oldest forms of writing that we have as a species. The desire to share our experiences on the road leaves trails of crumbs that feed our hunger to explore. These words, and as we see in other art forms also, often serve as guides or in a mentorship capacity. Humans seek, and then we seek to serve, often through our myths and fables. I am both honoured and humbled to be considered a part of that great storytelling tradition.”

Cousineau, who lived in Connemara, Ireland for a year, and has traversed the Emerald Isle (“one of the world’s great ‘thin places’”) on several other occasions, says that some of the world’s oldest pilgrimage experiences can be found in the Celtic nations.

“There are the obvious ones – the Camino de Santiago trail in Galicia, Spain; Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland; the Way of St Andrews in Scotland; the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. And then there are the lesser-known experiences, such as the Turas at Glenn Cholm Cille in Donegal, Ireland.”

According to pilgrimpath.ie, “Gleann Cholm Cille (Colm Cille Valley) is a broad and secluded glen in western Donegal with one of the finest collections of pillar stones anywhere in Ireland. These are spread over a wide area of the valley floor and are located at the fourteen stations on the 3.4-mile (5.4 Km) route (there is also an alternative 4.5-mile route). Turas Colm Cille is the name given to this pilgrimage path located in Gleann Cholm Cille. An Turas is conducted by locals and visitors alike annually on St Colm Cille’s day, June 9.  ‘An Turas’ is performed barefoot around 15 standing stones and Cairns including the saint’s own Church and Bed as well as the large Cairn at his well. It takes around three hours to complete, and the first Turas is usually performed at midnight of ‘Lá an Turais’ (Day of the Journey).”

It was in Donegal that Cousineau had an awakening of his own.

“I was in an ancient chapel, and the was this very old carving of the Celtic Knot of Eternity on one of the walls. As I was tracing my fingers over the design, I realized that the threads emanating out of the center of the knot eventually returned to that center. For the Celts, it was – and remains – a deeply powerful symbol of the soul’s journey back to itself, to its source.”

“If you travel far enough, you will eventually meet yourself…”
-Joseph Campbell

The Reverend Dr. John Philip Newell is considered the foremost authority on Celtic Spirituality alive today and has been described as “a wandering teacher” with “the heart of a Celtic bard and the mind of a Celtic scholar.”

Canadian by birth, and now residing with his family in Scotland, Howell regularly leads sacred pilgrimages across the Celtic nations and is involved with spiritual retreats around the world.

“I grew up in a traditional Christian home, with traditional Christian values,” he shares via Zoom. “When the call of Celtic Spirituality came, I simply followed my heart. If I could define Celtic Spirituality, it would be that – the path of the heart.”

Over time, his interest in the two spiritual motifs – Celtic and Christian – blended into a hybrid system of belief.

“Consider the Celtic Cross,” he muses. “It brings the best of both these worlds together.

Both the circle and the cross are examples of what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes.”

Widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern psychology (along with Sigmund Freud) Jung had an abiding interest in Celtic mythology, particularly as it pertained to his work with archetypes – universal symbols or patterns that are present in the collective unconscious of all humans.

“For the Celts,” continues Howell, “the image of the circle was one that they found in the cycles of the natural world – the sun and moon, the rhythm of the seasons, the flowing of waters to and from the oceans, the patterns within a flower, and so forth. It held great significance for them as a symbol of these cycles of life.

“Christians used the symbol of the cross to signify the eternal process of dying to oneself,” he continues. “The image of Christ being crucified represents the transition of out the small self and into the Sacred Self.”

For both Celts and Christians, the reconciliation of their humanity and their divinity was, and remains, an existential dilemma – how to be both at once? And are we human beings having a spiritual experience or are we spiritual beings having a human experience?

“Well, it is both,” explains Howell. “And the story of the reconciliation between those two elements has been told since we learned to tell stories – stories that we are still telling today.”

Of particular interest to scholarly scribe is the inclusive aspect of Celtic culture.

“As a matriarchal society, the Celts believed in equality amongst men and women, respect for other cultures and peoples, and an honouring of the natural world.”

That changed after the Roman invasions.

“Roman society was patriarchal. And when this male-dominated, godless state converted to Christianity under Constantinople in the 4th century (AC), the Church became a haven of male energy, for better or for worse.

“I believe that what we are witnessing now is a sort of swinging back of the proverbial pendulum towards a more sacred, feminine spirit – not to “kick the King off the Crown” as it were, but to become a better-balanced society. For the world to heal, the head and the heart must be in alignment. Remember – we are born of both man and woman, and we carry both elements within us. Jung called these two selves the ‘animus’ (male) and the ‘anima’ (female).”

That, he says, is the real meaning of Irish writer John O’Donohue’s bestselling book on Celtic Spirituality, Anam Cara.

“Anam Cara is an ancient Gaelic word meaning ‘Soul Friend’. This was John’s gift to us – a spiritual map forward to a place where our two selves bring out the best in one another.”

Most scholars agree that all religious and spiritual movements around the world axis on the “Holy Trinity” of personal transformation – mystical death, alchemic rebirth, and the sacrifice for humanity.

Or, put simply; get out of the small self, get into Sacred Self, and teach others do the same.

“Moving from a fear-based mentality -what some call ‘Hell’ – into one that is rooted in love, or ‘Heaven’, won’t be easy for us as a species, but we must if we are to survive ourselves in the years ahead.”

That, he says, comes down to individual choice.

“Each of us has a personal responsibility to evolve, the become better versions of ourselves each day. That journey – that soulful pilgrimage that we each must make towards the Sacred Self – will heal us as individuals and as a species. Sadly, too often it is only when we reach a crisis point or come to a crossroad in our life, that we surrender to the call to ‘come home.’”

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul…”
-John Muir

Each year, it is estimated that 1.7 million people undertake a purposeful pilgrimage to one or more of the Celtic nations.

“Recently we have seen an upswing in the number of people of all ages and backgrounds who are seeking greater meaning and real purpose in their lives,” says , from the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.

A psychotherapist and spiritual director, Ní Chinnéide facilitates annual workshops and retreats at home and abroad in the field of Celtic Spirituality.

“Our world has become a very noisy and stressful place,” she continues. “Distractions are endless, and there is little chance for most of us to just be – we are constantly in a state of doing. We are busy being busy. As a species, we weren’t designed for that. It is no wonder that so many of us are breaking down or breaking apart at our seams.”

“The Celtic nations offer people a place to reflect and reconnect with both nature and with themselves. We need the silence to fully hear the still, small voice inside of us. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the words silent and listen are anagrams.”

Kelly D. is a recovering person from Vancouver, British Columbia. Last summer she celebrated 10 years of continuous sobriety with a ten-day trek to Wales.

“My father was from the Swansea area,” shares the 47-year-old via ZOOM. “I never married, I had no dependants and no siblings, so he and my mom were the only immediate family I had. They were always supportive of me. After I had stopped drinking and drugging, dad and I discussed the possibility of taking a trip to Wales. When he died in 2021, I vowed to visit his homeland as a sort of homage to his life and our shared heritage.”

She was, admittedly, somewhat apprehensive about her solo sojourn.

“In one of the readings in our 12-step literature it says, ‘We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon. Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a program of recovery.’ And so, as I did when I first got sober, I got down on my knees and prayed for strength and guidance.”

With the support of her family, friends, and recovery peers, Kelly left Canada in early August, landing in Cardiff before setting off to Swansea “on faith and on foot.”

“Those were steps of a different sort,” she smiles. “The walk was about 60 kilometers, so it only took me a few days. Thankfully I had good shoes, a good walking stick, and good weather.”

After a full day exploring her ancient family homestead and the surrounding area, she felt closer to her father and forebearers.

“It was important to my healing process, absolutely. And not only regarding my father’s passing, but also from all of the suffering that I had caused myself over the years from my addiction issues.”

Still, while there, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more for her to experience.

“That night, I went to one of my 12-step meetings in Swansea. There was this older woman in attendance, with many years of sobriety, and I felt immediately connected to her. We spoke after the meeting – you know, just casual talk, nothing heavy. Then, I explained to her why I had come to Wales, and she asked me if I was on a pilgrimage. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of my trip that way.

“She then inquired if I had visited any of the area’s Holy Wells. Having been raised without religion and being a bit of a skeptic about hocus-pocus spirituality, I replied that these kinds of things had never really been on my radar. I mean, my ancestors were all miners – very practical, down-to-earth, hands-on folks! – and I grew up with that kind of mentality, studying science and engineering in university. She asked me if I believed in God, and I told her that I didn’t know. I gave her my contact information and, later that same night, she sent me a link to a website with information about the area’s Holy Wells. She encouraged me to go, adding only to do so with an open mind and open heart.”

The next day – and “with nothing to do for a few days” – Kelly set off on foot to visit one of the estimated 200 Holy Wells in southwest Wales.

“It was a little shrine near Mumbles,” she recalls, smiling at the town’s name. “There wasn’t much there – a small statue by a running stream, with some sort of worn-out plaque. I remember standing there and it was raining and even a bit cold, and I thought to myself ‘what the hell am I doing here?’. But I said a quick prayer to my dad and started walking to the next one, which was less than an hour away.”

In all, Kelly visited 12 Holy Wells over four days.

‘To be honest, nothing really happened,” she laughs, “except that I got back to my hotel each afternoon completely drenched from the rain.”

It wasn’t until weeks later, after returning home, that she began to sense some sort of slight spiritual shift.

“It wasn’t any kind of epiphany or one of those ‘Moses-on-the-Mountaintop’ moments, she concedes. “It was more like a barely noticeable awakening, like a flower slowly turning and opening to the sun. Since then, I have become more aware of a Higher Power; I pray and meditate each morning, and I started reading more about spirituality, especially Celtic Spirituality. And I began painting again, which was my first love as a child. It brings me so much joy and peace, and every time I pick up the brush, I hear those woman’s words about keeping an open mind and open heart. Seeing myself emerge on the canvas has been illuminating, and the process of reconnecting with my ‘Higher Self’ has been nothing short of a miracle.”

Mike Dolan can relate.

The 68-year-old contractor from Boston was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017, only months after retiring after 40-plus years of hard work.

“I was all set,” he says over the phone from his winter home in Florida. “My mortgage was paid off. My wife and I were wintering down south each January. I was out playing golf with my buddies two or three times a week. My kids were doing well, and I had just become a grandfather to a happy and healthy baby boy. Life was good.”

It was at his annual check-up that his doctor noticed irregularities in his PSA test.

“I had a biopsy and got the diagnosis. I was shell-shocked.”

After surgery and radiation treatments, Dolan’s wife Maria suggested that they take a long-overdue trip to southwest Ireland – the ancestral home of his family – while they waited for his follow-up.

“At first I was a little hesitant to go,” he admits. “Especially when she started to use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘pilgrimage’. I mean, I’m a hard-ass Irishman from Beantown – the only spirits I was interested in were the ones that came in a bottle. And I didn’t even really know what a pilgrimage was – I had to look it up in the dictionary!”

Dolan agreed to the trip, if only to keep his mind off his health issues.

“Ireland had been on my bucket list for years. If you’re from Boston you’re likely either Irish or Italian, right? And part of being Irish or Italian means that at some point in your life you’re going to take some sort of trip to what we call ‘the old country’. So, I thought, well I better do that now before it’s too late.

“We were on this bus tour in Kerry,” he continues. “There was something like 30 of us on this trip – all Americans, all about the same age – and we would stop in these little villages and all of us would walk with our guide to some local site, like a church or a shrine, and learn about a famous Saint or some history from the area. Then we’d hit a local pub and have a beer and a bite to eat and listen to some fiddle music.

“So, on one of those stops, a bunch of the guys skipped the hike, and we went to the pub to grab a Guinness or two while our wives went with the guide. A couple of hours later I found my wife in this little church down the road – she’s Catholic like me, but she’s old-school Italian, so still pretty religious. So, I get there, and she asks me to kneel and pray. Now, I haven’t prayed in like 60 years or something – I’ve never been religious or anything like that…as a kid, sure, we all went to church, but I worked in concrete all my life. Anyhow, I get down on my knees and put my hands together just to make her happy. And so, I ask God or whoever all the usual stuff like bless my family and my friends and make the world a better place and blah-blah-blah. And then she leans over and whispers that I should ask for some help with the whole cancer thing, so I did.”

The couple then made their way back to the bus.

“So, we’re walking, y’know, and I do feel a little better – I don’t know if it was the praying or the Guinness to be truthful – and then my cell phone rings and it’s my doctor and he tells me that I’m going to be ok, I’m going to live, and I start crying and my wife is hugging me and then I feel my heart just break wide open.”

As is so often the case, Dolan’s spiritual awakening had been preceded by a rude awakening.

“It’s kind of a cliché, I suppose, but it made me a new guy. My buddies think I’ve lost my mind, and I don’t deny that. Now I go around telling people how much I love them, especially my family, and I give people hugs. I do volunteer work with people who are going through cancer, and I even started going back to church! Now that’s a miracle!

That sense of the miraculous, says Phil Cousineau, is not uncommon.

“That is the whole point of a pilgrimage; it is an alchemic experience, the transition from the ‘lead’ of our everyday lives into the ‘gold’ of God consciousness, or love. As I wrote in my book, pilgrimage takes us from mindlessness to mindfulness, from soullessness to soulfulness, and it reminds us that we are more than we think we are. Whatever the definition, a pilgrimage is a life-changing experience.

“Ultimately, that circular journey brings us back to ourselves, back to the source, and back to our home, where we belong.”

“From the point of ignition to the final drive
The point of the journey is not to arrive…”
-Neil Peart