This essay explores pilgrimage, earth energies and the alchemy of sacred sites – the potential for spiritual transformation offered by embarking on pilgrimage to sites on the earth that have long been sanctified by wonder, ritual, prayer and the footsteps of seekers. Alchemy is defined as: “a power or process of transforming something common into something special; an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” Traveling to sacred places and becoming familiar with earth energies and how subtle energies move through the landscape, is one way of bringing back the long-forgotten ways that humanity has worked with and supported the earth in sustainable, respectful ways. Indigenous cultures have never lost this knowledge but the Western mind is sorely in need of a re-connection with the spirit of Gaia.
Kathryn Rountree is a feminist scholar from New Zealand who has published several articles that trace the bodily experience of women who travel as Goddess or Pagan pilgrims to sacred sites in places like Malta and Turkey. She compares Goddess pilgrimages with pilgrimages from other faiths by surveying the literature on pilgrimage and finding many similarities between the two. Using correspondences and journal entries communicated to her by women who traveled to sacred sites, Rountree provides fruitful insights into the type of experiences that have emerged in my personal pilgrimage experiences as well as in the experiences described by other friends of mine. I will be drawing from two of Rountree’s articles: “Goddess pilgrims as tourists: Inscribing the body through sacred travel” and “Performing the divine: Neo-pagan pilgrimages and embodiment at sacred sites.”
Rountree notes the impetus by Goddess pilgrims to make journeys to sacred sites:
“[Goddess] pilgrims recount deeply emotional experiences in temples once dedicated to ancient Goddesses. Their desire to make such pilgrimages seems to be motivated by a huge nostalgia for what they believe they have lost in modern industrialized society: the ‘primitive,’ the ‘natural’ and a high value placed on women. Visiting ancient holy places is an attempt to satisfy a nostalgia desire for solidity, simplicity, connection with the earth, an ancient spiritual heritage, all of which are felt to have been lost within contemporary Western societies. “(Rountree, 2002, p. 491).
Traveling to sacred temples and connecting with the earth in natural landscapes are ways to heal what we have lost. There is no question in my mind that it is more difficult to deeply connect with the earth while surrounded by concrete and asphalt and the psychic energy of a city of millions of people. This is why spiritual retreats and pilgrimages are hallmarks of many people on a spiritual path.
Rountree (2002) gives an overview of the importance such sacred site journeys offer for women with the relationship with their bodies:
“Such journeys contribute to a radical re-inscription of the female body by exposing women to alternative representations of the feminine and by providing contexts in which the feminine can be re-imagined and re-experienced through symbolic activity and ritual. The body as a site for analysis has recently received a great deal of attention from feminist and other scholars within the social sciences, however a discourse centered on the body has yet to develop within the literature on pilgrimage.” (p. 476)
Rountree (2002) addresses the absence of research in this area of female embodiment at sacred sites:
“As Morinis (1992:17) says, ‘we are yet to investigate the broad range of psychosomatic sensations that accompany sacred journeys and are often the most significant aspects of pilgrimage in the view of participants themselves.’ “(p. 476).
This is an important point. I agree that the psychosomatic experiences should be investigated and again, we can look to a body of knowledge from mysticism, shamanism and transpersonal psychology for clues. The sacred sites provide openings and accelerated pathways for new intelligence to stream into our bodies, into our awareness and deepen our connection with the earth.
In one of my experiences in meditation in South Africa, I had the experience of feeling my whole body dissolve into the vast open savanna where we were located. It was as if there was no separation between myself and the land. It was all contained within my body and I was contained within it. Rountree (2006) appears to describe this type of experience in the line: “the woman’s body is enveloped by the earth’s body” (p. 105).
Rountree draws from the writing about pilgrimage by the Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen:
Sacred landscapes, she says, affect us like dreams or poems or music, moving us out of everyday reality into a deeper archetypal realm . . . For Bolen, sacred places are rather like ‘acupuncture points’ on the earth’s body: points which can be stimulated to reduce pain, heal the body and restore balance and harmony. (Rountree, 2006, p. 102).
In Earthwalking Sky Dancers: Women’s Pilgrimages to Sacred Places, Leila Castle, teacher and writer, gathered and edited the stories of women who traveled on pilgrimage to sacred sites across the world. Leila Castle artfully discusses the relationship we encounter with sacred sites:
There is a reciprocity between the sites and ourselves as we alternate in both creative and receptive relationship. They serve as transformational gateways, giving insight and healing, charging us with the creative power of the Earth itself, and receiving our sorrow, pain, and the ashes of our beloved as a comforting mother accepting our prayers and offerings, tears, and love. They are places of initiation as we enter in the field – the archetypal energy and living mythos associated with it. Here we can explore the sacred dimensions of relationship between the Earth and ourselves as we enter into the consciousness of a site. We may then be taught by the site itself, whatever is appropriate for us at the time or by a gradual unfolding. (Castle, 1996, p. xxxii)
I agree with Castle that sacred sites are “places of initiation.” Once open to the gifts of the landscape, ancient temple sites, or maybe even to the dramatic places on the body of the Earth such as the Grand Canyon, the earth herself initiates us into her mysteries.
South African spiritual teacher and mystic Leslie Temple-Thurston articulates the aspect of initiation for the seeker as they visit sacred sites with the purpose of spiritual awakening. While she is speaking directly of Egypt in this quote, it is my contention that this is true of pilgrimage to any sacred site:
“Someone seeking spiritual transformation who travels to Egypt will receive initiations. This is a predictable happening. Initiations are an integral part of the deep changes that take places in every student’s consciousness as they advance on their journey toward self-knowledge, and the sacred sites of Egypt offer profound initiations.” (Leslie Temple-Thurston qt. in Faddoul and Nazmy, 2009, p. 50)
For myself, I know that each sacred journey that I have undertaken has felt like an initiation into a more beloved relationship with the earth and life.
Alchemy. (2005). In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary (11th ed). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
Castle, Leila, Ed. (1996). Earthwalking sky dancers: Women’s pilgrimages to sacred places. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Rountree, Kathryn. (2002). “Goddess pilgrims as tourists: Inscribing the body through sacred travel.” Sociology Of Religion, 63(4), 475-496. EBSCO. Web. 22 May 2012.
—. (2006). “Performing the divine: Neo-pagan pilgrimages and embodiment at sacred sites.” Body & Society, 12 (4), 95-115. SAGE. Web. 22 May 2012.
Temple-Thurston, Leslie. (2009). “Beyond the Beyond.” In George Faddoul and Mohamed Nazmy (Eds.), The modern day alchemist: secrets of manifestation revealed to awaken the alchemist within (pp. 46-67). Sydney, Australia: QC Publishing.