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Lessons from the Trail: The Practice of Pilgrimage

In April '22, Heartward Sanctuary co-founders Julia Hartsell and Jonathan Edwards went on pilgrimage to the valley of Rieti, the "umbilicus" of Italy, seeking nourishment, healing and inspiration. Jonathan's personal account of the trip, which unfolded on foot over 100km and two weeks, can be found here.

What follows is a conversation with Jonathan on pilgrimage, walking, learning to trust ourselves, the good kind of weird, and bringing inspiration back to root at home.

Editor: So what led you and Julia to go on this trip?

JE: I had a kind of inexplicable draw to the area. For months I didn't know why I was zeroing in on this not-very-well-known place, Rieti and its surrounds; I had to take it on faith, but I've learned to trust those feelings. I also had a soul-deep longing to get out and walk for days on end, and to do that in Italy. That desire had been building for well over a decade and finally ripened about a year into the pandemic. At that point the trip started coming into focus.

Was there a traditional religious angle? Was it a devotional trip?

Yes and no. Even though we were walking on the Way of St Francis, the devotion in our case was first and foremost to the holy earth, the body of the divine feminine, who's revered as the Madonna, Santa Maria.

Sounds very Italian.

Well, it's no coincidence that a culture so oriented towards beauty and the sensual is also steeped in Marian devotion. That goes back way before the Christian era, by the way. Old wine, new bottles...

So what makes for a true pilgrimage?

Pilgrimage can mean many things to many people. When we travel seeking healing or communion, we enter a different space than if we were simply going on vacation. We prepare ourselves in some way for an encounter with the numinous. Things can get a little weird.

Weird how?

Not in the pejorative sense, more in the root sense which has to do with fate and destiny. The 'weird sisters' were the fates who spun, measured and cut the threads of our lives. What's weird in us has to do with how we're wired, what's unique and special, even if it's not always comfortable. And to bring it back to pilgrimage, we meet all those parts of ourselves on the trail when we walk day after day. The journey out is a journey in, and the two aspects--inner and outer-- come to reflect one another. It's hard to explain, but I think anyone who's been on a certain kind of soul-led journey can relate.

Can the weird magic of pilgrimage happen anywhere?

Well, I've yet to hear about a convincing pilgrimage to a mall. But it can happen on trips to very personal places that wouldn't necessarily qualify as pilgrimage spots in most people's minds. It can be unique to the individual and what s/he holds dear. The umbilicus of Italy isn't exactly a pilgrimage destination for most, but it turned out to be very significant and meaningful for us.

That said, there's also something about joining a larger current, as people have done for millennia, to communal pilgrimage sites such as Mount Kailash, Mecca, and Santiago de Compostela.

Is there something as well about going on foot?

There really is. Walking slows you down and allows you to get in touch with yourself and with the land and people around you. It simplifies everything, though it doesn't make things easy. Walking is a kind of slow alchemy that gradually brings things to the surface. It works things through a step at a time. Partly it's the rhythm, partly the connection to this basic human activity and to all those who've walked before. Partly it's the encounters along the way. Partly it's the discipline, the rigor of it, which can be considerable. Partly it's simply taking the time to slow down and be present.

Could other people take a 'pilgrimage to the holy navel,' as you called it?

There's no reason they couldn't. What we did is basically a modification of a part of the Way of St Francis, the section in northern Lazio / southern Umbria. The official route splits in two, heading around both sides of Rieti's valley. We stitched those two together, made a few modifications to fit our schedule, and basically made a loop around Rieti. I liked the idea of a circular route and it fit the theme of the trip. This way we were able to visit all four of the Franciscan sanctuaries in the area and the famous Beech tree of St Francis, which was a real highlight, beyond what I could have imagined. If anyone is interested in doing something similar, I'd be happy to be in touch and point them in the right direction.

Any plans for bringing other to places like Rieti that have been so meaningful to you?

Not at present, but I'll admit it's crossed my mind. If there are others who feel called to the particular medicine of this place, I could see myself returning in a guiding capacity some day. Participants would have to be willing to forego some predictability and trust themselves to the trail. And walk plenty. But it's Italy, so you eat well, the landscape is beautiful, and the people are warm. We met some real characters.