Last Monday, for Memorial Day, I joined the 2019 Connecticut River Pilgrims for a 7.5-mile trip from Rocky Hill to Middletown. The pilgrimage was led by Kairos Earth, a non-profit organization dedicated to deepening conversations with the understanding of the Earth as holy ground, renewing Christian practice of connecting with the Earth, andcreating opportunities for transformation – such as river pilgrimages.
The guides for the trip were wife-husband duo Lisa and Mark Kutolowski. Lisa and Mark have a very specific way of leading their pilgrimages. Their approach is centered on the visceral experience of how our bodies move through and with the earth.
We began our day in silence at the river’s edge at the boat ramp in Rocky Hill. The 14 pilgrims gathered in a circle, Mark and one pilgrim opened in prayer and a reading. Then in lieu of a sermon or reflection, the pilgrims dispersed throughout the grass and sat in silence for 20 minutes.
While the pilgrims were praying — or swatting at mosquitos, like I was — the pilgrimage/spiritual programs coordinator and operations director for Kairos Earth, Jo Brooks, prepared all the kayaks and canoes for the pilgrims.
After a collected Our Father the pilgrims reconvened and made way towards the kayaks. Because it was Memorial Day, the Rocky Hill Fire Department had a memorial service at the water for deceased firefighters. We were able to participate and pray with the firefighters before heading out on the water.
The first hour in the water was silent, allowing for us to really absorb all the sounds the river has to offer – light waves, morning birds, other people. We just floated as one entity down the river.
Lisa broke the silence by singing a simple hymn.
After about an hour and a half of paddling, the Mark led the pilgrims off to an inlet for a break and a prayer practice. Mark started the prayer practice off with an invitation to be present and to allow our bodies and minds to embrace the practice before us.
Then, he led us through six senses – balancing, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting. We walked around with our eyes closed, we nibbled on dandelions, and we listened to the speed boats and jet skis on the river.
It was powerful to realize how interruptive life is to prayer. Or rather, how interruptive other people’s lives can be to our own attempt at a prayer life. Not necessarily in a negative way, but in a “life continues on beyond our own selves” way.
We hopped back in the water and made our way to our lunch spot, just a few more miles down-river. With those practices still vibrating through our memories, some of the pilgrims started allowing their senses to explore the water – dipping a foot in the water, closing their eyes for a 10-second rest, smelling the sunscreen and distinct river-water scent.
At lunch the pilgrims had a conversation as it was the last day for seven of the pilgrims who had participated for three days. Three of us were just day-paddlers, and the four remaining of the 14 were completing the whole river paddle.
There were two focus questions for the pilgrims – what is a gift that has come from the river and how have your understanding of pilgrimage changed/shifted/or remained the same.
Surprisingly there was a couple of similar feelings and themes that emerged from this conversation. Below are some of the most powerful ones that have stuck with me this last week:
- First, pilgrimage is a visual thing. It is important to be seen as a pilgrim, and that is what makes it different from retreat.
- Second, the Connecticut river is no longer an intimidating force.
- Third, pilgrimage draws one into a state of mind that is constantly between the physical and the spiritual – of this world and not this world.
- Fourth, the Connecticut river is an important staple for the churches and communities that nestle their lives in the river.
- Fifth, there is a desire to incorporate a sense of pilgrimage into daily life, and yet there is a respect for the disruption of routine pilgrimage requires.
Lunch closed with a prayer circle blessing and sending the three-day pilgrims and blessing the pilgrims continuing onward. Then, we hopped into our boats and floated to Middletown.
To learn more about Kairos Earth or the River Pilgrimage and other pilgrimages visit Kairosearth.org. To learn about Lisa and Mark’s farm and homestead in Vermont visit metanoiavt.com. Thank you to Jo, Mark, Lisa, and all the pilgrims for allowing me to float, pray, and journey with you.