A Pilgrim's Journey

Recently, I sat down with a friend of many years to discuss Vox Peregrini. Most of my friends are aware that in 2015, I headed to Ireland to take a long hike with some choral musicians. And yes, I enjoyed it so much that I took the same hike in 2017. It’s 2019, and here I am again, preparing for another long walk down the Wicklow Way. The basic and easy description would be Vox Peregrini: Choir Tour. In a sense, the trip is a tour, which is defined as a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited. Throughout a Vox Peregrini Choir Tour, I get to see some of the most beautiful natural landscapes I’ve ever experienced and sing in some truly inspiring locations. 


Yet, calling Vox Peregrini a choir tour is providing an injustice to the experience. I spent my high school summers on church choir tours. Branson. Disney World. Garden of the Gods. Wrigley Field. Step off a bus, experience the attraction, get back on the bus, head to a local house of worship and give a concert. That was a choir tour. By that defintion, it’s easy to realize Vox Peregrini is nothing like a choir tour. In high school, I was never asked to walk 12-15 miles a day with my clothing and gear on my back. And I certainly never would have had an impromptu rehearsal in a forest that seemed like the natural place to make music. 


Vox Peregrini is a pilgrimage. It makes sense to me, but I understand how the word “pilgrimage” can be led down a variety of paths of defining. Pilgrimages have been taken for centuries by people seeking spiritual and religious meaning and truth. The most fervent and avid zealots do not own the rights to pilgrimage, but I often find myself cautiously using the word “pilgrimage” with friends because I fear they will think I’m a religious nut. 


When my college friend, John Wiles, reached out to me in 2014 about his idea for Vox Peregrini, it seemed like a fun idea. I had recently found myself rediscovering spirituality and my new found love of Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to line up with the concepts of the group. In addition, John is one of the best musicians I know and the idea of making music with this new ensemble offered an exciting new challenge. By the time I arrived in Ireland in June of 2015, I knew this was the right journey at the right time. And as the journey unfolded, I realized the depth of my need for such a pilgrimage of discovery.


A few weeks prior to my departure, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Always the optimist, I looked at the bright side of the treatment options, but deep down, I knew the road ahead would be rocky. In addition to his diagnosis, my father had also shown signs of dementia, and with a tornado slowly picking up speed within my family, I struggled on whether to take the trip or not. But after talks with family, we came to a full agreement that the best thing I could do was fulfill my commitment to the pilgrimage. 


Always the planner, I had done some personal preparation prior to my journey. I had read through Emerson and Thoreau, but also had worked through some readings suggested by our trail, pilgrimage, and spiritual guide, Gil Stafford. And of course, I had studied the music John had curated for the journey, so I landed in Ireland ready for an experience. As much planning as I had done, I was not prepared for the mystical and spiritual experience that met me when the physical, spiritual and mental parts of my life met. The mystical journey was heightened by the gorgeous set of music that John had chosen for the trip. This provided for a deeper journey where I wrestled with who I was, who I wanted to be, and perhaps most importantly, who I really should be. And I knew my journey was not unique, for I had powerful conversations with my fellow pilgrims on the trail about the challenge and struggles we were wrestling with. The hike was happening in real time, but the pilgrimage provided the space we all needed to navigate our own spiritual experiences. 


Vox Peregrini is unique to the pilgrimage tradition because Vox is defined as a choral ensemble. Throughout our journey, fellow travelers were friendly and happy to see fellow hikers, but there was an added element of wonder when they discovered the purpose of our group. The moments of meeting other pilgirms allowed us an opportunity to share our music, and the pleasure and joy they showed as we shared our music was sincerely authentic and spiritual. The whole music making process of Vox Peregrini is unlike anything I ever have, or ever will experience. Learning and developing music while hiking 100 miles is certainly a vastly different rehearsal process than arriving at a church and planning a concert with easy access to a piano. Vox Peregrini allows an opportunity to hear and listen to music in a revolutionary way, truly looking into the eyes of your beloved pilgrims, knowing the burdens they carry, the injuries they are nursing, and trusting each musician with your imperfections to create something absolutely beyond words. 


I discovered the mystery of music in 2015. In 2017, I began to discover my Truest Self. My second journey was more challenging to prepare for than 2015 due to the fact that I was struggling to find a purpose to provide focus for the pilgrimage. I had gone back to Gil to suggest some readings, with a bit of background about what I might be interested in or could see myself working on. One of the authors Gil suggested was Richard Rohr. I instantly connected to Rohr’s perspective on spirituality and his embrace of mysticism. His work along with Gil’s own writings became the cornerstone of my journey. And I did arrive in Ireland with troubling news regarding my father. His cancer was in remission, but the battle had left his body weakened and weary. We began to realize his steady decline from dementia symptoms was caused by Lewy Body disease, a horrid mix of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I had struggled with my role in assisting and helping as my father’s health declined. In addition, I was in my tenth year of working in hotels and events, but I had been sensing it was time for me to move to another career. 


By the second day of the 2017 pilgrimage, the mystery began to unfold. The power of music, of interpersonal relationships, of experiencing nature, and of quiet reflection led me to definitive decisions that would lead to my journey into finding my True Self. I quit my job and began freelancing, which allowed me to have more time to travel home. Right before a planned trip in the Fall, my father fell and broke a hip, and would never step foot into my childhood home again. It was during those long months ahead that my experience in Ireland flooded back with assurance. I was able to spend quality days with my father as he neared the end of his journey and provide much needed support to my mother as she navigated a role of caretaker. Those tough life decisions were granted clarity through the 2017 pilgrimage and I look back with comfort and peace that I followed the correct path.


I have begun to prepare for my 2019 pilgrimage, and though I don’t know what I’ll be carrying with me or what I’ll be working on, I trust things will become clearer as the days pass. I am excited to be walking with pilgrims I have never met, but also with pilgrims who I spent hours of time with in both 2015 and 2017. Vox Peregrini has been something profoundly unique for every member since 2015, but what it has not been is a tour. The power of music enhances pilgrimage, allowing for meaningful music making while transforming and changing lives. Vox Peregrini is soul work: soul work I didn’t know I needed, but soul work I’m grateful I’ve done.

People need wild places.  Whether or not we think we do, we do.  We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it.  We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.  To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place.  It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd.        BARBARA KINGSOLVER, Small Wonder