In 2013 I went on a pilgrimage to Scotland to explore my family roots and the “thin places” and sacred sites in the land of my ancestors. I arrived at the Glasgow airport shortly after 8 a.m. After landing, I immediately picked up my rental car and headed to my first destination. I hadn’t been able to sleep on the overnight flight, so I hadn’t slept in 30 hours. Probably not the most prudent occasion to drive on the left hand side of the road for the first time, but it’s amazing what enthusiasm and coffee can accomplish.
My first visit was to the ruins of Lochmaben Castle. I was excited to visit this site as my fifth great-grandmother was allegedly born here. The castle was given to the Johnston clan by Robert the Bruce in the 13th century. Now, like many castles in Scotland, it lies in ruins.
Lochmaben is in a very remote area in southern Scotland. There wasn’t another soul there, so I had the place completely to myself. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, so I took my time wandering around. After exploring the grounds for a while, I sat down and basked in the picturesque atmosphere of isolated solitude.
During my silence, something powerful happened.
It began with an awareness of the abiding sorrow deep within me. This great sadness has been with me as long as I can remember. It had always felt like it was part of me, part of who I am.
Yet here, under the shadow of these ruins, this sorrow felt like it had found home. For most of my life I had felt the weight of this sadness as a burden, as something I needed to work on or get rid of or hide from others. But the strangest thing happened here. I felt joy intermingled with the great sadness in my heart. I felt what I can only describe as joyful contentment. Not because the sadness was gone. Not because I had been liberated from the shadow of sorrow. No. I found joy in the midst of the great sadness, because it finally felt like it belonged. It no longer felt like something that needed to be fixed or cast out. Here my sorrow was welcome. It was understood. It was a bridge to something bigger than me.
For the first time in my life I realized this was not my sorrow. It was our sorrow. This great sadness belonged to this place, to the ruins and history of Lochmaben Castle. It belonged to all the places of my ancestors. It belonged to my clan, my people. I was simply sharing in it.
A profound shift happened with this new realization. My sorrow was no longer something that made me feel alone; it was now a source of connection. Indeed, it was now part of my bond with my family, my clan. It was no longer mine to bear alone; it was something beyond me that I participated in. This great sorrow was something passed on from generation to generation, and now it was my turn to share in the sacred responsibility of being a wound bearer—and to take my own journey towards becoming a wounded healer.
Then my awareness expanded. I realized this great sadness was a shared burden with all of humanity—all of creation—not just my clan. “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers…” says Paul in Romans 8:22. I had a momentary understanding of Jesus’ invitation to share in his suffering and sorrow so that we may share in his glory and joy.
On that grassy hillock, the great sadness within me became a point of connection rather than isolation. It was now strangely mingled with joy. In that moment I realized the secret to joy is not the absence of sorrow or suffering or hardship. The secret to joy is feeling connected and understood. On my pilgrimage I realized that the thing I was looking for most in life was connection. That was why I was in Scotland. To feel connected to my ancestors, their history and the spiritual energy of the land where they lived.
These temporary, meaningful moments of connection are what we all live for. To feel connected to the earth, friends, an animal, a moment, one’s ancestors, one’s true self, to God. This is joy. To experience connection…to sense the Great Communion.
Troy Watson is a pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ontario.