The Transformative Journey of Pilgrimage with Brad & Rita Berglund

In this episode, we delve into the ancient practice of pilgrimage, a ritual journey that takes a person on a quest for new and deeper understanding of themselves, others, or a higher purpose. Unlike a typical trip or vacation, a pilgrimage has a deliberate and intentional start, a journey of transformation, and a meaningful return to daily life.

Brad and Rita Berglund, pilgrimage travel guides with Illuminated Journeys, share their story of how a life-altering event in their family led them on a transformative journey through pilgrimage. After their four-year-old son’s devastating diagnosis in 1989, they discovered that all of life is a pilgrimage. Listen as they vulnerably share how pilgrimage helped them find meaning and redemption in the midst of their grief. Their experience inspired them to become guides, helping others on their journey of self-discovery and healing.

Discover the transformative power of pilgrimage and how to incorporate it into your daily life. Join us in this episode as we explore the potential of pilgrimage and how it can help you find new meaning and purpose in your life.

About Our Guests: 

Rita Berglund, MA, serves individuals, children, couples and families in many ways. She serves as a therapist, adjunct professor at Naropa University and Iliff School of Theology, spiritual director, and retreat leader. Rita is the author of “An Alphabet about Kids with Cancer.” She sees life as a sacred and creative adventure filled with amazing possibilities for each person. Visit her website here.

Brad Berglund, MDiv, is an author, spiritual director, and retreat director. He has a degree in theology (Eastern Theological Seminar) and music (classical guitar – Conservatory of Music, UMKC and the Royal Conservatory, Madrid) and has completed the program for spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Currently, he holds two positions: Director of Illuminated Journeys and Leader of The Threshold.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: I and my wife Becky. We are going on a pilgrimage this June, and there is an immense amount of intrigue, excitement, some degree of confusion, and some, not fear, perse, but a sense of the weight of what a true pilgrimage holds. So I have the immense pleasure of having on today, Rita and Brad Berglund, who are leading this amazing pilgrimage to the Republic of Georgia. So Brad, Rita, thank you for joining me. And let me just say, Rita is a therapist in Denver, a spiritual director, and Brad as well, spiritual director and retreat leader, and both amazing musicians, but mostly just really delightful human beings. So welcome and thank you for joining me on this conversation.

Rita: Thank you, Dan.

Dan: Well, as we begin, I just would love for our audience to get a sense of, look, when we had this conversation, we were at an organization that we have both been part of for almost 20 years, and that is the ICAP, the Institute of Christian Alliance on Prostitution. We were at a conference together and you were in a conversation with dear friends of ours from the Philippines about a trip, a supposed trip that you were about to go on. And Becky and I walked up and began to hear a little bit about this, and it was a pilgrimage to the Republic of Georgia. And I remember after listening for a while going, I didn’t know you did this. What are you talking about? And you both mentioned that, yeah, you’ve been doing this for a number of decades. And I felt, oh, not moderately appropriately foolish, but Becky and I went into our bedroom, which was not far from the living room that we were in the middle of the discussion on. And she just looked at me, she said, I want to go. And it was like, yes, ma’am. Okay, let’s begin the conversation. So, oh, what I’d love to do is, Rita, how did the two of you get into the labor of inviting people to pilgrimage?

Rita: So this story starts back in 1989. Pilgrimage was not a part of our Protestant tradition, but we had a horrific life event in that our then four year old son Brennan, was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. And as you can imagine, our world rapidly turned upside down and came to a screeching halt because this isn’t something you expect when you have your two beautiful children and you feel like you’re on your American dream journey. And suddenly everything derails. During the next three years, our son was in a number of surgeries, traditional cancer treatment, radiation, chemotherapy. Eventually the cancer kept coming back. We ended up in experimental treatment in California with a bone marrow transplant. And suddenly we’re in this world of children fighting cancer. We’re in this world where more children die than survive. We’re in this world where you live with terror and loss and uncertainty every single moment. And this was not a world I knew how to navigate. Suddenly the things I thought were predictable and certain were moment to moment. Is it a crisis? Can we breathe? Are we going to be home today? Are we going to be in the hospital? And so Brad and I both have spiritual directors, and during that time, one of the things we struggled with is what is God calling us to? How do we learn to navigate this landscape of uncertainty? And it was a landscape and a journey that lasted another altogether 20 years. Our son survived till he was 24. And every day we lived with the possibility of his death, the possibility of heading to the hospital and the possibility of having a really fabulous day of laughter and aliveness and unexpected graces and gifts and learning to hold both. There’s this wonderful expression that comes from Buddhism about learning to hold hell in one hand and heaven in the other. And when you can hold heaven and hell properly one in each hand, then you can make a proper pot of tea. And I think bringing that back into our Christian tradition, that became a really powerful lesson of how do we fully be present to the hell that was happening and the suffering and the loss and fully present to what is filled with joy and love and delight, pleasure. And learning to do both at the same time meant that we had to stay open, we had to walk with hearts wide open from day to day. And eventually we realized, oh, this is something called pilgrimage.

Dan: Wow. Yeah. And again, that is not the word I would come to. And again, in part I think out of the deficit, a pilgrimage being part of the Protestant tradition, but it’s also where I want to ask both of you, how did you come to that word, given you both are lovely Protestants?

Brad: Well, we realized that we’d been completely jolted out of our routine, out of our life routine. I had just accepted a call to a church here in Denver. We were only here two months. I was just getting into a new routine, how to be with these people here and create what they had hired me to create there. And this happened, and we began spending the night at the hospital and coming home and going to church. And that was our triangle for three years. And we spent many nights at the hospital. And so it was a completely different routine than we had anticipated or ever experienced. And I was interested in the time in the mosaic of spiritual practice anyway, and I started doing some reading about journey because we were really clear that we were on a new journey as a family. And I went to the seminary, one of the seminaries here in town to the library. And I checked out four or five books on the historic practice of pilgrimage and just to give a framework to journey in terms of this part as part of this mosaic of spiritual practice that I was interested in, and pilgrimage being one of those things, but not knowing much about it. So I got a call a couple days later from someone who was doing PhD work in the area of the medieval pilgrimage in Christian Europe. And she said, Hey, I noticed you checked out five books on pilgrimage. No one ever checks those books out. I’m just curious what’s going on for you? And, and so I told her our family story, and we’ve been friends ever since. Oh, and they moved to Europe and they’ve written a number of books on powerful places in Europe to visit and how to visit those places. And in fact, we were just with them in Portugal this last year, and then in Ireland, we had a wonderful surprise experience with them meeting them along the way and not knowing we were going to be in the same place. So it’s been a wonderful journey with them in terms of this increasing understanding of what pilgrimage is. And basically, I think pilgrimage is the spiritual practice. If you look at the five pillars of Islam, for example, you find pilgrimage is one of those practices. So pilgrimage is in the big picture of things in spiritual practice. Pilgrimage is the one that is about movement and about moving from here to there. In fact, peregrination in Spanish coming from the Latin simply means to go across the field or to go from here over to there. And so there’s this sense of moving somewhere else and out of your, we could say comfort zone, if you want to say it that way. We often talk about the movement through comfort zones, even that we all have, but it’s all about movement. And so you can go on a retreat and the movement is to drive to the retreat house, or a lot of people go to Iona and then they have a retreat on Iona, for example, in the outer Hebrides of Scotland. And it’s a wonderful place to go. But the pilgrimage part is, the way I look at it is getting there and that sense of movement that you have in this open, my basic understanding of pilgrimage after these 23 years of doing this is simply this moving through time and space with an open heart. It’s a way of getting out of where you are, and entering into something new, and opening your heart to surprise.

Dan: Well, you also describe it as a ritual journey so that it’s not just a trip. It has a very intentional beginning and movement, middle to end, and then a not mere remembrance by looking at photos, but a recollection, a recollecting of the work. And I love that phrase, a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Because I think many of us go on a trip or a vacation for rest or to see something that we’ve not seen before. And for lack of better word, it is tourism. It is a way of seeing a world that you’ve not seen. But there is something about pilgrimage that feels far more connected to the category of the interior. And I wonder if that’s one of the reasons Protestants have generally speaking, not been terribly interested in the concept of pilgrimage.

Rita: So one of the big shifts that happened for me in terms of how this is different than tourism, cause Americans in general, we’re taught to go and be good consumers, to take the photos, to collect, to spend, to bring back the trophies of the travel. Pilgrimage is radically different in that we’re actually going to be in relationship. We’re not going to be consumers. We’re going to enter into a relationship with people and with places where they’re also going to enter into relationship with us. I’m going to go not just to observe something as an object, take a photo of it to take home, but I’m going to go and spend enough time that I’m actually going to enter into a relationship with the tree, with the landscape, with the historic structure. And I’m going to let that also enter into relationship with me. It’s a two-way relational experience. And in doing so, I’m saying that I’m here to be changed in this relationship. I’m here to be impacted and influenced in this relationship. And because we are on the landscape and we see landscape, and not just natural landscape, but also manmade landscapes, these are part of sacred text. God created the planet as sacred text. God created people as sacred texts. So how do we enter into both outer sacred texts and our inner sacred text as a divine creation? And then what? What’s going to emerge then when we come into new relationships?

Dan: Yeah, it’s a reading of reality, the reality of against scripture, the reality of general revelation, but it’s reading reality in order to be read. So there is this, again, mutuality, that the book is not just an object that you hold and consume, but actually there’s this almost apocalyptic, revelatory exposure in the purpose that if you’re going on a pilgrimage, you’re, you’re actually longing to be changed and somehow allowing space time, and people to play a role, some planned and some, as you just put it with regard to friends that you didn’t expect to run into, that you actually have an encounter with the people who are very central, apparently to your beginnings of this labor. So I’m just curious, when you go, you’re inviting people to change. How does that play with people who have been changed and changed and changed and who it would be easy to presume are old hats at this, but you’re not, you are people willing to be changed as much as those, so I’m just curious how that plays out for you both.

Brad: Yeah, there’s this interesting dynamic there. Just to add to what Rita was saying, that between tourism and pilgrimage, if you sort of look at that contrast, it seems to me that with tourism, the basic way of traveling as a tourist, we are consuming, but there’s also a conquest mentality about it. And in pilgrimage, historically, you’re really, as you said, you didn’t use this word, but this idea of being in the experience, you’re really surrendering to an experience. And so from conquest to surrender, but surrender in the spiritual sense of letting go of control, being vulnerable, being open-hearted, expecting a surprise and welcoming the surprises, that kind of thing, rather than we even see it in our language, people will say, Hey, Dan, have you ever done Spain? Have you ever done the Camino? I did it two years ago. It’s that sense of I did it, I accomplished it, I checked it off. You can just even hear it in our language that we use. We just have developed in our culture a kind of consumer kind of conquest language about many things, and we see ourselves as the subject of almost everything we do. And on the Camino or on pilgrimage, especially on the Camino, when you surrender to it. But when you’re on pilgrimage and you’re practicing pilgrimage, there’s a much more of a sense of being the object and allowing yourself to be given to the experience. So something really does transform you that’s unexpected and unknown. And maybe that’s where the Macrina Wiederkehr quote that you were talking about with a hallowed purpose, that our purpose then becomes this sacred experience and takes on a life-changing quality.

Dan: So your journey with your son took you on, in some sense, a radically different journey. And the reality of one of the things, one of the places, one of the holy grounds that I know Becky and I are so looking forward to is where there is a memorial to your son. And I’d love for you to put a few words to that.

Brad: Yeah, go ahead, Rita.

Rita: Wow. So one of the things that a gift to us with our son is that he, because of the damage done to his body and his brain, he stayed at a second grade level of experiencing the world. He didn’t have big plans. He didn’t have this grand future in mind because he couldn’t even imagine it. So whatever would arise in the moment, and often that had to do with books and stories and Disney musicals, he could sing. I mean, he couldn’t tell you whether or not he’d had breakfast, but he could sing you an entire song from Aladdin. So we learned to live in this really beautiful, imaginative, creative zone of stories and storytelling. So books became, children’s books became a very important part of what sustained us through many dark places. And of course, all the mythology of a lot of children’s stories relates to life mythology, how we are heroes in our stories, how we get waylayed by terrible monsters, and how we face darkness and how we struggle with the realities of being a human on this planet. So after he died, one of the things we thought of was, Georgia had just come out of being under Russian occupation and control, and they didn’t have children’s libraries. It’s kind of a long story to explain why they didn’t have children’s libraries, but we had visited an orphanage of disabled children that was out in the middle of nowhere, and they didn’t have a library. So it just became like this is some way, some small way we can contribute towards this finding, healing and building a new future for its children. The orphanage ended up shutting down. So because of our relationships in the Republic of Georgia, some wonderful people you will be meeting, we decided to put the children’s library in the Peace Cathedral in the capitol Tbilisi, where it’s part of an ecumenical library to nurture inter-religious dialogue between primarily the Jewish community, the Islamic community, and the Christian community. And again, historically, we love stories, mythic stories, whether they’re written for children or adults, and pilgrimage again, shows up over and over again in the historic landscape of humans. Going on these kinds of extreme journeys by choice or by historically on the pilgrimage, often was an option for instead of going to prison, instead of going to prison, you have to serve your sentence by going on pilgrimage, whether you’re seeking redemption or treasure, these themes come up over and over again.

Dan: Well, it’s maybe the most anticipated for Becky and I to be with you in that setting to be able to see memorial. And so, I mean, part of the question there is what from your standpoint, given that you have traveled, but more important, you’ve journeyed that you have a sense of what is holy. And we can start with a very obvious theological statement. The earth is holy, it is made in and for the glory of God. Yet some space I would argue is, I don’t know if I want to use the word holier, but it bears a much more significant impress of what is holy. And therefore, some have called it liminal space that is thin space where the intersection between the seen world and the unseen seems a little bit more dear and clear. So when you think about landscape and landscape, you want the pilgrim, Becky and those privilege to be with you, what is the landscape you want to take people to?

Brad: Yeah. Well, I think you’re onto something there that some space seems holier than other space. Some place seems holier than another place. And certainly people have put their stamp of approval throughout history by going over and over to those places and saying, yes, indeed, this is a liminal place. And we feel particularly close to a divine presence, sacred experience, all of those to God. So I mean, Mecca for example, there’s a reason the Islamic community walks around the Kaaba. Jerusalem. There’s a reason why people go places where Jesus walked and spent his, such concentrated amount of his time. So yeah, we do choose places to go. They’re very, what we like to say, evocative. We use the word invoke a lot, especially in worship. We invoke God’s presence. We use the word provoke, especially when we preach, well, that was provocative, that kind of thing. But we don’t tend to use the word evoke as much. And so pilgrimage and sacred travel, I would say really is about the evocative adventure, both an evocative place, but what this place evokes inside of you and how it taps into your longings and your deep desires and needs and imagination. So we even developed a little prayer for the liminal space. We kind of slow everything down on pilgrimage because it’s a like a cocoon time. It’s a very specific time. It’s two weeks of this concentrated experience that you bring back then to your life and let it filter through everything that you then do after that. But because it’s this concentrated sacred time, we kind of slow it all down. We make a lot of thresholds when we take our group to a place that is considered a threshold place, a place to step in or to step over. We stop there. And when we take time at those places. And so we’ve developed a prayer, that’s exactly what you just said. You used the word thin, which is kind of in the Celtic tradition, often used. And so our prayer to threshold simply goes like this. So I calm my mind, I open my heart fully present, I enter the thin places within and without, and then we step over very intentionally, and people tend to then be silent after that, which is also another interesting thing. You know, can walk into a sacred place in Europe, a cathedral or something, and people are just chatting about their lives at home. I mean, they’re not in this place. They’re at home just chatting. They always chat about everything that they always chat about, and we’re kind of stopped there and we’re focused, and then we step in silence. And it’s just a very different experience. Again, back to the tourism versus pilgrimage idea. And just when you’re quiet like that and you sort of become attentive to that evocative invitation, it does create silence. It begs for silence.

Dan: And at least from my standpoint, being a rather loquacious human being who’s often talking, the idea of silence, I think for many is wasted space or worse than wasted. It’s terrifying space that we, and I say me, but we don’t know how to remain quiet inside when we choose to be quiet outside. And so the noise that’s often hidden by our exterior velocity gets a little bit more clearly disruptive when there is outside silence. So in that sense, pilgrimage is probably not close to the word pleasant. I mean, I’m looking forward to delicious, good, conversations, food, wine, visual, et cetera. But in the preparatory work, there is a kind of disruption of intent of design and desire. I think this process has only exposed for both of us how consumer oriented we really are regarding our travel. And a lot of our travel has been mission oriented, task oriented with the benefits of being in a whole lot of places around the world. But this is so different that I can already feel both, as I said initially, a sense of, I am really excited. I’m also more afraid than any travel I’ve done because of that anticipation of what has the landscape meant to reveal within me, and how quiet will I allow my own heart to be? Do you find people, shall we say, a bit distressed as they enter into this process?

Brad: Oh, yeah. Rita should speak to this too. But I would say that the people who choose to in this way tend not to be too distressed. To my experience, they come kind of hungry for this experience.

Rita: I think sometimes there’s more distress or concern, anxiety about getting there, and especially when people haven’t traveled long distances. Of course, getting to the Republic of Georgia is a significant distance, basically is two days of travel and changing airplanes, being in foreign airports, people being in places where people don’t speak English. There is this, again, that’s sort of the beginning of that surrender to being in an unknown place and trying to be open to unknown experiences. And I think there is that there’s both stress and excitement on a physiological level. Anxiety and excitement look exactly the same if you look at the what’s happening medically in the body. So there’s also this subtle way in which we dance with how we’re interpreting the bodily experiences of excitement versus anxiety. And then also the sense of pride when you do navigate through foreign places. And I’m okay, I ate something I’ve never eaten before, and guess what? It was good. I communicated with a taxi driver who only speaks another language, and I still got to where I was going. So we also, things get distilled down to this sort of really fundamental human interaction. And the basic things become, we move down on Maslow’s hierarchy, just really basic things. Where am I going to find a toilet and…

Dan: Can I ask for it in a way where I get pointed toward the right?

Rita: Yeah, and…

Brad: You know, it’s interesting. One of the things Rita is bringing up there is that I actually, over these years, I’ve taught a course at the local seminary here on life as pilgrimage for quite a few years. So I had to come up with, when you teach, you have to come up with, well, how would I ever teach this? And how would I make sense of all of this, what we’re doing? So I actually created a pilgrimage pyramid. You had asked, how do you put this together for other people? Because pilgrimage is quite a personal experience, but so how do you design something that allows other people to have a pilgrimage experience? So in this, it’s sort of based on Maslow’s hierarchy. And so along the bottom is comfortable places to stay, good food, toilets frequently throughout the day for the group, all the basic things we need when we travel. And then the next level is what I call the cultural veneer, is a lot of what Rita is talking about. The cab driver doesn’t speak English. You can’t figure out how to flush the toilet. You take cold showers because you can’t figure out how to turn the hot water on all these things about being in another culture that have this sort of transformative effect on us because it shocks you into a whole new way of trying to do things and trying to communicate. And then the third level is the history of the place, wherever you are. And I have to say that most travel that we do involves those three things. And there can be some transformation of course, because of that, and open-mindedness that occurs open-heartedness. But pilgrimage for me then goes up the pyramid in about eight more different areas. We get under the cultural psyche, we learn the mythic stories of the place. We spend a lot of time on the language because I do believe that language, language sort of represents the highest values of a culture. And so what does it mean that in Ireland, in Gaelic, one word paints an entire picture of something. When you translate it, they call white caps on the west coast of Ireland, if you literally translate that Gaelic word, it means the white horse coming over the hill.

Dan: Whoa. Yeah.

Brad: I mean no wonder Ireland’s full of poets and musicians and literature winners, prize winners for Nobel Prize winners for literature and poetry and everything. So it just represents this high value in that culture. So we get under the language and we flesh that out and just all the way up to the top of the pyramid where kind of, I laugh at myself about this one, but I put finding your place in the universe. I mean, it’s profound journey when you’re really surrender to it. And maybe that’ll happen. Why not?

Dan: Well, and what you’ve begun, at least as you shared both the heartbreaking but also beautiful and redemptive story of your son’s life and the ability to honor and memorialize the reality is that in some sense, you don’t go on a journey without some degree of trauma inciting. And certainly there is a disruption with regard to what you’ve described as getting there, the being there and the partaking of being there. I want before we end, just to kind of capture what if a person lives in Poughkeepsie or Warsaw, Indiana, and they’re not going to this year beyond something as sweet and privileged as a trip, a journey, a pilgrimage that we are going on. How do people prepare for pilgrimage or also be within their own landscape and yet see that process of journey as applicable, even if they’re not living in what might be called those classic liminal places?

Rita: I think, again, we go back to that original definition about moving with a sacred purpose and sacred intention. So I think many experiences can easily be put into spiritual practice by how we look at our intention, our motivations, how we go to a place. Probably the most common cultural thing we do here is to go visit some, a grave. We go to visit the place where a loved one is buried. And again, we can bring flowers, we can bring a letter, we can bring ashes, we can do a variety of things. So that becomes a holy, sacred encounter of love, of awareness and mindfulness about our place within the human family and the human journey. Going to places that are sacred to our indigenous ancestors. The United States is covered with places…

Dan: Indeed

Rita: … that are sacred because of indigenous traditions. We can also go to places that are sacred because they’re just incredibly beautiful, right? Beauty is one of the most powerful medicines on the planet that can call us to open our hearts. And again, slowing down, paying attention, being mindful and awake from the time our kids were very little, there were periods of time when our son had to be in a lot of medical isolation. We had six months of home quarantine following the bone marrow transplant. So just something like a sunset. We would text each other, we would do sunset alerts, and we would all go, just stand in the backyard and gaze in awe at an incredible sunset. So 30 feet became a pilgrimage. And of course, there’s also these inner landscapes. So I can also take a pilgrimage through meditation, just the few inches between my neocortex and my heart. Can I get there? With mindful intention and sacred awareness back down into my own body and the rhythms of my own cells vibrating in the cosmic connection of life, and there’s just as much infinity in here as there is out there, what can that invitation be for us?

Dan: Oh, I love that. And I was in a conversation with a client not long ago who said that this summer, due to such good work she’s done, she’s ready to go back to the space where deep heartache and violation occurred, but is going back in some ways to reengage parts of her that she’s done good work in. But we know that space holds something of memory almost in a way that space seems to keep that memory until we are ready to step into it. And so the work she’s done has enabled her to see this trip. She’s doing more than just going to that place, but she’s going to go to that place to reclaim that space, to be able to hold the righteous rage, but also the grief and to honor, to honor the inner work she’s done, to actually see this consonance between the inner world and the outer world. I think that’s part of the labor of being able to go, wherever you live, New Jersey, Indiana, anywhere there’s beauty. And in that, can you not just take a trip, can you begin to intend to claim, reclaim, honor and receive something of the beauty of the space, the heartache of the space, the reality of death and resurrection in that space? So as you were speaking earlier about, in one sense, holding hell and holding heaven, it’s also that language of we get to hold death in resurrection, and they don’t cancel one another, and they open the door to a deeper grief and to a deeper joy. And I think that’s my anticipation of how you have led. And I want people to know before we depart, that you do this and you offer this. And so folks can get ahold of you through the lovely website,, and just to see the beauty of what you offer, something of the opportunities that you offer versus so many like us. We need to save for it, and we’re saving. And in that prospect, you can take journeys this summer, but you also can plan for a, shall we say, a larger movement than going a few miles from your own home. So you two, thank you so much for who you are, what you offer, and can’t wait to be with you in the Republic of Georgia.

Brad: Thank you, Dan, for the invitation and we look forward to the journey with you.