Lord, be with us to guide us,
within us to strengthen us,
without us to protect us,
above us to raise us,
beneath us to uphold us,
before us to lead us,
behind us, to guard us,
ever about us,
this day and evermore;
this day and evermore.
(written by David Adam but based on St. Patrick’s breastplate)
This past summer I took sabbatical time on an extended study leave to consider and experience pilgrimage. I walked many pilgrimage routes, visited pilgrimage sites and generally pondered the idea of pilgrimage and the role it can play in our spiritual and secular lives.
Pilgrimage often involves walking but sometimes it can be just as much about being in the moment, in the place, in the dimension of seeking, searching and knowing the presence of God in and amongst the journey of life. Pilgrimage has some intentionality to it, but it can lead us to experience the holy in ways we might not have predicted.
Let me muse a little bit about walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. A couple of months ago, my wife and I were making our way along what is often simply known as the Camino. It is a walk or a pilgrimage or a journey that starts in France and makes its way to Santiago de Compostela ending at the Cathedral there. You may have heard of this walk, as hundreds, actually thousands of people do it each year. There have been books written about it, a movie about it, there are YouTube videos and of course hundreds of websites. There is advice on everything to do with the Camino: where to stay, blister care, hiring people to carry your bags, useful phrases in Spanish and the best food along the way. Google it and you can find out anything you could possibly want to know. But walking the path is far different than reading about it.
So there we were in the summer of 2018 planning to walk about 120 kilometres of the 780 kilometer prescribed route of the French Way. The day before we started, the temperature hit 49 degrees in Madrid and we wondered if we would melt along the path, as we took the train to Sarria in Spain, our starting point.
The first morning we were awoken by roosters ready to greet the new day, well before the sun even broke the horizon. We gathered at a hostel for breakfast and discovered people from all over the world just as keen to set out and begin the journey. When we stepped outside, it was a cool morning with fog all around us, blocking our perspective but not dampening our desire. The confused roosters continued to crow, urging us along, blessing us on our first few steps… or simply keen to show off their voices. In the early morning mist we could barely make out the yellow arrows that became our beacons marking the way. We could see other travellers with flashlights, smart phones and reflective gear ahead and behind us. We were on our way! But to what and for what?
We met all sorts of people as we walked, from near and far. Some wanted to walk quietly, some wanted to talk, some wanted to play their music, some wanted to sing, the variety was wide and backgrounds varied. We had long conversations with some about their lives: challenges, worries, doubts, fears, griefs, sorrows, and celebrations. We laughed, we tried to converse in Spanish, we found a new rhythm to life and to purpose.
Everyone, it seemed, walked the Camino for different reasons but all were there to experience the journey. The greeting offered to us by many, and words we echoed back was, “Buen Camino” Spanish for Good Way; a beautiful greeting when passing people, or being passed by others, or simply to acknowledge that this was more than a stroll in the woods. This was a pilgrimage or a search or a reflection on the path of life.
But Buen Camino, it seems to me is a beautiful greeting for every day of our lives. Good way: seek the good way, find what is most important in life, seek the good, be the good, be transformed, help to transform others, love, be loved, risk love. It’s all there it seemed to me. It is so easy to get trapped in all sorts of pitfalls, snares and lurings in this world. So many things appear shiny, need attention and seek our desire. But suddenly when one is walking about 25 kilometres a day, to a destination found in a church in Santiago de Compostela, all that seems to go to the way-side and purpose and calling seems clearer and more defined. God’s presence was near, real and present.
Another part of my sabbatical over this summer was to spend a week canoeing the Bowron Lake circuit; a circular chain of lakes set well away from urban life; another place and journey of pilgrimage not far from our doorstep. The beauty of the area and this pristine wilderness also gave ample opportunity to reflect upon many things including silence and wonder.
At one of the campsites along the way one of our canoeing companions asked what one piece of equipment we had brought with us was the most helpful. We each responded differently, for you come to rely on different things in the wilderness than you might in the city. Dried food, clean water, safe shelter, sturdy paddle, dry clothes are all extremely important. The basics of life become more central.
Over the past three months as I’ve reflected more carefully on this question, I’ve wondered what each of us might deem most important on our own pilgrimage of life. I considered four things:
The Camino, the Bowron Lakes, St. Cuthbert’s way leading to Lindisfarne, the island of Tinos in Greece, the Via Francigena in Italy, and others, were all places that I'd visited during a sabbatical time and all of which invited me to reflect a little more carefully about what it means to go on a pilgrimage and seek out the holy in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the presence of God in the walk that we take each day. To take time to reflect a little more carefully about what Jesus came to reveal to us: love, be loved; lead and be led.
Bless you on your journey
From the flowing of the tide to its ebbing,
from the waxing of life to its waning,
of your peace provide us,
of your life lead us,
of your goodness give us,
of your grace grant us,
of your power protect us,
of your life lift us,
and in your arms accept us.
From the ebbing of the tide to its flowing,
from the waning of life to its waxing.
(found on a poster on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne)
PHOTOS: John and Ruth Stephens