Walking the walk



Recently my wife and I walked part of the Camino, The Way, to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela – a city which has been destination for pilgrims for almost a thousand years. We were not pilgrims for extended weeks.

We walked for a week along the Portuguese Camino – still long enough to get blisters, sunburn and be very grateful we arrived safely in Santiago.

In this 40th anniversary year of the Uniting Church, much is made of our Church being a ‘pilgrim people’ – “always on the way towards a promised goal”; we do not “have a continuing city but seek one to come”. (Par 3, Basis of Union.)

We like the image; we name our churches, even our theological college, ‘pilgrim’ – but what in practice does it mean to be a pilgrim?

My reflective task for the journey was to consider what was it like being a pilgrim, and what that means for our Church as pilgrim people.

Were there lessons that may help and guide us as we continue our pilgrimage?

When one walks the Camino, the goal – Santiago – draws you forward. The intermediate goals of where you will get to that day encourage you to continue.

The aches and stiffness and the trials of the journey are put to one side as you imagine what completing the pilgrimage will be like.

Does our vision of a goal, as the Basis says – of the coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation, Christ’s beginning of the kingdom of heaven – actually draw us forward? Or are we more occupied with the setbacks and difficulties of the present moment (all those blisters and aches)?

The goal draws you forward – but so does the companionship on the journey, and the encouragement of strangers and outsiders.

There is a fellowship of pilgrims. One relates easily with complete strangers, even through language and cultural barriers.

Where have you come from? How are you travelling? – are common topics of conversation.

Those in the towns and villages you walk through know you are a pilgrim and offer encouragement and support.

At one point on our journey, we lost the path. We stood somewhat forlornly on the corner of a busy intersection pondering our pilgrim’s guide. Then several cars screeched to a halt (causing traffic chaos) and their drivers wildly gesticulated – we could not speak Spanish – to show us the way to go.

People want to help pilgrims – and one can think people will also help the Church as it endeavours with integrity to be Christ in the world. I think we doubt this good will, and only hear rejection and hostility. Also, do we sufficiently appreciate the diversity of all the pilgrims; and how that can energise and encourage?

Pilgrims travel as lightly as possible. One has to shed what we might regard as the comforts of life. This focuses the mind as to what is important. What do we actually need on this journey; what is essential?

All those possessions (buildings?), perhaps things from the past – will weigh one down, literally; perhaps even prevent you from attaining your goal. This means you have to be self-reliant – resilient even. There will be times, as we found, when there are no options, no choices, no shops or even places to eat. In today’s world we have so much choice, but on a pilgrimage you travel lightly and the there is no distraction into other paths and other ways.

As a pilgrim on the Camino, one carries a passport. At each point on the journey you can get another stamp in your passport. You have a record where you have been – and even in Santiago you may get, on the basis of your passport, a certificate that you have completed the journey.

It is with the passport you are able to stop in certain accommodation while you are on the way. This passport rapidly reveals to others who you are – your identity as a pilgrim, and from where you have travelled.

In the church, what is our ‘pilgrim passport’? Does our life together reveal who we are? What are the signs we are followers of Jesus? On the Camino, it is not the pilgrim who stamps their own passport – it is an outsider, someone else. It is not what we think of ourselves – it is indeed what others think of us as to whether we truly can be called pilgrims.

One day we had a particularly long and arduous climb. Yes, there was the goal of Santiago ever before us; and also the goal of where we would stop that night (as it happened, a delightful monastery in the hills). But what actually helped in this moment of a long, steep walk?

I found one just gets into a rhythm, even a boring, monotonous rhythm, of placing one foot after the other. You do not stop and look around, or take more and more breaks, or even stop to smell the roses. You just keep on with the rhythm of that one step after another.

In life, and in the life of the church, surely our routines, those basic, boring, monotonous rhythms – regular worship, intentional study, a pattern of prayer and reflection – help us get through. The difficulties pass and you are soon at the mountaintop – enjoying the beauty of God’s world. Is there actually an underlying pattern of our life together as pilgrim people?

On the Camino an arrow and a clamshell point out the route. It is often, indeed usually, not the most direct route. The Way wanders the highways and byways and is invariably a road-less-travelled – at least by the people in the towns and villages through which you pass. As pilgrims, the way we travel can seem very strange to others.

Perhaps we in the Uniting Church seem to take a long time to do things – but do we sometimes just follow the efficient and direct ways of the world? The pilgrim path is in fact very different.

While on that path you need to take responsibility for the route you take. Don’t just follow the mob and assume they know where they are going. At one point on our journey, we joined up with a dozen or so Spanish pilgrims. We followed the mob – and the whole mob got lost. We had not taken responsibility for our own route and had to backtrack quite some distance to get back onto the path

Do we often just follow the mob? And if we are lost, as pilgrim people, are we prepared to backtrack, perhaps acknowledge we were wrong, and then rejoin the path? Backtracking (humility?), strangely is a part of moving forward as a pilgrim.

On the other hand, sometimes it is not all about the route someone else has mapped out for you. One day we decided to follow an alternative route (still a part of the Camino), the path and all of those little yellow arrows just disappeared (or we just could not find them).

However, we knew where we were and where we were heading – so we made our own way.

We probably chose a poor route, stumbled a bit, but we still got to our planned destination that night. If you know where you are going – and that is the important thing: there is not just one route, one path. There can be many paths.

Are we as pilgrim people confident in ourselves and sure of the goal, that we may even venture in new, perhaps even uncharted ways? As pilgrims are always reminded – they are not alone, God goes with them.         

When I began the Camino I wasn’t confident it would actually be anything more than a good hike in Spain. The goal many of my fellow pilgrims had: to venerate what are believed to be remains of St James himself  – Santiago, the very name of one’s destination – sat awkwardly with me. 

However, as it happened, the journey threw up unexpected opportunities to reflect on being a pilgrim, and what we the Uniting Church, a pilgrim people on the way, can be.

Being a pilgrim now actually means so much more. I would recommend it – but true, watch those blisters!

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