Reflections on Pilgrimage

[Notes for my reflection on Pilgrimage presented Sunday, June 14, 2015 at Salem’s Grace Episcopal Church’s Celtic meditation.]

21 And continuing on Jesus saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:21-22English Standard Version (ESV)

The ancient and living El camino de Santiago, the way of St James (or St. Iago as he’s known in Spanish), is I like to think a continuation of St James’s story which begins in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls Zebedee’s son from his worldly work at home, to a heretofore unknown holy work in the world.

Church legend tells us James continued on very far from this getting up and going from the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Even beyond sharing in Jesus’s provincial ministry in Paelstine, James ventured to the very ends of the earth to share with the world what Jesus had shown him. In the first century, that meant going as far as spain and portugal on the Iberian peninsula.

Eventually, through many trials and tribulations – historic, legendary and universally disputed – James’s relics became safely ensconced in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, some 20 miles from the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean and 3000 miles from the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus first called James to the Way.

The site too eventually joined Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three major pilgrimages of the nascent Christian World. At its height in the 11th and 12th centuries more than a million people a year left their homes to walk to the end of the world, by some estimates that means a fifth of Europe’s entire population walked the way each year.

They did so in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia as it defines pilgrimage, to visit some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

These pilgrims were very often in desperate search of hope and healing, abandoning homes, fleeing pasts, working for a tangible and literal salvation.

The black death and protestant reformation disrupted many systems and mindsets that had contributed to the popularity of pilgrimages to the extent that by the 1980s only a few dozen pilgrims were trickling into the pilgrim’s office in Santiago each year.

But then something changed. In every year, since 1989 more pilgrims have walked the way than the year before. In 2011, the year I made my pilgrimage for nebulous, unarticulated reasons, nearly 180,000 other modern pilgrims did the same. Walking at least the last 100km into Santiago, checking in with the Pilgrim’s office, and recording their journey as “religious” or “religious and other”. Last year, 237k did so.

Practically this increasing popularity means that when walking the Camino today, very much I imagine like our medieval forebears, you’re never alone. There are pilgrims literally and figuratively before you and behind you, beside you, and when staying in a fully booked pilgrim’s hostel, or albergue on bunk beds above and below. Pilgrimage is never a solo venture.

These modern pilgrims come from all over the world [I met several Koreans] for all sorts of reasons. Young and old, as individuals and as families and as families of choice, religious but predominately not.

Indeed, virtually no one I met was interested in venerating relics or discharging religious obligations as many prevailing but now perhaps archaic definitions of pilgrimage would suggest is a pilgrim’s motivation. Rather, even the most secular holiday-maker couldn’t help but acknowledge the transformative potential of a far-reaching journey made with intention and faith.

As I walked the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port at the base of the French Pyrenees, where most modern pilgrims begin their journey, through the Rioja, across the Meseta and into verdant Galicia, I found myself singing to myself that 1988 song by the Scottish duo the Proclaimers, “I would walk 500 hundred miles.”

In the song, 500 hundred miles is a statement of hyperbole. i.e “It’s ridiculous to think I’d ever walk 500 miles, but for the sake of argument I would if I had to because I’m gonna be. . .”

The grammarian in me recognizes these are conditional, future statements. They express desire and expectation, but not a presence or action. They’re figurative; no one has any intention of going anywhere .

As a pilgrim literally walking 500 miles, though, I had little mental patience for the future or conditional. With each step of each days journey adding up to those 500 miles I could not help but be present in my presence of being, not just a pilgrim, but more fully myself.

And it’s this active beingness that I’ve come to believe is the great revelation of pilgrimage. It’s not about reaching a destination, or achieving a benchmark, getting a certificate, or ticking some epic journey off a bucket list. Rather, it’s the willingness to go in the first place, to be sensitive to that subtle often nonsensical call to leave behind your fish nets and then to have the faith and will to keep going, especially when it’s hard or painful or you question why you even decided to go in the first place. . .

Indeed, now that I have a couple capital P pilgrimages in my history, I’m coming to realize they’re really more like retreats, rest days on the great pilgrimage of life, times to reflect and renew before going back to the far-reaching work of life, ever more sensitive to the inevitable call to get up and go.

Each evening all across northern Spain, in chapels and cathedrals, campgrounds and restaurant terraces, pilgrims pray together an ancient prayer linking their journey with those past and future. I’ve slightly modified it for us and would like to conclude my reflection with this Pilgrim’s Blessing circa Salem, Mass, 2015.

Oh God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, and who sent your son Jesus to call Zebedee’s son James and all our sisters and brothers to go into the world to do your work, we ask that you watch over us your servants, as we make our own pilgrimages .

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safely at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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