The reflections, and occasional ravings, of a theologian.
"You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you" - St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions I.1.1;
"I do hope to die with a quiet heart. I know that may not be realistic" - John Ames in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
I’ve been obsessed with hiking the famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, in Spain for a number of years now. From the moment I heard about the Camino, I resolved that I would someday become a pilgrim on that trail. I don’t know when that day will occur, but – God willing – it will, and I dearly hope that I shall hike the Camino with my family.
The Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage path that covers approximately 800 kms (500 miles) if one begins the pilgrimage route in St. Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees, though pilgrims cover greater or lesser distances. The destination of the pilgrimage is the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful medieval church where the relics of St. James the apostle purportedly reside. This cathedral also houses one of the largest thurible (incense burners) in the world. Watch the video below from the pope's last visit to the cathedral:
Literally millions of pilgrims have hiked the Camino over the past thousand years, and the Camino remains a popular pilgrimage route today. Most interesting is the diversity of pilgrims hiking the Camino. Some, indeed, are pilgrims for religious reasons, but there are many who are pilgrims for reasons beyond the religious.
My fascination with the Camino has been rekindled in recent weeks through a movie called The Way. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and staring Martin Sheen, The Way chronicles a man’s journey along the Camino after learning of his son’s death on the pilgrimage route. It is a beautifully filmed movie, and one I highly recommend. Martin Sheen’s character, Tom, is understandably engulfed in grief as he begins his pilgrimage. In his pack he carries the ashes of his son, and sprinkles these ashes at various points along the Camino. He is insular, self-absorbed in his grief, and so quite uninterested in the other pilgrims who are hiking the path along with him. Central to the film is Tom’s movement from insularity and individualism to an embrace of selfless community as he comes to experience the love and care of fellow pilgrims. Four incongruous people come together to make an unlikely community bound by the kind of love that is made possible through humble vulnerability.
After watching The Way, I decided to read a book that has been on my bookshelf for a while, but that I had not had time to read. The book is called The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago and is written by Mennonite theologian and Benedictine oblate Arthur Paul Boers. In this book, Boers recounts his 31-day pilgrimage on the Camino, relating how this pilgrimage shaped and transformed his spirituality.
There is much to commend in this book. But what struck me most forcefully was Boers’ account of how boundaries and borders cease to exist on the Camino among the pilgrims, about how pilgrims attain a kind of solidarity with one another where “cooperation and collaboration, even trusting complete strangers, were the modes of operation” (105). One cannot help but be open and vulnerable on the Camino. All that you have is on your back. As pilgrims you sleep in the same rooms, you eat together, you experience the aches and pains that come with hiking 500 miles, and you converse deeply with one another.
Boers (rightly) describes the solidarity of the Camino as being the Kingdom of God enacted on earth, and it is this solidarity that Estevez’ film captures so movingly. Boers describes the Camino as being “a thin place” on earth, a place where heaven and earth meet.
But is not what Boers describes simply what the church is to be at all times? Why does it take a 500 mile pilgrimage route to have people attain this kind vulnerable and loving solidarity? Why is the Kingdom of God so wonderfully enacted on the Camino, but is so rarely manifested in our parishes? I don’t know. But I shall – Deo volente – be a pilgrim on the Camino someday to experience the beauty of the landscape and the beauty of loving solidarity for myself. And in the meantime, I shall endeavour to assist the church in whatever way I can as it makes its own pilgrimage toward being what it will eventually be – the Kingdom of God.
Update (May 14, 2012) Netflix recently added The Way to its 'Watch Instantly' catalog. Click here.