Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hajj II: Hajj and Exodus

Commentator Laura made an important point a few posts ago. We found the camino to be spiritual but not religious, and I wondered if it had always been so. Laura suggests I might have it backward--that in older times the camino may have been religious but not spiritual--in an age in which people were awash in religion, many, perhaps, hit the trail without a lot of what we'd call spiritual motivation--seeking or open to transformation, navigating major life decisions, etc. Some may have been seeking the "get out of Purgatory free!" card of the major pilgrimages, others may have been doing what was charged to them as a penance. And while for Marty and I, the camino marked a stark change in mode of transportation, Laura asks also to consider how pilgrims in the old days got to the trail in the first place--their travel to the starting point may well have been nearly as challenging as the pilgrimage itself.

The hajj is a pilgrimage in that it requires travel to a holy place, carries a deep religious and often spiritual resonance, is marked by ritual observances before and during the trip. Like traditional Christian pilgrims, but less so for moderns, the muslim community has expectations of hajjis--they are to have been changed in a way that serves as a model to others. It is physically a liminal experience, but not in the same way as the camino.

I'm thinking about another form of religious walk. After some preliminary sparring back-and-forth between Moses and Pharoah,involving frogs, locusts, and other annoyances, God gets serious. The Israelites ate supper dressed for travel. It's striking, really--the story get right up to where God tells the Israelites to get ready to go, then the narrative shifts to how Israel today is to celebrate Passover. The people are to be marked by the experience of the exodus.

But I'm interested in the wandering in the desert part. Was it a pilgrimage? Was it like a pilgrimage? Was it like the hajj or the camino, or is it something else?

Pilgrimage and Immigration: An outer edge of a contemplative practice

At the end of October I had the privilege of participating in a conference on "Contemplative Practices in Action," organized by Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. The conference aired chapters for a book exploring how contemplative practices reduce stress and contribute to spiritual well-being. Participant-authors drew from religious traditions old (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) and new (Eknath Easwaran's Eight Point Program of Passage Meditation or EPP, use of a "mantram" or centering word). Sonny Manuel SJ and I co-authored a case study, drawing on a very particular form of stress, suffering, and working deep within a very particular religious tradition, Christianity.

Entitled "A Pilgrimage from Suffering to Solidarity: Walking the Path of Contemplative Practices," the contribution began with three characteristics of suffering: denial, isolation, and the need for control. We offered a practice addressing each dimension. Lamentation moves one from denial to acceptance; intercession invites suffering out of isolation into a place of communion; with pilgrimage one quite literally walks out of the need to control into a spirit of surrender.

In the course of our research, Sonny and I discovered "outer" edges of each practice. Not only does contemplation address individual need; it points toward solidarity. Advocacy is an outer edge of lamentation, as the one speaking out her own suffering discovers her words have given voice to others whom affliction has silenced. Accompaniment is the outer edge of intercession, as one asking for what he needs finds himself alongside others in similar or even greater need. Finally, pilgrimage points to immersion, the ability to simply surrender to another person or culture without judgment or distance.

Of course, we wrote the article before the actual experience of being on pilgrimage.

I confessed that to the group, explaining that I'd found a deep resonance between the practices of pilgrimage and centering prayer. Both share a similar trajectory: letting go of all excess baggage, a spirit of receptivity or dependence, and finally, the need to rest, whether in the Lord -- or on the nearest patch of dry grass!

As we concluded our presentation, Santa Clara political science professor Eric Hanson grabbed me and said: "Think about another outer edge of pilgrimage: immigration. Immigrants have the same experience. They've left everything behind; they are dependent on the kindness of strangers, the hospitality of residents. And they are in a strange, often hostile land, where they can't control anything."

Something deep clicked into place.

Thanks, Eric, for the insight. I invite you to check out the website he runs under the auspices of the Markkula Center at Santa Clara University:

Thanks to Sonny, my co-author and fellow pilgrim in the strange (at least to me!) world of counseling psychology. Thanks to Tom for the invitation to be on the journey.

We still don't quite know where it's taking us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hajj I: Malcolm X

Perhaps the most significant religious pilgrimage in the modern era is the Muslim Hajj. All Muslims who are able are expected to make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime.

The thematic structure of the Hajj echoes events in the life of Abraham. The pilgrim is invited to offer to God the same radical "yes" to God that he did. The Hajj is a symbolic journey to God--indeed, the Hajji is to make the Hajj as though never to return. All one's earthly responsibilities are to be settled before leaving. Those who return are expected to be different, transformed by this encounter, by saying this radical "yes."

Pilgrims make the Hajj by the millions, setting off to Mecca from all corners of the world. While the physical challenges in terms of distance covered in the Hajj are minimal to those of the Camino, I suspect the event becomes difficult in one way the camino is not. The crowds themselves become a significant factor. Pilgrims are crowded together into a huge throng: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj has a website with the message, "Be peaceful, orderly and kind. No crushing."

The first account I read of the Hajj was in The Autobiography of Malcom X. Malcolm went to the Hajj as a man deeply formed and scarred by his experience of the senseless racism in which he was immersed in America. His involvement with the Black Muslims reversed but did not fundamentally alter that race-centered world-view. The Hajj did:

"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient holy land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the holy scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors....
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. ....I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man - and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their “differences” in color." (Autobiography)

Malcolm's Hajj didn't end America's racism, of course. It did heal Malcolm's.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pilgrimage and prayer: A extraordinary practice in ordinary time

Of course, not everyone can go on pilgrimage. Not everyone has the time, the money, the inclination, the stamina -- or the enabling grant from the Lilly Endowment. How can we talk about our experience in ways others can relate to?

That question points to another: how can we find pilgrimage in everyday life? For of course, no one can be on pilgrimage forever. No one has the time, the money, the inclincation, the stamina -- and no foundation would ever fund it, even if they did.

How can we translate this experience into ordinary time -- for ourselves and for others?

Thanks to some illuminating conversations I had at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota, I'm closer to a translation. This congregation commits itself to practicing their faith, and they've focused on centering prayer as a key practice that empowers disciples to become apostles, i.e., move from following Jesus to serving the world.

I'd been invited to speak about pilgrimage, another practice of the Christian faith and many of the world's religions. As I prepared for this community, I began to see the connections between pilgrimage and centering prayer.

First, both practices aim at emptying. I related stories of how we literally "shed stuff" across the top of Spain, building tiny altars of things we discovered we really didn't need: that extra shirt, a book we weren't going to read anyway, a cherished hairbrush that simply weighed too much. After days of pain-filled walking, I even let go the goal of reaching Santiago on foot! And that was ostensibly the reason for the entire trip. We learned to let go of everything -- and we learned it the hard way.

Centering prayer is the practice of letting go: you let go of distractions, worries, and those rat-wheels of anxiety that spin without ceasing. A kind of kenosis, or pouring out, centering prayers tips the soul like a pitcher -- and lets worry drain out.

Second, both practices focus on receiving. And in a world that rewards production -- produce more! better! more efficiently! -- that's supremely counter-cultural. Yet, as pilgrims we had to receive: we couldn't carry it all. We depended on others for food, shelter -- and, on that rainy day in Galicia, clothing. I'd lost my poncho; Lisa shredded hers. We needed industrial strength raingear -- and we found it one night in a hardware store in the gritty village of Palas de Rei. Pilgrimage accustoms people to begging; we became dependent on the kindness of strangers.

So too with centering prayer: it empties people so that they can be filled. They let go the spirits of anxiety, worry, and distraction, so that they can receive the Spirit. They become dependent on the kindness of divine mystery -- and there is nothing stranger, more wonderful, and more deeply familiar.

Finally, both practices invite people to rest. Lisa joked about our daily need for "horizontality," but moving from the vertical posture of hiking to simply lying down restored us immeasurably. We needed these pauses like we needed air to breath, water to drink -- and cafe con leche to begin the day!

Similarly, centering prayer invites pray-ers to rest in God. Sabbath is any time you lean into the Holy. Centering prayer is the practice of the presence of God. One way to move into this prayer is to simply sit with from Psalm 46:10, gradually letting the silence overtake the words:

"Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.

And thanks to you dear people at Colonial for finding the correct reference!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part II: Pain

Before I get to my mistake, I want to get to one thing I'm finding was true. We found that one of the principal joys/graces of the camino was connecting with other pilgrims. We were all together the body of Christ on the road, sharing the joys (wine!) and pains (back-ache!) of incarnation with each other. Similarly, I suspect that pilgrims for centuries have sought contact with the holy--to touch the holy, one way or another. It might be finally coming to view "the bones of St. James," (or at least the box said to contain them,) by a process of walking that entailed imitatio Christi at least in the painfulness of the walking. (I hope that for many, the incarnate joys--wine! A tasty bocadilla!--were also understood to be part of imitatio Christi.) They were on the road with Christ, on the road to Christ (or at least to one of his pals,)imitating Christ. And one's sins, well, they drop away like the tiredness and the blisters as they heal.

However, on to my mistake. I underestimated the pain. I can admit only in retrospect (on the trail only after it was better,) that it shook me. I understand myself as strong--and I still think I am--but it really hurt, especially the first week or so, after the halcyon first day. I was surprised. I was comforted, in part, but the evident pain of my fellow pilgrims. Not schadenfreude, but solidarity.

I think the pain was important, but I'm still not sure how. In immersion experiences and service learning, pain is never intrinsic to the process. Exertion may or may not be part of the process--but it is not important. Social dislocation, yes, and we had some of that, though perhaps not as much as participants in a well-run immersion. Service learning often takes us out of our "comfort zone," likewise, but it is not painful, at least not physically.

One more similarity, though. Contemporary "immersers" of course also seek to be the body of Christ, but we do so not by imitation in suffering but by the practice of solidarity. We seek to be attentive to the body of Christ in the populations we visit (service is not intrinsic, and may be inimical to an immersion experience.) We seek to form some kind of connection in basic humanity. We did so on the camino in the solidarity of the limping--and even then, as Marty noted, hierarchies emerged--perhaps another echo of original sin.

There's more to the pain than its capacity to draw us together. Indeed, the first effect of pain is to threaten to isolate us each in our own bodies, as the painful part commands more and more attention. To a person with a bad tooth-ache, the world becomes that small but hugely painful spot. Depression and loneliness can do the same. Perhaps it is the vulnerability, but, more so, perhaps it is the self-doubt that is important, and then the key question--can I share my self-doubt with my fellows? (Medication for depression is said to dull the pain enough that the sufferer can begin to engage the world again.) Pain can also be a physically liminal experience that draws us to the edges of our capacities, to see if we're faithful enough to the journey and patient enough with ourselves to continue on at whatever pace we can, with whatever aids of Advil, good wine, and conversation are needed. After all, I think that all God really asks of us is to try to keep on, even if we have to stop for a while (like Eric the Lame did,) or if we go on but slowly, slowly. And when the pain eases, and we are strong again, that we be gentle with those who still suffer, because they are our community, too. "My father was a slave in Egypt."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part I

When Marty and I began talking about this project, I thought I had a fairly clear sense of what the camino would be like. We were setting out to compare "traditional" pilgrimage to immersion experiences and service learning. We wanted to do the camino as a benchmark, and basically I thought my sense of what pilgrimages like the camino are about would more or less be confirmed. And while I bought several camino books, I'd stayed away from them on grounds that things like the camino (as also, e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius,) should be experienced first, and only then read about.

Well, my understanding of the camino changed considerably in the walking.

I'd like to begin to 'fess up about some of the things I was wrong about in my intellectual noodling about pilgrimage. Some of these repeat themes picked up before, but now I begin to see them as lessons--or un-lessons, since these are things I was wrong about before we hit the road.

1. I expected more explicit religiosity among the pilgrims, and within myself. While many pilgrims doubtless had religious motivations for the trek, many more that we spoke to did not. I did meet one man wearing a two and a half-foot crucifix slung across his chest. He asked where the closest albergue was. I told him, but didn't pursue the conversation. Most of the churches we passed were closed, which contributed to this post-religious sense. The rare open churches tended to have a person sitting by the door stamping people's pilgrim credentials (the cards we carried to get stamped at the various towns,) and collecting donations. The few congregations we intersected at worship times tended to be a few elderly locals, an elderly priest, and a number of pilgrims. I don't know if the other pilgrims felt "fed" by these half-hearted services, but I did not, and didn't stay more than a few minutes. Marty had more patience for these than I did.
The churches are magnificent, and closed or nearly empty. The pilgrims are often motivated by a powerful spiritual purpose that is no longer, for most of them, expressed in the language of traditional Christianity. Immersions and the kind of non-walking pilgrimages that people go on tend to be much more explicitly religious--really, I think many times people who travel with religious motivation call their trips pilgrimages, even though those trips bear little resemblance to the camino and its ilk. Marty has written here about the incarnate spirituality of the trail that, even for us theological/religious types, was more about experiencing the walking of the day and the companionship of the road than praying across Spain. This may be a failing on our part, but if so, we seemed to share it with most of those we met.
The camino, like many people in the contemporary West, is spiritual but not religious. I am not certain, but I wonder if this has always been the case.

Next mistake--next post--pain.

Monday, October 19, 2009

De-mystifying pilgrimage: The pilgrims

We all look so happy. We'd been walking through forests all morning, and we were on the down-slope of the third "summit." The hardest part of the day was behind us -- and it was not yet even noon. We knew San Juan de Ortega had a wonderful round chapel that Queen Isabella built in 1477 to celebrate a longed-for pregnancy. Every equinox the sun shines directly on a stone column inside with a sculpture of the Annunciation. Mary is pregnant, Isabella is pregnant, and the spherical chapel feels pregnant as well. We've just visited the chapel, and we're toasting all that fertility.

Pilgrimage is a great leveler. Regardless of background, economic status, education, profession, pilgrims literally share common ground. Everyone in this group made the steep ascent out of Villafranca that morning in the dark. No one slept well the night before, because all the hostels hugged a road that truckers plied all night in their big rigs. And the tiny lyrical villages were beginning to blur for all of us. To a woman, we longed for Burgos and the Big City.

There was also the common ground of gear talk, pilgrim lore, and finding internet access. We shared food, first-aid creams, and strategies for dealing with tired bodies. It didn't matter what you did for a living, how much it paid you, what your relationship status was, or how many initials came after your name. On pilgrimage everyone is just another body in motion. There's something marvelously democractizing about that.

But lest this sound too utopic, pilgrims quickly develop their own class distinctions. "Where did you start?" becomes a loaded question: hard-core hikers started in France at St. Jean Pied de Port and crossed the Pyrenees. They were hiking every step of the way, including the hot, dry Meseta. I took to confessing that we'd "only" started in Pamplona -- and taken the train from Burgos to Ponferrada.

Super-Pilgrims carry all their own gear -- including cooking utensils and Thermarest mattresses. Averaging about 18 miles/day, they'll be in Santiago weeks before we will, having walked every step of the way. They are always in the hostel by 1pm, having roused themselves long before dawn to begin walking.

Then there are the Plodders, who hike about 13 miles/day, occasionally stay in pensions or B&B's. You'll find them in cafes have that second cup of cafe con leche.

Then there are the Partiers, most easily identified by the distinguishing breakfast ritual, The Breakfast of Champions: a beer and bocadillo, that crisp round roll filled with slices of cheese and Spanish ham.

Then there are the Tourist Pilgrims, who carry only a small backpack with water and raingear, the rest having been taken by car to the next four-star hotel. I always envied how well turned-out this last group was, fresh clothes at dinner while we wore the only other shirt we still had left. Clean or not.

Lisa and I jumped class a lot, which was fun and introduced us to lots more people. We carried all our own gear, but no cooking utensils -- and we abandoned our sleeping bags in the other Villafranca. We were not hell-bent on Santiago: it had been around for centuries; it wasn't going anywhere. While we veered away from The Breakfast of Champions, we always lingered over that second cafe con leche. We did hostels a few times, but our grant allowed us to find B&B's most nights -- and snore-free sleeping was a blessing. And we did have a grant behind us, knowledge of which quickly spread around our circle of fellow-travelers. As in, "..but then YOU have a grant."

Despite the common ground, literal and figurative, pilgrims create distinctions among themselves. Even pilgrims figure out how to look up at others -- or down.

But hey! we're only human.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

De-mystifying pilgrimage: The spirituality

"I thought it would all be somehow more...spiritual," Lisa said as we chugged up the Claremont Canyon. We can't seem to stop walking, and this particular hike is quick, dirty, and close by.

She's right: I thought it would be more spiritual too. We thought we'd be walking the questions posed in John's gospel, pondering one question each day. There are some great ones, worthy of weighty consideration: "What are you looking for?" (1:38) "Do you want to be made well?" (5:6) "Do you also wish to go away?" (6:67) And Pilate's hauntingly cynical: "What is truth?" (18:38)

But the questions we were really interested in were questions like: "Was that the alarm?" (every morning -- without fail) "Should I be paying attention to this pain?" (at the beginning of every day) "Can we stop for a cafe con leche?" (about two hours into the day's hike) "Are we there yet?" (about two hours before the end of the day's hike -- again, without fail).

So much for John's questions. Ours were more immediate and more mundane.

I had the daily readings along, which I would usually read as we got into the rhythm of the day. As we did on Kilimanjaro, we'd speculate on what Jesus must really have said, had the evangelists not mis-quoted, mis-remembered, or simply edited his words.

But we spent lots more time making up stories about our fellow travelers than attending to the gospel's stories about Jesus.

So much for deep theological insight.

But we could tell you the phases of the moon along the trek, when first light comes, how the sun glints off the lantern of the Cathedral of Santiago. We could describe Tolkien-esque forests in Galicia and how the morning mists create islands of the hills surrounding O'Cebreiro. We now know how to get laundry done, where to find the laundromats, and what "auto-servicio" means: bring us your wretched refuse longing to be cleaned, drop it off, pick it up two hours later, and fold it. We could tell you about Spanish religious iconography: the Madonna de la leche, the Mater Dolorosa, and the crucified Christ -- discreetly wearing a skirt.

This is not the spirituality we anticipated; it's the spirituality we encountered. Is it real spirituality?

Here's what I know. First, the spirituality we met on the way was deeply embodied. As scholars we tend to live in our heads. We couldn't do that on pilgrimage. We tended to our feet instead -- quite literally. If they didn't work, there was no going forward.

I apologized to a dear friend and acclaimed historian for the "unscholarly" character of our blog postings. With a smile she replied: "On the contrary, you had quite a lot of footnotes." She was right: we wrote a lot about our feet.

Pilgrimage made me appreciate how we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). It also made me understand the organic integrity of bodies -- and how powerful is the image of the "body of Christ." The apostle Paul spells it out for the smugly cosmopolitan Corinthians: "...there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). An "inferior" member of the body became all-important: we had need of our feet.

Second, we came to honor the Sabbath -- whenever it fell. Lisa joked about the need for "horizontality," but rest restored us. Immeasurably. We'd fall into bed or onto a patch of grass, aching for an alternative to standing up. We made a pact to break for no less than thirty minutes -- unless it was pouring rain or a herd of cows ploughed into us. Sleep simply repaired us. And when we needed a "day off," we took it. Without apology.

Finally, we shook our independence -- at least a little. I counted on Lisa's unfailing good humor: nothing blunted her wit. Not fatigue, not rain, not blisters. I depended on the people we'd meet along the way: we cheered each other on. Then, we knew we had lots of good wishes and prayers behind us. We felt that support pushing our pilgrim butts forward. Thanks.

Not the spirituality we expected, perhaps, but the spirituality we were given. We scooped it up and let it pour over us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Knights Templar

Over and over along the camino we saw signs of the Knights Templar, usually their equal-armed red cross etched into the walls of a church. Ponferrada, our starting point for the second half of our trek, is the site of a Knights castle that we toured, feeling the presence of knight-ghosts.

I know very little about them--I'm reading a history now. Here's a thumbnail: the knights were a military order, founded to provide armed protection for pilgrims to the Holy Land. "Templar" refers of course to Solomon's Temple, their spiritual HQ. They made a name for themselves also in the Crusades, which, along with their support of pilgrims, made them, for a time, a popular cause to give money to: though their individual lives were quite austere, the order became very wealthy. The seal of the order shows two knights on one horse, symbolizing poverty solidarity (which may also have contributed to accusations of homosexuality in the ranks. Well, gee--an all-male society of guys who've sworn off female companionship, could that appeal to men attracted to men? Duh!)In fact, the rule forbade sharing horses. Bernard of Clairvaux, nephew of one of the founding Kinghts, was an effective advocate in their formal recognition in 1129.

Despite their military charism, realtively few were actually combatants. One non-military way they protected pilgrims was this: people starting out on pilgrimage could present cash to a local Templar spot, and get a letter of credit that could be cashed at another Templar spot down the road. Pilgrims were safer not carrying cash, (in fact, before this they were routinely killed for money,) and the Templars became an international banking system. With cash on hand, the Templars also began loaning money, including an unfortunate large loan to King Phillip IV of France.

Church and State colluded in trumped-up charges against the Kinghts. The Pope readily agreed to accuse them of heresy and other enormities, and on Friday, October the 13th, Philip orchestrated the arrest of Templars all over France (who repays debts to heretics?) Other arrests across Europe followed. Many were tortured into false confessions and burned at the stake. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris, 1314.

In 2001, a parchment was found in the Vatican Archives that revealed that the Pope had absolved the Knights of all the charges of heresy--in 1308, 4 years before he disbanded them anyway. (And of course long before the burnings at the stake stopped.) Political pressures, you know--what's a Pope to do?

I can't help but think of the upcoming investigation of US women's apostolic religious orders in light of the history of the Templars. No Church-State collusion here--it's all inside the Church. And it feels all political. And, at least so far, no credible justification has been offered for their investigation. At least we don't burn people at the stake any more.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"You walk the Camino -- then the Camino walks you...."

One of my friends asked for the address of the blog again: "I didn't know you were still posting," he said. He seemed surprised.

I'm surprised too. We've stopped walking, but the Camino isn't over. I rehearse the days' destinations like a mantra: Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Viana. I wonder about our fellow pilgrims: how they are -- and where. I continue conversations started along the way.

So, the Camino continues.

One of the followers of this blog -- we call you dear people our cyber-Caministas! --put it powerfully: "You walk the Camino -- and then it walks you." That's exactly what's going on. That's why we can't shake the experience. Nor would we want to. We enjoy a great meal all over again by telling the stories. We resurrect the dead by remembering them, whether with tears or with laughter. And as we tell the stories, as we share the memories, we continue to learn from them. So it is with the Camino.

I shared dinner last night with a dear friend, whom I hadn't seen since the trip. Talking with her brought an insight out of a Camino story I'd told many times before, but never to her. She brought to light something I hadn't seen before; she showed me where to go with an insight.

On the Camino we looked for yellow arrows like the one in the photo above. Now we look to our friends for direction. They don't fail us, but the markings aren't bright yellow either. The way forward is more subtle, more nuanced.

The Camino continues.

So will this blog.

The Camino was the first of a three-stage project, each stage involving some form of pilgrimage. In January, 2010 we'll accompany a delegation of seminary students to the Lutheran Student Center in Mexico City, where they will do a two-week "cross-cultural" experience in one of the world's largest and most complex cities. Then, in March, 2010 we'll visit an on-going immersion program run by Santa Clara University at the Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador. Affiliated with the Jesuit university in San Salvador, the program starts in January. By March the students will be well into their semester, well-integrated into their community learning sites, and well on their way to processing the experience.

In stages two and three, we'll be particularly interested to see how these two immersion experiences work as post-modern versions of the ancient practice of pilgrimage.

Yes, the Camino continues. Thanks for being on the way with us.

Poor in Spirit

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Matthew's first beatitude is a softer version of Luke's: "blessed are you who are poor." Luke is clear that he means material poverty--the matching "woe" refers to "you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

In Christian tradition too often we sentimentalize or soften material poverty. Real poverty is not when you don't own three Lexuses, ("lexi"?) Neither is it as seen in some interpretations of religous poverty in which they don't actually own this or that material good, but have full use of it. How absurd. "I don't own the villa." But if you can use the villa, isn't that pretty close to owning or co-owning it, except that there's no personal responsibility for its upkeep? After all, none of us takes our belongings with us when we die. We use them here, and leave them behind. The difference between this form of "evangelical" poverty and ownership is responsibility, not possession.

But those aren't real poverty. Real poverty is when you don't have what you NEED. When you can't feed the kids. When you can't pay the rent. Or when the struggle to do so is real and every-day and the outcome is uncertain. Real poverty often means living in dangerous situations, and enduring the daily indignities of disdain from the better-off. Analogously, what's poverty of spirit? When you don't have what you need. Sometimes I think of this as not having faith, not having hope. Depression might be a form of poverty of spirit. Isolation, loneliness. Despair. Joylessness. But in light of walking the camino, I have another idea, too.

Luke's Jesus says that the rich "have already received their comfort." In other words--they don't know that they need anything more. Their noses aren't rubbed in their need. To be poor in spirit, perhaps, means exactly to have our noses rubbed in our need--to recognize our radical self-insufficiency, spiritually and socially as well as materially, and to live in the real possibility of not having it met.

Both Luke and Matthew's Jesus says that the poor are blessed because theirs IS the kingdom of God. Not "you'll be paid off big-time in the afterlife." Now. The kingdom of God IS yours. Walking the camino we were continually faced by our need--for the fellowship of other pilgrims, for insight on dealing with blisters, sore muscles, and hurting backs. For cheerleading, for us and by us. We needed the hospitality of Spaniards not put off by scruffy travelers with poor command of Spanish. We needed the power of the path itself--the faith of centuries of seekers walking the same road in search of numberless different hopes. I needed Marty's good humor and story-telling, and shared my own. I've remarked before how tourists are far more solitary than pilgrims, who are far more communal. It's because pilgrims need, and know they need (or learn that pretty quickly, if they're paying attention at all.) Even though walking the camino feels like an accomplishment--and it is!--it is also a celebration of need. The kingdom of God is AMONG us. It's a kingdom of we who need.

Lest I be too sentimental myself, it is also true that there are those who are destroyed, physically, psychologically and socially by need. It is not automatic that the Kindgom of God is given to those who need. But the fault for that destruction is ours--for failing to be responsive to the needs of those who need as we need. The challenge of the camino is to need. One challenge of re-entry is to continue to need--and to try to respond. To continue to be that experience of the kingdom among us.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lightening the Load: TMB

At dinner my niece cuts off a too-graphic description of handling blisters along the Camino: "TMI!" She shoots me a look, and it's one that I know she's received in recent memory. She's a quick study. She's also right: this is not genteel dinner conversation. TMI! Too Much Information!

I file the insight away. What counted as appropriate table talk on pilgrimage doesn't work off the trail. Pilgrims are hungry for any miracle foot treatments -- and it's appropriate to impart them at any time of day or night. Normal people, however, are not. Chalk that up to the jolt of re-entry, about which Lisa wrote earlier.

There's another jolt of re-entry, one I want to attend to. Just as we shift conversation topics, so we find our needs altered. Again and again, I've run into the feeling of simply having too much stuff. After carrying everything on my back for four weeks, I come home to a house full of things I seem to have needed four weeks ago. They suddenly seem superfluous. TMS! Too Much Stuff! Or more pointedly: TMB! Too Much Baggage!

I read a book on Camino, tearing off chapters as I finished them. Wally Lamb's smart coming-of-age novel, "She's Come Undone," got filed in trash receptacles across the top of Spain. I took the daily lectionary readings, which lived in my back pocket, until I found the right place to leave them. Once it was on a cafe table in Villafranca del Bierzo -- and the waiter crossed the plaza to return them! During the first week, we'd systematically go through our backpacks to identify everything we'd brought that we didn't really need, arrange it into a tiny shrine in our hotel room -- and walk out the door, never to see it again.

For a while I looked for our discarded gear on people who'd pass us. Then I even stopped looking. The backpack in the photo above weighs about 18 pounds, down from about 24. I didn't even really need all of that.

Now, back in ordinary life and surrounded by normal people, it's easier to adjust my table talk than shake this feeling of simply having too much baggage. What can I get rid of? That's a negative way of asking the real question: what do I really need?

This winnowing process works on several levels. Possessions are the easiest to identify -- and deal with. But we also carry relationships. Some we should, and some we carry out of habit, familiarity, or inertia. Relationships too can become just extra "baggage." Finally, there's the baggage we bring into relationships. I'll confess: I come encumbered. How can I unburden excess possessions? How can I lighten relationships that have become onerous? How can I unburden myself? How can I be a lighter spirit, present in a more gracious way?

Finally, even more baggage: I'm a world-class worrier. I always have a Plan B in place, should Plan A fail. Moreover, I not only have the plan, I even have all the gear for Plan B. I even have gear for Plans C and D!

What usually happens, of course, is Plan Q. Which turns out to be better than anything I could have scripted -- and for which all the right "stuff" miraculously appears.

So how can I unburden myself in that way? I'm carrying about 25 pounds of possible outcomes and all the attendant frets that go with them.


Sunday, October 4, 2009


I'd like to pick up Marty's great question of return--how do we return from pilgrimage. What changes, what remains the same? Like Marty, I miss the simplicity of the road (and the company!) As one of our companions remarked, the camino isn't easy, but it is simple. My feet are rapidly returning to their urban-wimpy pre-camino state, back from their road-ready, almost hoof-like condition at road's end. I'm a little embarrassed by that.

One question keeps at me, though. On pilgrimage, we were largely people receiving. We needed the townspeople to be offering meals, lodging, (showers!!) laundry. The injured needed doctors. In the past, of course, we'd have been begging our way--nowadays we pay. But still, without the daily labor of those whose livelihood is some form of hospitality, of giving, we'd never have made it. In order to be mobile, we needed the stability of others. They, in turn, needed the constant flow of pilgrims for their livelihood. There was a true symbiosis of pace.

Now I've returned to a basically stationary life. I sleep in the same town night after night. I know where things are, how to access the resources I need. Heck, I speak the local language here in California pretty well. I am not always receiving. But am I giving? I think one measure of the spiritual profit of pilgrimage is to be aware of the ways in which we are all always receiving, and to receive lightly and graciously. But no less, I think I need to focus also on how this affects my ability to practice the virtues of stability, of being the kind of resource that others need. Hospitality, not limited to the question of livelihood (I do not expect to open a hostel in Berkeley, though I've worked at shelters here in the past,) but the deeper hospitality of those who support the others who travel through our lives, perhaps only for a moment, a day, a short time. Will I help them on their way?

Friday, October 2, 2009

What is it like to be back? Footprints of Pilgrimage

That's the question everyone asks. Some people want the nano-second response; others want more. As always, the answers vary depending on who's asking. But with the Camino, I have a hunch the answers will also alter with time.

Most obviously, it's just plain strange not to be walking. We teased our friends on the Camino about how hard it would be to shake pilgrim rituals. Like zombies we'd get up, pack up, and hit the road before daylight. While the spectre of Zombie-Pilgrims cracked us up in Santiago, back home in San Francisco, it's close to the truth. Several mornings, particularly as my body crawls back into this time zone, I've been up before dawn, in my boots as soon as my feet hit the floor, and first in line at Peet's Coffee in the village.

I also miss people, especially my excellent traveling companion, Lisa. I joked that we'd talk our way across the top of Spain --and we did! We made up stories, retold the plots of every book we'd recently read, and replayed all of our favorite movies. We literally talked for miles.

Then there was the easy camaraderie of the other pilgrims we met along the way. Some of them have names and stories of their own; others we came to know only by sight. Because the Camino attracts people from all over the world, we found ourselves using all the languages we knew -- and even a few we didn't. "Buen Camino!" became the universal greeting.

Pilgrim banter taught me the enormous value of "encouragement." In the Christian scriptures, the pastoral epistles constantly invite believers to "encourage one another" (e.g., Hebrews 3:13f.) It always seemed like filler to me.

The Camino taught me the importance of encouragement: stray conversation and simple greeting alike spurred us all on. I remember sitting with Lisa at an outdoor cafe in Viana, a tiny town in the eastern region of Navarre. The pilgrim route ran right past our cafe, and we spent the late afternoon cheering on everyone who passed by. We'd taken a "slow" day; they were walking on to the next big city. For that one night, we were the cheerleaders of the Camino.

And believe me! the favor got returned, repeated, recycled. Maybe I'll figure out how to do a little more cheerleading back on the home front.

A final, tentative answer to the question: what is it like to be back? Everything seems hopelessly and unnecessarily complicated. For weeks all I did was sleep, walk, eat -- and walk some more. Everything I needed was in my backpack. All I worried about was reaching the next village. Now there are schedules to coordinate, appointments to make, obligations to tend to, articles to write. I'm not complaining: this is life. My life -- and it delights me. But it's different.

Where are the footprints of the Camino in all of this? I find myself handling things with a lighter touch, a lot of humor, and a spirit of what-the-hellness. My computer screen has cataracts? Well, gosh: maybe I can move them around like a desktop icon. The contractor didn't show today? He'll come tomorrow. There's nothing for dinner? Bread and olive oil worked well enough on the road....

It's a welcome attitude. Here's hoping it outlasts the blisters.