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.


  1. It reminds me of a day in div school Lisa spent doing about twenty things, along the lines of 'going to spiritual direction' (herself), visiting her congregation at the jail, preaching? a whole list like that, and then had the audacity to say she had done 'nothing theological' that day.

    I think there's an awful lot of latent dualism that sneaked into Christianity and Western thought in general.

    What does it mean that God became incarnate? What does it mean that flesh was something that can hold God? Is 'spirituality' like cinnamon, only really itself in a matrix of butter, flour, and sugar? (Or possibly lentils.)

  2. You are so right! Incarnation happened so that God could hold onto something real. Something concrete. Besides the whole of creation, that is.

    You put it exactly right.

    and p.s. Thanks for Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Plum, neither of whom is in the least bit ethereal!

  3. The single line I remember from collegiate reading of Merton is something like this: keeping a journal showed me that I laerned the samethings over-and-over, only deeper. Dear Marty, I think you describe yourself before this walk and yourself learning to be yourself more deeply.


  4. What the Camino taught me is that feet pray as well, as they walk :-)