Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pilgrimage and Prayer II: Displaced destinations

As beautiful as the Cathedral of Santiago is, pilgrimage is not about getting there.

But isn't that the point?! In the beginning, I thought it was. And I was hustling down the trail, face set toward Santiago. Early on, though, I discovered that pilgrimage is less about reaching the destination than about the way itself -- and the people on it.

This simple truth hit me during the first days of our trek. Lisa and I were both carrying too much stuff, and we unburdened that extra pair of sox, the third t-shirt, etc. But we were also burdened by something that was harder to jettison: the idea of reaching our destination. It possessed us like a demon -- and we realized we had to let go of even that.

One morning we couldn't find a pace that would allow us to walk together. I kept bounding ahead; Lisa kept lagging behind. We were yelling at each other like a married couple carrying on a conversation from room to room. Finally, she sat down in exasperation and evident pain, saying: "If you want to go on ahead, go. I'll meet you in Santiago. I simply can't keep up with you, and I'm getting angry trying."

In that moment, I realized that the point of pilgrimage wasn't about getting there, it was about being a good companion to my friend and colleague on the way. I jettisoned my heaviest and most burdensome possession: my desire to reach our destination. And together we found a pace that worked, a conversation that eased the pain, and a rhythm that carried us to Santiago -- the destination we'd abandoned.

Quite simply, we encouraged one another, just like Paul counseled his communities at Thessaloniki (1 Thess. 5:11). I'd never understand his advice until that moment.

And others encouraged us. A Danish psychologist and his friend, a Swedish jazz dancer, taught us how to "sew" our feet, keeping our blisters drained and dry. In turn, we encouraged a young Korean woman, who was walking a long, hot stretch of the trail without water or food. We shared our provisions with her and accompanied her to the town of Viansa. I saw her later in the town, rested, hydrated, radiant. She looked transformed.

I thought we'd have deep theological discussion along the trail. Back in Berkeley, we had talked about "walking the questions" of John's gospel -- and there are some great ones: "What is truth? "What do you seek?" "Who are you?" But in fact our "theology" was much more embodied, our conversations much more prosaic. We spent a lot of time simply making up a shaggy dog story around one of the hospitalero we encountered along the trail. The miles eased away. But wasn't that Geoffrey Chaucer's insight in his "Caunterbury Tales?" It's not a book about Caunterbury, the supposed destination; it's all about the tales pilgrims tell each other en route -- to encourage each other.

That was our prayer along the way. Quite literally, we were meeting Christ in these other pilgrims. And they were meeting Christ in us -- in spite of ourselves.

Prayer is a lot like pilgrimage in that regard. Christians think it's all about union with God, and they keep trying to find the right formula. The disciples were always pestering Jesus to tell them his secrets: "Teach us how to pray...." His response was the Lord's Prayer, which gives God praise -- then, asks for bread, protection, and forgiveness. These are all highly concrete and highly corporate practices, because we share bread, we look out for one another, and we need pardon because we're hard-wired to get on each other's nerves. Just like Lisa and me.

Prayer also gets crowded pretty quickly. The needs of the neighbor rush in, and suddenly a solitary practice becomes peopled. We think prayer is about union with God, but discover instead it's about communion with the neighbor, who bears Christ to us, even as we bear Christ to them.

It was great to reach Santiago. But it was even better to have the journey bring me closer to my traveling companions -- and allow us to finish the journey on speaking terms.


  1. Your last two entries have me literally buzzing...inside!! I feel like a tuning fork that's been struck, and struck good! Molto Grazie! Karin

  2. Thanks, Karin. An invitation to speak with a group of Augsburg College supporters, the Augsburg Associates, gave me the opportunity to think through some things for that audience. They all know prayer, but few have experienced pilgrimage. Yet it was a great interest of one of the College's key shapers, Bernhard M. Christensen. I was trying to create connections -- for all of us. Two more to come: unburdening and Sabbath. Prayer really is an inward pilgrimage, as Christensen put it. Thanks for following!