– By Arthur Boers
Blisters worthy of emergency room attention were not the only result of walking an 800 kilometre pilgrimage. Otherwise I may not have gone more than once on Spain’s Camino de Santiago. I have thrice been a pilgrim on that route and each time I remember three key truths about the spiritual life.
• No One is That Special. The most common Camino problem is carrying too much. A young Canadian toted 50 pounds, including a can of maple syrup because he hoped for pancakes along the way. Me, I haul books. Weight adds to bodily wear and tear, taxes muscles, and hurts. It is practically and spiritually wise to lighten one’s load. Practically, the Camino regularly goes through towns, so one easily buys essentials and food along the way. Spiritually, a pilgrimage is an opportunity to live simply.
Two times on the Camino, I helped lead a group. We leaders urged people not to carry more than a tenth of their own weight and please, please, please keep packs under 20 pounds. And each year some pilgrims argued! Or pled for an exception. This seemed odd. We were not laying down law. We were not going to carry or ship their items if belongings were too heavy. We only gave our best counsel. If pilgrims wanted to ignore that advice, that was their call … and maybe also be their suffering.
Faithful believers have always known what it means to be prayerful. Rather than plead for exceptions to spiritual discipline non-negotiables (sabbaths, weekly corporate worship, regular Bible reading, praying for others and listening to God, generous giving, service), we need to recognize that breaking such guidelines is our loss.
• You Must Stop to Arrive. Pacing is a difficult discernment. My first time, my wife accompanied for ten days and then flew home. Predictably, homesickness went into overdrive and I sped up. Within days I was in an emergency room because of a bagel-sized blood foot blister. I slowed down for a time but as I neared the end I accelerated once more, only to be confronted by tendonitis. I was on a supposedly elevated spiritual pilgrimage and yet fell for the same silly temptations that distract me at home – busyness, accomplishment. Pilgrimage reminds us that the journey and process are important and not to be rushed. Last year, some in our group met an elderly woman struggling with health issues yet never resting. A pilgrim bluntly told her: “You must stop to arrive.”
Our busy culture (see Arthur’s article in the Sept/Oct issue of Faith Today) prompts drivenness and multi-tasking and has virtually eliminated pauses and breaks. Christians have the theology and the resources to embrace sabbath styles of living. It makes sense that we need to stop to arrive.
• Hallowed Be Thy Paths. Millions have travelled the Camino in the last thousand-plus years. Countless feet, horses, donkeys, and wagon-wheels affect terrain. Paths are carved into forest floors and hillsides. The ancient trails often are lower than their surroundings, sometimes only a foot or two. Yet more than once I walked on routes where the path’s banks were well over my head, leaving one effectively underground. An English term for this, “Holloway,” means a route that is hollow or even hallowed or holy (after all many are pilgrimage routes). Holloways often are little preserves, harbouring animals and plants that have largely disappeared from the surrounding countryside. There is reassurance knowing that others had gone before on trustworthy paths of others before us.
I once thought the spiritual life was abstractly ethereal, about lofty and elevated feelings. Really it is just learning how to avoid emergency rooms.
Arthur Boers (arthurboers.com), the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, is the author of Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions and The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago.