A guidebook to the much-traveled Camino de Santiago in Spain—the Way of St. James—suggests that pilgrimage is a way to “reclaim our spiritual inheritance.” Its multiple routes lead to Santiago de Compostela, traditionally believed to be the site of the tomb of St. James the apostle. From all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and from all over the world in recent years, pilgrims have come to walk paths that cross up to 800 kilometers of quiet foothills, passes, and ridgelines where, it is understood, one’s fellow travelers are also on a spiritual journey.
Pilgrimage has a long history in Roman Catholic tradition. Protestants have revived this strenuous devotional practice more recently, many having rejected it along with monastic disciplines, statues, and ecclesial art during the Reformation as “works righteousness” or a form of veneration that hewed a little too close to saint worship. Now, though, spiritual pilgrimage ranks high among the practices people of many denominations and faiths undertake for renewal.
The power of pilgrimage lies partly in what it requires—preparation, clear intention, commitment, persistence, resilience, and an open-hearted willingness to meet whatever weather, mud, sore muscles or troubling thoughts the days bring. The metaphorical dimension of the literal journey is explicit at the outset: pilgrimage is about our earthly journeys through whatever green pastures and valleys of shadow lead us toward the Holy One and the Holy Place we call home.
Emilio Estevez’s 2010 film The Way, starring the writer/director’s father, Martin Sheen, chronicles the journey of a father to retrieve the body of his grown son who was killed in the Pyrenees while walking the Way of St. James. Full of anger and anguish, the father is clearly not among those who have prepared for this journey with prayer and fasting. He is bitter and reluctant, but desperate to find a way to cope with his grief and honor his son. For God, that is enough: even the father’s anger is turned to the purpose of breaking him open wide enough for the Spirit to enter, and for others’ kindness to pour in. It helps to know that the star, himself, is a believer, who recently said, simply and openly, in an interview about the film, “I love Julian of Norwich and St. Therese who said: ‘Everything is grace.’” Sheen also told stories about moments of grace in the film’s making.
To watch this film with fellow believers may be a kind of mini-pilgrimage itself—an evening of reflection on the way the ancient metaphor of a “path” allows us to recognize even our most stationary days, even bedridden hours or long nights at a laden desk as way-stations on a route that unfolds in grace before us, a step at a time. We are called to walk in trust. The prayer, “Show me thy path” may be answered with a simple invitation: take a step and you will find yourself on it. No map is necessary; only the companionship of the One who is with us always, and of those who fall in with us along the way, in whose company we may be entertaining angels, unaware.
As part of this year’s NCB film series we’ll be viewing The Way, and I’ll be commenting on it. It’s my hope that seeing this film together, though it may not leave us planning a trip to Spain, may leave us with a deepened sense of the mystery and promise in the Psalmist’s words, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (25:10).