"Walk in newness of life," Saint Paul wrote and New College Berkeley has embraced that invitation as our motto. This past month I learned more about walking: With some of my family and a number of our friends, I walked the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain from the middle of Portugal, a journey of a dozen or so miles a day over nine days. Ten of us traveled together, experiencing walking, the newness of each day and vista, and also 90-degree weather, blisters, and aching joints.
The Caminos (ways or roads) to Santiago date back to medieval times (often built on the roads of the 19th Roman Legion), following the 9th century "discovery" of the bones of Jesus' apostle James in a Spanish field. Since that time millions of people--including saints, royalty, popes, and peasants--have taken up the pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline of devotion. We encountered many friendly pilgrims on foot or bike who greeted us cheerily with "Buon camino" as they passed. Even as church attendance declines in Europe, interest in pilgrimage grows, and the little chapels along the road keep their doors open for all pilgrims as we trudge along.
Pilgrimage is one of many spiritual disciplines that help us slow down and attend to God, and it does so in several ways. Firstly, walking reminds us that we are creatures of the earth. Civilization removes us more and more from that awareness, and in my ordinary life I can go for days with my eyes more on screens than on landscape. For hours on the Camino what I mostly heard was birdsong and the sound of my feet on dirt, cobblestones, asphalt, and the rocks of dry streambeds. I was more aware of my feet and (backpack-laden) shoulders than I usually am. As I became increasingly grateful for the earth, I became so also for my body that has carried me so far through life.
The second way pilgrimage was a spiritual discipline for me was in reminding me that I'm on this journey through life in the company of others. Sometimes I fell in stride with one of my loved ones on the trail, and our connection flowed easily between words and silence, the sound of the other's steps joining that of my own. As in daily life, on the road I always knew I was accompanied, but long stretches of time might pass when I didn't see my companions or anyone else. Beyond the inner circle of those in our group, there were the pilgrims from other places, kind strangers who shard our destination of the Cathedral in Santiago, and also the strangers through the centuries whose feet had imprinted the path. So, too, each day we live in newness of life, even in the footsteps of the communion of saints.
Lastly, in addition to being reminded of my place on the earth and my accompaniment through life, I was keenly aware of the potent mix of clarity and mystery in faith. Jesus' vivid physical and historical presence was depicted on lampposts, churches, and icons all along the way, a reminder of the Holy One’s willingness to walk the road of human life. Still, the awareness of God was ineffable, more easily received than grasped, like the awareness of companions on the road, present, past, and future, and usually out of sight.
As the long, warm days of summer envelope you, may you find ways to receive the grace that abounds in your precious life—created, embodied, accompanied, and blessed.
Susan S. Phillips
New College Berkeley
Susan S. Phillips (Ph.D.) is executive director of NewCollegeBerkeley, teaches Christian spirituality at the GTU, RegentCollege,
and other seminaries, and is a spiritual director. She is the author of Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. (September, 2013, November 2013, April 2014,