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).
Thus saith the Lord of hosts;“Consider
your ways.” (KJV) (Haggai 1:7)
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.” (NIV) (Haggai 1:7)
injunction to consider your ways—or take a hard look at your lives—occurs twice
in the first chapter of Haggai. The prophet tells the people that they have
their priorities wrong.They’re consumed
by concerns for their own daily comforts, while forgetting to honor the source
of their life, the creator God.
the verse in context as translated in “The Message”:
after that, God said more and Haggai spoke
it: “How is it that it’s the ‘right time’ for you to live in your fine new
homes while the Home, God’s Temple, is in ruins?”
then a little later, God-of-the-Angel-Armies spoke out
“Take a good, hard look at your life.
You have spent a lot of money,
you haven’t much to show for it.
You keep filling your plates,
you never get filled up.
You keep drinking and drinking and drinking,
you’re always thirsty.
You put on layer after layer of clothes,
you can’t get warm.
And the people who work for you,
are they getting out of it?
leaky, rusted-out bucket, that’s what.
why God-of-the-Angel-Armies said:
“Take a good, hard look at your life. Think
prophet is condemning the materialism of the ancient Israelites. And, as we
know, materialism is also a problem for our age—a distraction from the things
that really matter.
of us at New College Berkeley recently had coffee with some U. C. Berkeley
students, to listen to their concerns. Although the students were in different
fields, they agreed about the “materialistic assumptions” in their classrooms. Questions
about deeper meaning, or ultimate meaning simply aren’t raised in their classes.
Haggai the first step advocated by the God-of-the-Angel- Armies to counter
materialism is “Take a good hard look at your life. Think it over.”
New College we offer a variety of helpful practices to stop and “think it over.”
Our spiritual direction groups, Ignation exercises, and retreats, all aid in
cultivating an examined life.
some years now I’ve taught a fall class for New College called “Writing Your
Journey” and have found the weekly writing exercises helpful in “thinking
things over.” Listening to other members of the group also helps. Hearing how
God works in the lives of others, challenges and encourages my own faith.
The early church fathers viewed
writing as a helpful spiritual discipline. In the fourth century writing was
seen as a tool for cultivating holiness and many Christians saw a relationship
between writing and the Christian life. Antony is said to have commanded his
monks to keep diaries “to note and write down” the “stirrings” of their souls.
A few years back I wrote a book
called Finding Faith: Life-changing
Encounters with Christ and had the privilege to read and collect a number
of conversion stories. Some of them were dramatic stories with signs and
wonders. Others were quieter, but equally moving.
We who’ve heard these and other
stories of faith, needed to hear them. Our lives would be impoverished if we
hadn't heard them. They needed to be told. And, we all have stories that need to be told. As the great Frederick
Buechner says, “Listen to your life.” Writing about our lives, even if we have
no other readers, can be an important tool to self-understanding and an
encouragement in our Christian walk.
us in our fall NCB programs, as we consider our ways.