As I approach my departure date for the Camino (only a little more than 24 hours from now) I have been giving a lot of thought to the meaning of pilgrimage. What is this experience I am about to encounter all about? Pilgrimage is not an idea that is discussed much in modern conversation. But, as I have thought about it, a few concepts have emerged that help me to better understand what a pilgrimage is all about.
First of all, a pilgrimage is a very personal experience. My Camino will be unique to me and different from any of the Caminos that millions of pilgrims have experienced before me. Pilgrimage involves a stepping away – a stepping back, if you will – from usual pursuits. It is an event of passing through. The pilgrimage is not a destination. It involves time for contemplation, meditation, and listening.
In a way, the concept of pilgrimage is a metaphor for life. We are all here on a Earth only for a brief time – passing through. We won’t be here for very long before we pass on to something new. Pilgrimage includes time to step back and appreciate the beauty of God, nature, and humanity. It provides time for casting away those things that weigh us down – like guilt, a need to forgive those who have hurt us, a need to express compassion to those who desperately need it, and so much more. A pilgrimage is an act of faith and trust. It is a time to slow down – way down – to a walking pace.
While driving back to San Diego from Washington last week, I listened to a collection of poems entitled “Pilgrim” by David Whyte. On the CD, the author read his poems and then provided commentary, explaining some of the motivations he had for each of his poems and the messages he was trying to convey in his words. One group of the poems, entitled “Camino”, focused on themes evoked by his time on the Camino de Santiago. His reflections are beautiful and powerful.
A few of his comments really resonated with me. He spoke of how he sees life as a pilgrimage that is never really over. Each life is just a “passing through,” and time on the path is privileged time. The destination always changes as we near it. Our idea of the destination is always imaginative. As we approach one supposed ending, another path opens before us. As we appear to be reaching each destination, a new direction for us unfolds.
He also spoke of how each pilgrimage is unique to the individual pilgrim. Even the most ordinary life is really quite astonishing. It is astonishing that there is “something” and not “nothing” and that we are privileged to be part of the “something” at least for a time. Every privilege has it’s time and then it disappears and changes into something else, as do we. We’re always a hair’s breadth from our arrival. No matter how many people have walked the Camino before us, we’re actually experiencing a frontier that hasn’t occurred before us since the beginning of time and never will again until the end of time.
It is interesting that while on the Camino you assume an anonymous name – peregrino (pilgrim) – that you accept and that captures your new, if temporary, identity. The name becomes enough of an identity for the time being. It is also noteworthy that you experience hospitality continually while on the Camino – often when you least expect it or are most in need of it. The hospitality of strangers is a truly beautiful thing.
As you approach the official end of the Camino – Santiago – you encounter the most difficult time of all. You are suddenly about to exit from the comfortable routine you have created during the past several weeks on the Camino. As you reach the goal you realize there is something else. In fact, there is always another step that you have to take. The great question is how and where will you go on from here.
Even as Clint and I prepare for the Camino – planning, reading, and meditating – and even though we will be walking in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims who have gone before us, each moment of our personal pilgrimage will be a new unfolding experience that no one has ever had before and no one will ever have after us.