Understanding the Gifts of Pilgrimage

Today’s post is by Tom Adams

Four guys headed out on a walk, a long walk. Two of the guys wanted to go; two others had to be convinced it was a good idea. One was a seasoned hiker and was physically ready. The others did their best to “train” and approached the walk with a healthy mix of doubt and hope. All were well past the age of peak physical conditions; they were lucky to be alive and breathing, much less considering a 100-kilometer walk.

The four were actually more than random guys. They had an intense, prolonged shared experience 50 years earlier that connected their spirits and hearts like brothers. Despite this early connection, over the intervening years they had seen each other rarely if at all.

Yet here they were in Spain setting out on a spiritual pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James. Fifty years earlier, a difficult to define shared faith had brought them together as ninth graders in a Catholic seminary. Why did they go to the seminary? For some perhaps it was a desire to be closer to and follow God, for others it was a desire to serve and do good, or perhaps a simple desire to leave home at the ripe age of 13. For whatever reason, they came together to begin studies to become Catholic priests.

Though none completed the seminary and became priests, all were shaped by this early experience to be human and holy men who loved and feared and explored. One became an active Episcopalian; another chose a life of monastic-like commitment to God and prayer which included following the way of traditional Catholicism; another rejected Catholicism for a while and was brought back to it through 12 Step Spirituality and contemplative practices; and yet another was strongly influenced by Eastern spirituality, having spent six months in a Tibetan monastery.

Despite or perhaps because of these differences, all four answered the call to walk the Camino. One of the brothers particularly struggled to understand what this was all about. Most pilgrimages either stopped at defined holy places or went to one holy place. Why this random walk through Spain and surrounding countries? Who was St James besides being an apostle and close friend of Jesus? Why was he so important as compared to other saints? Why have people since the Middle Ages endured a long uncomfortable walk in his honor? What makes this a pilgrimage? Are there holy places to visit along the way?

Through the experience itself, all four came to understand the gift of pilgrimage, this one and pilgrimages in general. The same mysterious and indefinable faith that brought the four together is what also led them to walk the Camino. One might think the walk would be mostly a Christian or Catholic experience. Not so. Faith in the good of humanity, faith in healing miracles from some undefined power, faith in walking and making a space when unsure about what is next, joins with faith in God, Buddha, Jesus and many other beliefs to draw thousands to the Camino.

One of the struggles and gifts of the Camino is letting go of expectations. The Camino is not a race, and pace does not matter. There is no defined “spiritual experience,” and in fact, “success” for the Camino seems to be showing up and putting one foot in front of the other. Walking in faith and being with others with faith offers amazing and hard to define gifts.

What follows are some examples of the gifts given to one or more of the brothers. Millions of pilgrims over the centuries could certainly add more. And the deeper gifts are not evident perhaps ever. They just are. Here are some of the gifts the brothers received:

  • A deep renewal of belief in the goodness of people from all over the planet: It is very difficult to observe the enthusiasm and spirits of hundreds of walkers and not be in awe of the desire for good in these people and by extension all fellow humans.
  • A broadened appreciation of how soul or spirit connects to a oneness with so many appearances of differences: Pilgrims include different countries of origins, faith or non-faith, languages, genders, race and ethnicity, group connections or solo walkers with motivations that are also quite different and unique. Yet in a mystical way all are one. All seek something good for themselves and/or others.
  • A new clarity on the power of shared faith over centuries and our connection to a faith tradition that is both powerful and flawed: Christianity is central for some, interesting to others and a distracting problem to be overcome for still others. Yet the underlying faith in something attracts and unites. For those of Christian descent, there is acceptance of the checkered past and a heightened pride at the legacy of those who came before—some called saints, many average humans—passionately desiring to know and serve God.
  • An increased openness to the many ways faith and love manifest in each person and the world: Everyone seems to have permission to ask: “Why are you here?” “What are you learning?” And as a result, in a few days, there are more meaningful conversations with strangers, conversations that open the heart wider and deepen faith.
  • Answers to personal questions brought to the Camino and to new questions that arose: Some pilgrims walk for someone else, some look for answers to big life decisions, others for a break or because they enjoy walking. Yet no matter why someone comes, more seems to always be revealed. New questions and new urgings from the soul have space and emerge without being pushed down or ignored.
  • A deeper understanding and willingness of the human need to let go of needing to know and to embrace not knowing: Ultimately, for many pilgrims, faith gets simpler. They reaffirm their awe for the beauty God has created—in nature, in people, in a shared desire to love. They see more deeply that they are not unique in their desire or quest and appreciate for the moment the most basic truth—they are not God nor in charge.

Many faiths describe time in human bodies as temporary journeys or pilgrimages. We are born and we die. Walking the Camino is an amazing way to reconnect with our temporary status here and to embrace the walk of faith and hope and love one step at a time.


Feeling the call to go on pilgrimage? Shalem has two upcoming opportunities: Assisi Pilgrimage, April 4-14, and Iona Pilgrimage, May 31-June 10.

February 02, 2018 by Tom Adams
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