Pilgrimage: Spiritual Enlightenment?

My pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is imminent. My husband an I plan to walk 239 kilometers (148 miles) of the 791 kilometers (491 miles) of the Camino in northern Spain over 12-ish days. Our trip is so imminent that I woke at 2 a.m. last night in a panic: Why am I doing this? Why in the world did I think I was ready to walk 148 miles, risk the possibility of bed bugs while sleeping in communal quarters, wander (on foot) through a country in which I don’t speak the language, have no definite plan for where I will sleep each night, what I will eat, who I might meet, whether I’ll get hurt.

Fatigue. Risk. Injury. Pain, pain, pain.

The questions kept coming and coming until sleep was impossible. I finally had to remind myself that it’s an adventure, a rare adventure (for me at least), one I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do. I had to remind myself that the Camino mirrors the road we travel through life itself. I could try to plan all I want to, but the road may help or thwart me. I would never know unless I simply started walking.

So why am I doing this?

My husband, who would rather stay in full service hotels and visit the Spanish sights while searching out good restaurants and food, has repeatedly said he doesn’t really want to do this. He’s more or less doing it for me (he’s a very good-natured sport). It’s not that I don’t want to experience Spain in this way. Why does it have to be the Camino?

I’m not really expecting any spiritual epiphany. I think it would be naive to force myself into some sort of enlightenment. I don’t feel as if I need to do it out of some sort of dark night of the soul. I’m not in any spiritual desert place. I don’t think I have to settle anything with myself.

Or maybe I do have something to settle.

In her introduction to Charles Foster’s book The Sacred Journey, Phyllis Tickle writes, “Pilgrimage, whatever else it does, completely undoes certainty.”

Lately I’ve been spending time thinking about John Keats’ ideas about mystery and uncertainty or what he calls “negative capability”:

“…several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason …”

I find that the more uncertain I’ve become about my own security, future, spiritual life, God, the more I, oddly, want to extend that uncertainty into the realm of my body. I have a feeling it will help me feel more alive than I perhaps ever have.

In the Preface of his book The Sacred Journey, Foster outlines a theology of pilgrimage (which he explains throughout the rest of the book). He writes, “Physical pilgrimage involves bodies, blisters, hunger, and diarrhea. And it’s a kingdom activity. It is accordingly one of the best prophylactics against, and cures for, one of the deadliest and most prevalent diseases crippling the church: gnosticism. It is also effective against bigotry, self-righteousness, and angst.”

Foster suggests later in the book that pilgrimage always changes the pilgrim. He spends much time explaining how I can let it change me, but I was most profoundly struck by this warning: ” … sometimes it makes [the pilgrim] worse, not better.”

He writes: “But there are dangers. Since we’re not used to newness, it can be terrifying. We can find ourselves crying out for the old, drab certainties. Our fear can harden us. Some people react by clinging ever more tightly to the nine-to-five persona. The crust that grows from a lifetime of being steeped in littleness, routine, sycophancy, and egotism can thicken, rather than being rubbed off. There will always be a few people whose inability to cope with the rigors of the road sends them back home as fastidious, whining bigots, complaining about the food, the hardness of the beds, and the ‘dreadful smelly, snoring people, who couldn’t even speak proper English, but did insist on talking to me all the time’ … Pilgrimage, one of the most potent cures for chronic unreality ever devised, has failed.”

And maybe this is the heart of it, for me at least. Maybe in the exertion of my body, the blisters, the hunger, and diarrhea, I will find out what kind of person I really am and the existence I walk within the unreality of the American dream, where I live in comfort, security, health, a full belly, uninterrupted sleep. It is the dream that has the potential to encase my heart with stone in all my certainties. It is the dream that keeps me from being fully human in all of my fragility. Ironically, even having the means to do this pilgrimage comes from living in the dream.

In the end, it’s not the spiritual epiphany I’m after. I think I’m looking for insight that only physicality and uncertainty, not gnostic dreams, can offer. I hope that who I am will be more more fully revealed to myself. I hope I find generosity and kindness there and not what I suspect is lurking beneath the surface: a heart of stone, cultivated by living a lifetime in the dream.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clear from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” -Ezekiel 36:25-26



3 responses to “Pilgrimage: Spiritual Enlightenment?

  1. I consider you blessed beyond belief; You’re going to do something amazing. Perhaps in loosing yourself, you’ll find more to God than you would have otherwise. It’s something that’s easy for us to miss, but every time a book of the Bible was carried from one church to another, somebody had to go on a pilgrimage to get it to it’s intended destination. Somebody out there had the only copy of an important letter in existence, walking it closer and closer to a Christian community hungry for answers in the very words they were keeping safe in their possession. Romans 16 tells us that a woman named Phoebe was entrusted with that honor – so if it helps, imagine that you’re walking in her footsteps.

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