Pilgrimage: Ancient Practice Now With Some Modern Tensions

(Blogger’s Note: Roni Jackson-Kerr and I became acquainted, interestingly, by way of technology. We connected between her pilgrimage and mine in the fall of 2015 and remain friends. As she nears completion for the Ph.D in Communication, Jackson-Kerr has become a research leader in a field of interest to us both. She’s in the final days of completing her doctoral dissertation examining the role of modern technology as it blends with the ancient practice of pilgrimage. She has titled her work,  An Ancient Practice in the Modern Age: An Examination of the Camino de Santiago and the Impact of Technology on Modern Pilgrimage. Jackson-Kerr is also the founder of the American Pilgrims on Camino Oklahoma Chapter (Okies on Camino). We visited recently to discuss her work in-depth.)

Roni Jackson-Kerr at the iconic Alto de Perdon in the early stretch of the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona.

Q: Historically, there was a time when the practice of pilgrimage was common, then periods when it was not so much the case. Is technology responsible for what we might think of as a resurgence in the practice?

A: Because the type of research that I did for this project was ethnographic, I am unable to make direct assertions regarding causality. What I can say is that the rise of the Internet and the resurgence of the Camino have run largely parallel to one another. The resurgence has occurred for many reasons — one being the significant investment Spain has made in the Camino routes, particularly the Camino Frances, and the promotion of the Camino de Santiago itself. I can say the mere volume of information about the Camino that is now available online has unquestionably made the pilgrimage more visible — a simple Google search for ‘Camino de Santiago’ yields more than twenty million results. Blogs, forums, books (tech is affecting self-publishing and the sheer volume of books available), podcasts, documentary films, TED Talks, YouTube videos, and web series have all flourished in recent years. People are sharing their journeys on social media, inviting those in their social network to come along. The increase in available information and visibility is undoubtedly significant.

Q: Understanding that your research is objective in nature, what do you see is both the best and worst impacts of technology on pilgrimage?

A: (As an aside) No research is wholly objective. There is an element of subjectivity to even the most empirical of studies. Ethnography does not aim to be objective in nature, because it recognizes the futility in such an effort. We cannot escape ourselves as a vehicle for the transmission of information. That said, we do try to maintain reflexivity and recognize the ways in which we might influence our own work.

With that said, what’s interesting to me about this study is the very tension between the positives and negatives of technology on this experience, and the internal tensions caused by that impact. It is not altogether separate from the concerns we have regarding the impact of technology on our lives and ourselves in general.

In many ways, technology is offering many practical benefits to pilgrims. With respect to pack weight alone, it’s remarkable how many functions our modern devices can service — our cell phone can be our camera, our diary, our map, our guidebook, our compass, our connection to the outside world (for better or worse), and much, much more.

Modern technology is also enabling pilgrims to connect with one another before ever stepping foot on the trail and making it easier than ever to maintain those connections after returning home. It’s changing the very manner in which pilgrims engage with one another in space and time. It’s offering pilgrims access to a network of others who understand the gravity of the experience and who can offer support when perhaps those back home cannot, not having experienced the pilgrimage themselves. This is no small fact. The return home particularly can be quite emotionally complex, and having easy access to a support network can be extremely helpful for those navigating the transition home.

The other side of the coin, the one that has drawn the most attention from scholars and lay pilgrims alike, is what technology may be taking away from the pilgrim experience and the pilgrimage itself. There can be no doubt that the Camino is changing, both as a result of modern technology and as a result of the increasing numbers. There is a clear delineation between the sacred nature of pilgrimage and the profane nature of modernity and commercialism, and this almost intuitive delineation is what is causing such distress among those who see pilgrimage as a sacred act. Many pilgrims complain about the commercialism of the Camino, particularly in the post-Sarria stretch. But the truth is, the merchants have always gone where the people are. This was true in medieval times as it is today. Yet, there is an observable distinction between the merchant selling pendants outside the cathedral and posters advertising an albergue stapled to every passing tree. Despite the qualitative distinction, commercialism is still commercialism. The concept of making money off of a sacred experience is uncomfortable and challenges us spiritually, rightly so.

There is also much to be said about technology as distraction. In our daily lives as well as on Camino, our devices are distracting, pulling us away from the immediacy of our experiences and separating us from those in our immediate presence. For an experience as rich as pilgrimage, that distraction can be quite troubling.

We have a lot of reflecting to do on this, as individuals and collectively. Many pilgrims lament the numbers we are seeing on the Camino today, yet we speculate how wonderful the world would be if there were more pilgrims in it. We have much to reconcile within ourselves.

With colleagues at the University of Oklahoma 2017 spring commencement ceremonies.

Q: Have you detected any common personality traits among those who are interested in pilgrimage?

A: I think those who are drawn to pilgrimage are driven toward something “more.” They see life as more than merely the passage of time, but as something to actively pursue. There is a kind of bravery associated with taking on the hero’s journey, jumping off into the unknown (although there is no doubt that technology is significantly diminishing that unknown.) Time spent on pilgrimage forces you to spend time with yourself, away from the demands of everyday life, and it offers no escape from yourself, at least as long as technological access is still mostly limited to cafes and bars (I believe strongly that we will cross a threshold when Internet access is inevitably available everywhere, all the time.) But, for the time being, I would argue that while each pilgrim is unique, there are common yearnings that drive each of us, and it’s perhaps the yearning that is universal, if not a particular personality trait.

Q: Is there any evidence that technology use during pilgrimage detracts from the experience?

A: In many ways, that is impossible to answer, because our experience is our experience. It’s the only one we know, so to speculate on what might have been can become a bit of a fool’s errand. With that said, most pilgrims I spoke with recognized that their online engagement was not without consequence. They realized that time spent blogging or scrolling through Facebook was time not spent talking with other pilgrims, exploring villages, or chatting with locals. Importantly, time spent online is also time not spent simply thinking, being alone with one’s thoughts. When going through an experience as emotionally and spiritually intense as pilgrimage, offering oneself time to contemplate and process the lessons, thoughts, and emotions of that experience is essential. And there is no question that access to our distracting devices offers a barrier to that reflective time.

“Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?”

Q: What would you classify as the most significant findings of your research?

A: I think among the most interesting findings are the dialectical tension between our desire for the conveniences of modern technology and our sense that something is being lost as a result of it. One of the clearest demonstrations of this occurred at the 2016 American Pilgrims on Camino Annual Gathering. During one session, representatives from Santiago de Compostela came forth to discuss the many investments that were being made on the CF and in Santiago, including replacing the waymarkers, opening a new pilgrim’s office in Santiago, and “putting wi-fi everywhere.” To be clear, this measure was taken in response to pilgrim demand-pilgrims want the convenience of wi-fi access, even as we lament its problems. The next representative from the Confraternity of Saint James made an announcement about a new albergue opening on the Camino Norte. At the end of her announcement she proclaimed, “There will be NO wi-fi in the albergue. That’s not what the Camino is about.” Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?

Q: So from a practical standpoint, someone asks you if they should remain “connected” or disconnect during pilgrimage. How do you answer?

A: This is such a personal decision, and it is not a small one. I find that many people felt that they remained too connected during their journey. The use of our devices has become so reflexive — we do it without even thinking about it. We engage our devices when there is a lull. We’ve become uncomfortable with the mere absence of engagement. To be sure, choosing to disconnect while on pilgrimage requires intentionality and commitment. One pilgrim said to me, “When you’re dealing with addiction, moderation does not work.” And we are addicted to our devices. I believe this is why so many people found themselves regretting the amount of time they spent on and with their devices, because moderation simply did not work. Yet for safety and practicality’s sake, I would not necessarily recommend leaving one’s devices at home. I know pilgrims who did this and for them, being totally disconnected added a layer to their pilgrim experience. However, I also met pilgrims for whom access to their devices provided a level of security or enabled them to take the trip at all. Each pilgrim must make up their own minds about how and if they will engage their devices. The key is to remain committed to the role they wish their technology to play. If it is only for emergencies, then don’t make exceptions. Otherwise the rock will begin to roll downhill and it will gain momentum.

Q: Did your research investigate multiple pilgrimage routes, or primarily the Camino de Santiago? And if more than one route, are findings consistent?

A: For this project, I focused solely on the Camino de Santiago. However, there is evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is in no way unique to this pilgrimage. One out of every three modern travelers is a pilgrim, and technology is undoubtedly affecting pilgrim travel across the board. If you Google “selfies at the Hajj” or “technology and the Kumbh Mela,” you will find that pilgrims across faith traditions are grappling with the profane influence of modernity in their sacred spaces.

Q: Does your research tell us anything about common perceptions or misperceptions regarding pilgrimage?

A: Interestingly, for all those who conducted research prior to the Camino, in an effort to minimize uncertainty and gain a sense of preparedness, most laughingly said that nothing can truly prepare you for the Camino. Yes, you can read up on footwear and footcare and you can study maps and learn how to properly use trekking poles, all of which are valuable, but there will always be unexpected challenges and obstacles, and at some point, you will have to lean on your own fortitude rather than your research. And that is the point of liberation, isn’t it? When we realize that everything we need to move forward is already in us, we don’t have to rely on cell phones or wi-fi or others. We have everything we need all the time.

Q: For many there is a period of societal re-adjustment following pilgrimage. What does your research tell us about this?

A: This is one area in which I see a significant benefit of modern communication technologies. Many pilgrims experience what’s come to be known as “The Camino Blues” after returning home from the pilgrimage. This is largely because recounting what is in many ways an ineffable experience is challenging, and while many people are interested in hearing about the journey, their interest wanes after a while, leaving many pilgrims feeling isolated as they struggle to make sense of the many lessons and experiences that the Camino offered. Today, pilgrims have much greater access to others who can more easily relate to the challenges of re-entry, and anyone with an Internet connection has instantaneous access to pilgrims around the world who can help them sort through some of those feelings as they emotionally and spiritually unpack. Forums such as Ivar’s Forum, CAMIGAS, and the American Pilgrims on Camino forum on Facebook are offering pilgrims greater access to support networks than ever before, and the expansion of local APOC chapters is enabling pilgrims to connect with fellow pilgrims in their own communities as well. All of this has been made possible (or at least made easier) by communication technologies.

Q: It’s a broad question, but did you encounter any common ways the pilgrimage experience effects things like beliefs, values, morals or other qualities that guide us through life?

A: I think the Camino provides many useful tools and lessons for life. The pilgrimage is merely a metaphor for our life journeys, right? We move ever-forward toward the inevitable end, facing many joys, challenges, and heartbreaks along the way. Our bodies slowly deteriorate. We find comfort and support in the beautiful souls who intersect our path (and some who challenge it.) Some walk with us for only a short time, and others become permanently imprinted on the journey.

I think the pilgrimage demonstrates to us our own fortitude. It shows us that we are capable of things we never imagined. It teaches us the value of a kind gesture, of service to others, of laughter, and of pain. I have been fortunate to have been in many classrooms in my life, both literal and figurative, but perhaps never one so prevailing as the Camino.


Did I Just Do That?


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(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of my book in the works, #PilgrimStrong, based on my experience of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.)

Chapter 1: Did I Just Do That?

It wasn’t until a three-hour, winding bus trip back from Fisterra to Santiago that my head cleared enough to realize the full-blown state of exhaustive delirium with which I’d entered the square at St. James’ Cathedral two days earlier.

Somehow, it already seemed an eternity past, and was yet so predictably consistent with every other single day of my camino experience where time repudiates the notion it must somehow quickly pass.

On the Camino de Santiago, time actually decompresses. Camino time stretches on endlessly as the Old Roman Road leads trudgingly westward through the infinitely skyscape-defined Meseta. Camino time is unbounded. Without constraint. It lives.

With the first leg of the three-day journey home now well under way, it was a peaceful, restful sensation heading southward through the coastal Galician villages, and there was the bonus of a warm, Mediterranean, crystal clear azure day. It was gorgeous. Truman Capote loved writing here. I understood why.

I kept thinking I should feel differently. I should feel victorious – the triumphant, conquering pilgrim having claimed his prize at the zero marker once believed the End of the World. Far less than a fraction of 1 percent of everyone who’s ever lived experienced the magnitude of what I’d just done. But as we made the turn from the coast eastward through the twisting mountain valleys en route to Santiago, and as I sat watching the kilometers click effortlessly past the window, all I could honestly think about was how completely relieved I was that the walk was over. I kept telling myself I should be on my knees thanking God for granting me this experience. All I could truly do from my heart was thank Him the 500 miles was finished, that I wasn’t completely cold for the first time in nearly three weeks, and that with massive amounts of fabric softener, my clothes might take on at least the smell of neutrality by the weekend.

So after two days of transitioning from weary pilgrim to recovering tourist, it was as if my mind finally gave my body, now 29 pounds lighter, permission to know the degree to which it had taken over, masking the pain of an inflamed, hemorrhaging shin that dictated my gait every single, aching step of the final 100 kilometers from Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela.

The original “plan” to arrive on Thanksgiving Day was clearly blown a week earlier. And by that time, any preconceived goals of time or state of being no longer mattered. I just wanted to make it, and finish strong, even if I had to fake it. And then, I wanted to go home.

My wife and mother were sending me consistent messages to listen to my body. “Nothing is worth hurting so much,” they said, as wives and mothers do.

I remember laughing about the reply I wanted to send them, but didn’t:

“My body says it wants a queen-sized bed with clean sheets, fluffy blankets and a western omelette with wheat toast around 7 a.m., por favor. I stopped listening to my body two weeks ago. If I hadn’t, I’d already be home, y’all.”

The leg honestly hurt like hell, I was beyond exhaustion and my camino sleep pattern never allowed much more than five broken hours a night (which could’ve had something to do with other stinking, snoring pilgrims less than two feet away from my head).

But the very suggestion of not finishing what I’d come to do was completely hateful. I can think of no other word. I abhorred the mention of anything other than a respectable finish on two legs. I’m the one who had to live with how this turned out. No one else, so don’t tell me how to finish – just pray God will carry me a bit further. I already knew He would. We’d had that talk.

From Portamarin on, I would’ve crawled 100 kilometers through the cold, sticky Spanish mud before I’d have given up on planting my walking stick at the foot of the resting place of St. James, Son of Thunder, apostle of Jesus. I’m so glad my mind took over to mask how much those last miles hurt. I just wish I could remember more about it, and have enjoyed more of it. Arriving in the square wasn’t the glorious moment I’d imagined.

Alas, that’s what happens when a certain, special instinct takes over on the Camino.

Maybe you already know it, or maybe you will one day.

I call it – #PilgrimStrong.


Post Camino: What Now???

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on a plane. My #1 fan and the woman I love.

Thursday Night at Memphis International Airport after 11 hours on two planes. My #1 fan and the woman I love. My Lord, I’m happy to be home with her.


Home (T +2 days). 3:30 a.m., and my body still thinks it’s 10:30 a.m. and time to stop for a papa tortilla and a cold San Miguel. Oh the humanity. Anyway … now what???

First, a final, yet sincere thank you to all who followed virtually on my pilgrimage. A special thanks to my family, my prayer team, and members of the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) forum. Many, many of you who aren’t already, became family. I’d love to name names, but there are just too many, and I think you know who you are anyway. Thank you for walking with me, and for your encouragement that meant so much on many hard days. From my heart … thank you.

For 99% of the pilgrim population, staying wired to the internet is a BAD idea. DON’T do it. Leave the clutter behind. These opportunities to unwire don’t come along often.

I decided to ignore my own advice early on for three reasons: (1) My livelihood is through story-telling and I wanted to reclaim that important part of my life. It would be more difficult for me NOT to tell the story. I’d have been miserable NOT telling it. It’s just who I am; (2) Documenting the story in real time was therapeutic for me. I carry my own baggage just like everyone else. Every time I shared a photo, video or thought … well, it was a part of my healing, and; (3) APOC is a hugely diverse focus group I wanted to utilize in testing ideas for the future, and as my pilgrimage continues. It was a planned part of my “what next?” from the beginning.

As have many of you on APOC, I’ve read a ton about the camino. I’ve read a few good things, and a lot of not so quality things. I’ve seen video documentaries that touched my soul … others that were, eh … pretty meh.

So I felt from the beginning as though there were room in the marketplace for a new, well-written piece. And subsequently just a few weeks before leaving for Spain, my wife convinced me I was capable of gathering good material for a nice documentary. In October I came to believe those things just might possibly align for a new chapter in my career as a missions-focused journalist. Post-camino, I believe it even more.

There were preconceived notions about the focus of my future book and documentary. The weighty topic of “truth,” and how people across the world view truth was my original mission. As many of you understand, and might expect, the camino has a way of altering, even radically simplifying your perspective on so many things. It did so to my preconceived notions about my post-camino journalism.

Throughout my 40-day walk two simple thoughts recurred in my mind again and again.

(1) This is really hard. (it’s okay if you want to nominate that for understatement of the year.)

(2) What a pleasure it is to be in a place where so very few people cry, complain or make excuses while undertaking something so ridiculously hard. The absence of whining was a breath of fresh air to my soul, honestly. As one man suggested in a post early on, the complainers do exist, but they are pushed to the margins quickly by the majority of pilgrims who will have no part of it.

Life is tough. You know that, and so do I. Yet we walk on, don’t we? We just keep walking. We’re not quitters, you and I. We won’t lay down to defeat. We’re made of something special. There’s a certain “toughness” to us, and yet it’s not something we wear proudly, or with hubris. We’re genuinely thankful for the gift. And we ideally use it to the glory of the one who bestowed it upon us.

Early on in my posts, I began using the hashtag #pilgrimstrong and didn’t think so much about it. It just seemed appropriate as I walked through endless rains, bone-chilling cold and an all-day snowstorm. Some of those days just weren’t for crybabies. I remember walking the first two hours through that snowstorm from Ocebreiro until we came to the first small, open bar with heat and food at Hospital. I bet 30 soaking wet, numb pilgrims were gathered in that small space to dry out, warm up and replenish. And we all knew there was at least another five hours to walk through it to reach Triacastela in the haven of the lower elevations.

It was a situation tailor-made for despair, but do you know what the prevailing mood was in that bar at that moment? Pure joy. Not a complainer in the house. NOT ONE. It was #pilgrimstrong if I’ve ever seen it. At that moment, I was proud to be part of something so special. It really was special.

I’ve purchased the domain pilgrimstrong.com. Don’t bother looking as nothing’s there yet, but it’s the title for both a book and documentary I intend to publish next year, God willing.

The working title is actually, “Pilgrim Strong: Unfiltered Reality on the Camino de Santiago.”

My current thinking is to write this as a complimentary guide to the traditional guidebooks, yet one with less technical and geographic information … just an account of what this experience is really like … absent all the false images.

What I think I discovered though my social media posts on APOC is that in a world that’s so completely driven in our pursuit to create a false image of who, and what we are, simple transparency, mixed with a bit of humor, a willingness to laugh at yourself, and a pinch of occasional sarcasm, works well.

I hope you’ll enjoy the eventual book with some of its working chapter titles including:

The Day I Stopped Being a Pilgrim and Started Being Myself

I Thought I was Supposed to Cry a Lot?

The Pyrenees: That ‘What Have I Done Moment’

40 Nights. 40 Beds.

I Could’ve Just Walked to Pensacola

Know Your Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL)

I Walked Until My Legs Bled. Really.

Body Management and the One Thing Nobody Talks About

Cold and Damp. Damp and Cold.

Vegan Tom: Little Man, Huge Superiority Complex

I’m Not Changed. I’m Much More of Who I Was.

Naomi & Aida: My Camino  Sisters

Coming Home. Nobody Really Cares

Snowstorm at 4,000 Feet

The Three Phases of Buen Camino

Leaving Cleanliness Behind

Just Keep Walking…

That’s just a working sample of title chapters.

I’ll continue to test, not all, but a lot of this writing here on the blog, and hope to publish in late summer or early fall.

Thanks again to everyone who came on this journey with me. We took quite a ride didn’t we?

Vaya con Dios for now.