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.

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A Memory Made Permanent

After three hours of torture, this is what I walked away with. At least I won't have to buy a shell next camino.

After three hours of torture, this is what I walked away with – the scallop shell that pilgrims have carried for a millennium. At least I won’t have to buy a shell next camino.

On the day Dana and I left for Madrid, and one year to the day when I embarked on my first pilgrimage, a friend published a blog post that captured my attention.

Beth Jusino and I connected as friends through the American Pilgrims on Camino forum when I was on that first walk. It was just a few months after she and her husband, Eric, completed the Le Puy route – double the distance of the Camino Frances. She’s a gifted writer and editor and someone whose opinion I value when it comes to all things literary. And she’s kindly help guide me in an important direction or two as I work to complete my book Pilgrim Strong. That process is indeed, a marathon to itself.

Her October 20 blog post was about a commitment, of sorts, that she’d made to herself. A commitment that once made, would permit no turning back – a little like that moment when you walk away from the Orisson refuge to battle the Pyrenees – but deeper, and perhaps more personal.

Beth got a tattoo. And what she wrote about it resonated deep as I read, waiting to board a flight at the Memphis airport.

These are the first three paragraphs from Beth’s post:

“I live in Seattle, where tattoos are practically a requirement for entry. And yet, whenever the subject would come up, I’d shrug. There was nothing I could imagine that I would want to commit to having on my body forever. Surely I would regret that quote/image/memory when I was 90.

But then I walked a thousand miles in a single spring. It was the biggest, hardest thing I’ve ever planned and completed.

I wanted to commit it to being part of me forever.”

I understood exactly how Beth felt.

People who’ve experienced the camino say a lot of things about it, chief among them that “it will change your life.” Some speak of it as a magical, mystical place and a journey whose conclusion will take all your problems away.

Truth is, the Camino de Santiago is just a place. It’s a place of historical significance regarding the spread of the first-century gospel, but it’s just a place. It doesn’t whisper to you or bring down some supernatural life-changing light at the zero-mile marker. What happens there is entirely up to you as you walk the path.

The camino didn’t change me at all. To the contrary, it refined me, and made me much more of who I already was. It was, and is, the extension of a journey I’ve been on for many years. It confirmed for me that I’m headed in the right direction, no matter the mistaken turns and shortcut detours I’ve wrongly or selfishly taken along the way. And so I walk still, pressing on to the prize. A wise Frenchman told me last year, “The true pilgrim never stops walking the path.”

Still, it was a big deal for me, both times. Words may never adequately explain how big a deal it’s been and how I carry the experience with me daily. The lofty opinion I once carried of myself as a young man has given way to the truth that we’re all just walking each other home.

I’m a better person for experiencing the camino. It’s helped refine much of the way I think about the world, people, ideas, and even myself. When I need to reach deep for determination I think about the camino. “If I can walk across a country, surely I can rake the leaves today,” I’ve told myself. And that parking space WAY across the lot at Target doesn’t seem nearly so far now.

The camino is special to me in so many ways, and above all, has connected me with new friendships that I value immensely.

And alas, it’s drawn me closer to God.

I knew exactly what Beth meant when she wrote about the desire to make the experience a more permanent part of her life.

So I did the same. And the walk goes on.

(Blogger’s Note: I asked Beth’s permission to replicate the art that was her original idea. She graciously granted that request.)

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Together We Are #PilgrimStronger

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we'd head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

At the Memphis airport last December 3 as I arrived home from pilgrimage after 45 days. Little did we know at that moment we’d head back to the Camino together in 10 months.

Managing my propensity to occasional depression has pretty much been the same for more than 40 years. I’m just more aware of the management process now, and have become more proactive than reactive about it. Today it’s no longer a subconscious coping tool, but a need of which I’m aware that’s become as much a part of my life as opening the pool for the season, or the annual termite inspection.

The best prescription I’ve found is pursuing something difficult that requires long, disciplined preparation – something intense enough that it brings a focused distraction to the hopelessness many of us privately know in depression. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s found a way to turn sadness into gladness.

I wasn’t a natural athlete as a kid, but found myself working obsessively harder than average to become a decent high school ball player. Spent most of my 20s laying the career groundwork for landing my political communication dream job at 32. Just a few years later invested 36 months completely dedicated to marathon training and made the distance three times. The cycle never ends, and reflecting on those efforts is exhausting. Not to have pursued them might have been deadly.

Early in our marriage and as the recession wrecked our livelihood I experienced a depression that took me so far into myself that I wasn’t sure I’d come back. Dana may have wondered the same. Part of the healing process involved watching late night adventure shows about far-away places. They were shows that kept us dreaming.  However you do it, and wherever you must search, depression requires that you cling to hope. My hope has always been in Christ Jesus, but depression will sometimes trick and rob you of that hope. Another topic, another time. One night, a part of my worldly hope was found in a movie called The Way.

***

In October 2015, I set out for a 500-mile walk across Spain on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago as both preventive depression therapy, and a celebration for overcoming that hard time years earlier. I would’ve never made it through that time, or to the Camino, without Dana. Though 5,000 miles across an ocean, she was with me every step. A man can find no adequate measurement for the value of a supportive, committed, loving wife. There is no standard to which I can point. I value it above all things, save my identity in Christ.

It took four days and about 60 miles of walking last year to realize one of the most valuable lessons I’d learn on the Camino. Pilgrimage was best experienced and more profoundly understood when I approached it as a story. When I became free to experience the Camino in such a familiar way, everything changed. I’d found “my Camino.”

Unconventionally, and to the dismay of pilgrimage purists, I conveyed the stories in real time, up and over the Pyrenees, through the Meseta, eight hours through a Galician blizzard, and to the end of the world. Mostly through meeting new friends along the way there were stories about relationships, hardship, loss, determination, and hope. I found the stories refreshingly rich and real, and the experience of telling them helped me reclaim things I didn’t even know I’d lost. I hate the cliché, but yes, the Camino provided exactly what I needed.

I came home, wrote a book about it, and wondered what would come next, because I knew the story wasn’t finished. A wise French companion once told me “a pilgrim never stops walking the path.”

***

“An excellent wife who can find?  She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” ~ Proverbs 31:10-12

When the unexpected opportunity presented itself last week for Dana and I both to return to the Camino this fall, we booked the tickets without much thought to all the things one should think about when it comes to getting off the grid for a month. I’ve lost enough friends during the last two years to know that when you’re 70 percent sure about something that may seem far-fetched at the moment, you try your best to say “yes,” and figure the rest out as you go. After a flurried exchange of text messages about the chance to go as a couple, we said “yes.”

Not only am I excited to walk again, meet new friends, and see new places, I’m excitedScreen Shot 2016-07-27 at 6.29.04 AM to tell a new story. And I think I’m as eager as anything to watch the experience unfold for Dana. That’s the story I want to tell you. This time I want to share the experience through her eyes.

For 31 days I’ll be Dana’s walking documentary journalist, sharing a few of my perspectives about her pilgrimage, but mostly telling it as she sees things through photos, text and video.

This wasn’t her idea. She’s not even comfortable with it yet.

But the world needs more stories about good people. Not the ones who pretend to be good, or those who shout from the mountaintops that they’re good, but rather the ones who are good.

I’ve never known a better, more selfless, more compassionate, humble person than my wife.  I thank God that I get to walk with her every single day.

Dana made me #PilgrimStrong.

But together we are #PilgrimStronger.

I can’t wait to tell you her story.

PS: We’re going to need a trail name for her. If you have ideas, please leave a comment.

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My Camino Family

“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.” ~ Lee Iacocca

“A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” ~ Proverbs 18:24

 

My Camino Family. My sisters, Naomi and Aida.

My Camino Family. My sisters then and now, Naomi and Aida.

One of the best parts of family is how it functions as a unit. One member falls short, another picks up the slack. One becomes weak, there’s strength in the group. Disagreements abide, but kin always cheer one another onward. The family is the original cheerleading squad.

Ten years ago when I developed a passionate interest in travel, it was mostly about exploring those places I knew nothing of, and learning cultural ways about which I’d never heard. And indeed, I’ve learned so much. But for me, the unexpected benefit of distant travel is the family connection it’s created. Doing difficult things in far-away places inevitably creates a special relationship with others most akin to brothers and sisters. I’m a 50-year-old only child. I longed for siblings as a youth, and wonder what it might be like to have them now. As I’ve traveled different places and experienced different things I’ve filled that void with brothers and sisters around the world. And I love these people as my own.

After 28 days walking, my Camino family was loose, but unbeknownst to me, coming together rapidly. It came in the unexpected form of two sisters. Naomi and Aida.

***

It’s a long, downward descent from Cruz Ferro, easily an entire day of negative grade. It sounds easy enough until you actually do it. Walking down miles at a time with a 24-pound pack jars the knees in potentially dangerous ways.

Twelve miles in, the small village El Acebo (population 37) looked like an inviting place to end early and break up a hard day, and it was the beginning point of a long stretch where the vistas became gradually more thrilling. A restaurant/bar, nice beds, and wifi for 7 euros at Mesón el Acebo made the decision easy.

Awaiting a patata tortilla and cold beer I checked online messages and noticed a social media post from Naomi. She was nearing Cruz Ferro several miles behind but still connected to the internet. I sent her a quick message to catch up and told her I was done for the day. A nine-time Camino veteran, she knew exactly where I was. Her next message changed everything.

“See you there in a few hours.”

***

Just as unexpectedly as I’d found the unusual depth of certain Camino relationships, was the virtual relationship I now experienced with past and future pilgrims online. Regular posts – sometimes photos, sometimes videos, often just a metaphorical thought for the day – somehow resonated with certain people, and I had a list of virtual friends that grew daily. As I shared certain thoughts and feelings, they responded with amazing support. It was the strangest and most unconventional sense of family cheerleading and encouragement. And the way it affected my attitude and determination was amazing. Family is found in the least expected places.

***

Our backpacks at a resting point in O Cebreiro.

Our backpacks at a resting point in O Cebreiro.

A few hours later, Naomi arrived, and though we’d spent no more than a couple of hours together four days back, it was like seeing an old friend. We shared our experiences from Cruz Ferro and selected bunks for the night. After a good meal and a peaceful night’s sleep we woke the next morning, packed up and headed out together. We never spoke about it, but somehow understood, I think, we’d walk on together to the end. I sensed Naomi approached this undertaking much as I did. We were both just fine as soloists taking care of ourselves but knew the benefit of having trusted, at-your-side support. In the end, I probably got the better end of that deal.

Two hours short of Ponferrada, and after we’d discovered a mutual love for cooking, Naomi had an idea that produced one of our best times on the Way. She knew the donativo albergue where we were headed and how its accommodations lent themselves to a special sense of community.

A magnificent evening dinner at San Nicolás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada. I believe we have 7 countries represented here. It was a great time.

A magnificent evening dinner at San Nicolás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada. I believe we have 7 countries represented here. It was a great time.

“Why don’t we pitch in and buy some groceries and cook for everyone tonight?” she said. I laughed out loud thinking how I literally had nothing else to do.

“Okay, what’s the menu?” I replied. And so we thought it through for the next several miles.

The sleeping setup at San Nicholás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada is much like that in Roncesvalles – small, pod-like rooms that sleep four pilgrims each on two bunks. We landed a pod near the communal kitchen and showers, and cleaned up before a trip to the mercado. Naomi was a stickler for backpack organization, and as we tidied up the room after showers, our bunkmate for the night walked in. It was a young, professional Spanish girl from near Barcelona who’d started solo at Leon a few days back. Relationship dynamics are often the strangest thing. We were a public school teacher from California, a hospitality industry professional from Barcelona, and journalist from Arkansas. Oddly, it was as if we were all immediately connected as a group.

We told Aida we were putting on a group meal for all interested pilgrims. Word spread quickly and we’d feed about a dozen peregrinos from around the world that night. Aida offered to wash our clothes in a group while we shopped, and my Camino family was finally born.

We were a unit now, walking one another home. I was the older brother with the funny accent, viewed often, I’m sure, as one sometimes the good-natured, good ol’ boy, and other times, a bit cantankerous. Naomi was the middle-child rock, the glue, with a deep understanding of where we were, exactly what we were doing, and furthermore how it might potentially affect each of us. Aida was the essence of our collective pilgrim spirit – professional, fun, strong-willed, with a little touch of rowdiness. We were quite the unlikely threesome.

Our dinner that night was completely cosmopolitan – one of the best experiences in my life.

Early the next morning, we moved on as family, bound for 10 final days of adventure, cheering each other as we walked.

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The Truth About Solvitur Ambulando

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It’s a phrase I’d never heard until just a few months ago. Solvitur ambulando.

A well-read and accomplished friend who’s already thru-conquered the Appalachian Trail made the simple post on a recent social media thread where I’d let the waiting world know I was out on a practice hike. Solvitur ambulando, he wrote, succinctly.

I was embarrassed not to know the Latin phrase, and too curious not to look it up. I’m sure that’s probably what he intended.

“It is solved by walking.” … solvitur ambulando. How lovely, and how true.

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.” ~ Thomas Merton

I never even thought much about pilgrimage until the seventh grade when a social studies teacher I had a slight crush on taught about Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam where some two million religious faithful trek to Mecca each year. To a young kid who thought mostly about basketball and what was for supper, something like religious pilgrimage seemed a distant and “foreign” practice  mostly undertaken by crazed zealots in far away lands.

It was 32 years later until I made a random click on a movie simply called The Way Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.00.33 AMwhen I learned that pilgrimage went beyond something people pursued in biblical times. It’s actually been going on for thousands of years.  And I was hooked. I didn’t know when, or how, or even why. But it was on, and I knew it.

Emilo Estevez and father Martin Sheen teamed in 2010 to create The Way, the story of a father who heads overseas to recover the body of his estranged son who died while traveling the camino de Santiago, and decides to take the pilgrimage himself.

Along the journey he discovers the difference between “a life we live, and a life we pursue.”

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Pilgrimage – in its purest form undertaken on  foot – is, in fact, a religious rite shared by nearly all the world’s faiths.  A pilgrimage takes our shared metaphor of life as a journey, in which a lone sojourner may struggle with physical challenges, emotions, and hope through the wilderness, and turns it into a concrete, bodily experience. It converts the abstract into a tangible path, with real goals and obstacles and pain and joy.

A pilgrimage like the camino de Santiago can be as tangential as an adventure/vacation, or as solemn as a time purely dedicated to commune with God.

Whatever issue the pilgrim finds on his heart, … solvitur ambulando … it can be solved by walking.

I’ve certainly found it to be true in my training hikes. Several hours, several times a week out walking with blue skies, trees and a worn, winding footpath have freed up my mind and spirit in a way that I now covet. God and I are talking, and sharing thoughts, and I can feel His guidance taking me in a purposeful direction.  Together, we are solving things by walking. Solvitur ambulando.

It’s now 22 days to departure and the training is entering a new phase. It’s a lovely fall Saturday in Arkansas and 13 miles await.

I wonder what we’ll solve today? Solvitur ambulando.

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