I spent the majority of my sabbatical walking 700 miles through northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I walked the ‘French’ route – across the Pyrenees and through Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Then the ‘Primitive’ route – from the city of Oviedo. People have been making a pilgrimage to Santiago (Spanish for ‘St James’) to the site of the apostle’s bones ever since 820AD when King Alfonso II of Asturias made the journey from Oviedo to Santiago on the route that I followed.
Pilgrimages are part of a rich history of Christian spirituality. Taking time to set apart from regular life to journey to a specific destination allows for longer periods of contemplation than regular life affords. For me, it was an immensely rich experience and a chance to be refreshed and renewed in my spirit. I look forward to sharing more at an evening gathering in the fall. For now, I simply wanted to mention the top highlights of my “Lessons on the Way”.
The first part of my journey took me over the Pyrenees and through the cities of Pamplona and Logroño to the city of Burgos. The way passes through many small villages and mid-sized towns. I met many pilgrims and while the days were often spent with long sections alone, there was always opportunity to gather with fellow pilgrims for dinner in the evening.
On this first section of the way I learned a lot about life as a pilgrimage. The earliest name for the followers of Jesus was ‘The Way’ – long before the name ‘Christian’ was coined (see Acts 9:2). There’s something fundamental to our identity as being people who are journeying with Jesus rather than those who have arrived. I reflected on welcome, persistence, preparation, encouragement, solitude, being present, simplicity and much more. The culmination of this section of the pilgrimage was a dream or revelation that I had of a call to love people. I’ve always thought of ‘loving your neighbor’ as something that all Christians were called to do, including me. But I’ve perceived my vocation as a teacher and leader. This felt like a new call from God to identify ‘loving people’ as the heart of my call to be a priest and a leader in the church.
The next section of my walk took me from Burgos through to Leon. This section is known as the ‘meseta’ – it’s mostly flat and many people regard it as boring walking and some will skip this section altogether. It is not the most dramatic, but there are still many beautiful things to see. The flat walking, often alongside roads, allows one to begin an interior journey and hear what God might be revealing within.
For me, that was about delight. There is so much of life to take delight in. Most pleasures are simple and everywhere. Wonder is fuel for the human spirit. I reflected on rest, joy, celebration, music, beauty and feasting.
My key lesson on this section was that being a fully alive human being means delighting in God’s world. Delight (or wonder) is a part of worship and of putting ourselves in proper relation to our creator. It’s not an add on to life but the stuff of life itself.
On Letting Go
The final section of the French Route runs from Leon to Santiago over two mountain ranges. Here the most powerful experience for me was at the Cruz de Ferro. This is an iron cross on a mountain top where people will leave a stone or other object.
Leaving a stone there helped unlock a well of reflection and learning about letting go. In many ways I felt that I did not want to ‘let go’ of Esther – so I had been resisting the idea of leaving a stone. But, as I left a stone there, I did not feel that I was letting go of Esther; or letting go of my grief. Rather, I was letting go of all of the negative consequences of losing her – the impacts on my family, on my emotions and on my work life. It was cathartic and healing. It was the beginning of a download of revelation from God about the things that I had been experiencing and reflecting on in the previous week.
There’s more to tell – lessons on guilt and pain, on suffering and the passage of time; but these are at least the headlines from my journey on ‘The Way’. Thank you for the gift of that time, and the healing and renewal of spirit that I have been able to receive from it.