Pondering Pilgrimage

I just finished listening to the novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012) and wish I had a paper copy to linger over. Not only did I enjoy it and recommend it to you, but I had so many flashbacks to my own pilgrimage in 2007. Even this year, now 12 years later, I had some revelations of what that journey revealed to me, taught me and inscribed in my soul. Harold Fry’s pilgrimage lay 500 miles across England from south to north, started in hopes of curing cancer in his friend, Queenie. Mine was also 500 miles, but in Spain on the Frances route of the Camino de Santiago, begun in hopes of curing my confused soul, having just resigned as a parish pastor, unsure of church dogma and history. Yet a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage in so many of the ways he described.

There is the compulsion to keep walking. It’s so strange, but once embarked, it’s hard to rest. It’s as if the road pulls you onward, even when tired, discouraged, disillusioned and sore. The simplicity of the day was the practice: Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. As Harold did in the book, we checked our feet often, we began to notice the smallest of things around us, and it seemed that cars were going by us so very fast. We met up with all sorts of people, as did Harold–a woman pushing her newborn baby in a stroller across Spain to be baptized in Santiago, a Japanese couple who spoke no English but always waved at us shyly and cooked their meals over a little stove each night. Two Dutch couples who loved to laugh and smoke cigars, a rich young woman who was the niece of Robert De Niro who was walking to grieve the recent death of her mother, a Brazilian grandmother who was walking it alone to ponder her time of aging, an ancient yellowed priest who made us garlic soup and 4 English women who were out of shape but trudged along and drank whiskey at night to relieve the pain.

Like Harold, I was disoriented, confused and disheartened by the end of the pilgrimage. It hadn’t been what I expected. And in most of the goals of my spiritual pursuit, I failed. I was impatient, worried, anxious, judgmental, angry and doubting much of the time, hastened by the cold and rainy weather that dampened most days of walking. I went with such a virtuous agenda, so much like the familiar plan to be as perfect as I could, kind to others, allowing things to just unfold, going with trust in God, open to enlightenment, not hurrying. But the road wears that ego down, down, down to the point that God can actually take over. I didn’t see that for a long time. But I see it now. It was a turning point when I came face to face with the inadequacy of my egoic attempts to cope. In that deep humility, I also saw so many miracles, synchronicities, and moments of pure beauty.

Like Harold, I was reluctant once we drew close to the end of the 500 mile journey. I was so used to the routine, to the daily ritual of looking for the yellow scallop shells or yellow arrows to guide the way. My soul was soaked in the rhythm of just walking. And maybe I was afraid that I had done this thing I set our to do but I had missed the point. Maybe I wasn’t ready to enter the square of the Santiago Cathedral. Maybe I didn’t deserve this ending. Maybe I had done it all wrong, and if I lingered, I would finally see what it was I seeking.

The morning of the last day of walking was on the church feast day Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. That was coincidence–was never planned. We only discovered it because other pilgrims began referring to Whitsunday, the English name for the day. Now I can feel the presence of the Spirit so clearly 12 years later on that day. We got only 2-3 hours of sleep the night before due to a church youth group who giggled all night in the hostel. So we gave up and got up at 5:00 a.m. when they did to begin our final day of 34 days of walking.

It was pitch black out and as it would happen, both our flashlights gave out. Scrambling in my bag, I found a tiny LED light someone had given me that fit on a key ring. It was just enough light that we could cast it around and find the yellow signs in the road to point the way. We could only see just as far ahead as the beam of the light. Exhausted and yet exhilarated to see we just had 28 km to go, we walked on in the dark, led by the light. And it was enough.

In the novel, Harold reaches the end of his pilgrimage with questions and exhaustion and certainly not knowing himself the way he once did. His old identity didn’t fit anymore and his old way of being the world seemed meaningless. And yet the pilgrimage ended. And there was grace. Walking into the pilgrim service at the Santiago cathedral that morning of Pentecost, I literally came face to face with the bishop in his tall mitre and flowing gilded robes. The prior High Mass was just ending and the long line of clerics were recessing. He was obviously annoyed by the surge of pilgrims who rushed into the church before they had finished the recession. I didn’t see him in the crowd until it suddenly parted and I bumped into him– and his scowl. In that moment, all the parts of a patriarchal, hierarchical, judgmental church were encapsulated. It was this confusion of love of church, disillusion with church that had propelled me onto the journey. And here at the end, the Spirit brought me into direct confrontation. We looked each other in the eye. And I didn’t apologize. Neither did he.

Moments later, I was swept up in the beauty of the service, the sound of a thousand pilgrims chanting together, the simple service, the feeling of belonging to this sweaty, dirty, smelly group of peregrinos, who stumbled to the end like me. The Church is the church, has been and will be. Imperfect and in need of change, just like me.

In the end of the novel, Harold and his wife are sitting by the sea, looking at the waves hit the shore, finishing their journey as well. My husband and I took a short bus ride to the coast from Santiago to Finisterre–the end of the world–because at one point in Spanish history, it was considered just that. There was only blue water stretching out as far as the eye could see, waves lashing the rocks and spraying us with foam. I was not at peace. But in that moment, I could abide the paradoxes of my faith and live with the questions I still held. That was, and is, enough. I keep walking.

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2 thoughts on “Pondering Pilgrimage

  1. I remember well your preparations for this trip, and how I wondered about your every step along the way. I couldn’t wait to hear about the brilliant revelations you’d been shown as you traveled. In a way, I vicariously wanted to go along on the trek. But you came home quieter and less apt to talk about the trip afterward than beforehand. You had received much but it would take time to process and reflect upon those five hundred miles. How wonderful to read about it here, and my guess is that the revelations will continue to unfold. In one of those amazing synchronicities, I just watched this talk night before last, my first exposure to this poet: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_whyte_a_lyrical_bridge_between_past_present_and_future#t-94801

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    1. I so appreciate your comments. I had forgotten how I kept my experience so interior, still shaken by it at the time. And thanks for the link.. David Whyte has been a companion for me for 25 years or so..

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