How the ancient spiritual practice of pilgrimage meets modern needs
What drew you to ministry?" The words hung in the air, unanswered.
I looked down at the dusty road beneath us, and up at the blue sky and sea ahead of us. My walking companion had asked a meaningful personal question with an open heart. I should have responded with the same spirit. Instead, I felt the same hesitation I always feel. I’ve never considered my own story all that interesting.
Yet here we were, starting on six hours of walking on a route called the Camino Nova Scotia. It was the second of many days together. Fifteen other pilgrims were scattered around us, soaking in the sunshine and fresh air, moving at that very human pace of three miles an hour. Twenty-five kilometres of trail still remained.
I ducked the question, as usual. "Well, it’s kind of a long story."
My fellow pilgrim looked at her best friend, then back at me. She was incredulous. "You realize we have all day, right?"
The absurdity made us all laugh. I gave in, cracked open the story vault, and told her the tale. She was right. We had all day.
When Christians spend unhurried time together, they make it possible to "listen each other into being," as the American psychologist Carol Gilligan once wrote. The ancient spiritual practice of pilgrimage is a particularly good way to give ourselves time for the long story.
I’m fond of saying that we have 20 or more conversations every day that last a minute or less. Once in a while we have a couple that last five minutes or more. But how often do we get to tell the long stories, the heart stories, the stories of deepest meaning? Not very often.
This is just the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to the blessings of being together on pilgrimage. So let me back up.
NOT JUST IN EUROPE
Almost ten years ago, I had the idea that we needed a local pilgrimage opportunity in Canada. I had lots of friends and acquaintances who walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the famous pilgrimage route in Spain. I was happy they were able to go. But there was a knot in my stomach, because I knew that a lot of people, maybe even most people, will never be able to spend a month in Spain. Financial, employment and family responsibilities are all real barriers.
So how could I combine my love for the outdoors with this desire to help people go on pilgrimage? I started to talk about this strange idea with my spouse and some friends and colleagues. I mentioned it to some of my students. Almost everyone thought it was a good idea.
It took a few years, some seed money from the United Church of Canada Foundation and the support of my employer, but I finally managed to develop a local pilgrimage in Nova Scotia. I walked many kilometres to scout the route and to work out the logistics, like where to sleep, where to shower, locations of grocery stores, how to transport gear and how the budget would work.
At last, in 2014, the first cohort of pilgrims joined two student staff and me along the beautiful south shore of Nova Scotia. A brand-new pilgrimage was born.
Since then, over 100 people have participated. We’ve grown from one pilgrimage per year to four, and hope to grow again. This year we’ll be in Cape Breton Island.
In other parts of Canada, friends and past participants have started "god-daughter" pilgrimages in their local area (five at last count), which makes me so happy. Local pilgrimage is the way to go!
After many years (even centuries) of dormancy among Protestants, pilgrimage has become an enormous worldwide phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of people follow the routes marked out for pilgrims on every inhabited continent. Old routes have been resurrected, and new ones (like Camino Nova Scotia) have been designed. There are no signs of pilgrimage declining in popularity.
No one knows for sure why pilgrimage is surging, right around the same time church attendance is dropping off. I have heard a few grand theories about it, but I’m not convinced. What I can share with you, however, are some of the benefits of pilgrimage I have noticed.
BODY AND SPIRIT
On our website we say that Camino Nova Scotia is a way to "connect with other spiritual seekers using the most ancient, low-tech, zero-emission method of transportation." Pilgrimage is attractive to people who enjoy being on the move and like the outdoors. There is something deeply satisfying and nurturing about swinging our arms and settling into a happy stride. The body likes to move and to draw in lots of oxygen. The physical benefits of exercise are obvious.
But there is something that happens spiritually, too, that is so good for us. The long daily walks give us time to decompress and de-stress. Many of our pilgrims work through challenging personal questions, including life transitions, vocation, grief and forgiveness. The rhythm of the road puts us into a different heart space where the Holy Spirit oxygenates our spirits.
The physical exertion and even exhaustion can make us more vulnerable, too. Normally, we flee from vulnerability in our culture, even fearing it. Yet God seems to move differently in our lives when some of our defences are down. Spiritual wrestling matches are welcome on the pilgrim trail, as we work out who we are and where we are going as the people of God.
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FOCUS AND COMMITMENT
Historically, pilgrimages were chosen as a way of deepening a personal spiritual journey, and sometimes they were "assignments" from a priest aimed at helping the pilgrim reform their ways, heal spiritually or refocus their lives on God. Quite often, pilgrimage routes and destinations were associated with saints, perhaps as the locations of a saint’s body or part of their remains. Some were associated with a particular miracle that took place. For this reason, the locations themselves were considered holy and special. Travelling to those locations was understood to have a positive spiritual effect on the pilgrim.
On Camino Nova Scotia, we don’t assign any specific significance to the places we visit and travel through, except to say that "all our land is sacred," as one of my former students put it. Every place we traverse is holy to God. Every day is sacred to the Creator.
We ask folks to reflect on pilgrimage in everyday life. How are getting up, getting going, feeding the kids, travelling to work, doing errands and so on all part of our pilgrimage on this earth? Every step, every action can be God-infused.
We don’t need to wait for special experiences or travel to exotic places to connect with God. The Spirit’s presence is everywhere, constantly surrounding us. Our pilgrim awareness of this draws us closer to God’s purposes.
In this age of isolation and loneliness, pilgrimage offers another way to think of ourselves in the world. Because Camino Nova Scotia is explicitly communal, with shared walking, meals, prayers and sleeping quarters, we challenge the cultural norms of individualism.
There is plenty of biblical testimony about God’s concern for the whole nation of Israel, about whole families, about the company of the apostles and about the Body of Christ, the Church. We are members of a greater whole. How do we experience that, try it out, and take it home with us?
Local pilgrimage gives us a way to experiment with these questions.
THE ONGOING QUEST
Pilgrims look for more than just a long walk. Perhaps a handful of our participants come for the adventure or a kind of spiritual tourism. But many more ask significant life questions that are so fascinating, perplexing and rewarding to consider.
A defined time of pilgrimage allows for reflection on the spiritual journey, asking questions such as: What do I want? What do I need? Who do I love? Who am I, really, with all the masks and pretending taken away? How can I be healed? What are my gifts? At this point in my life, what should I do with what I have?
Quiet times on the trail let us reflect on questions like this. The inner journey is traversed at the same time that the outer journey is underway. Prayer seems to flow more spontaneously. Our thirst for water reminds us of our thirst for God. The relief of arrival in a cool church basement in the late afternoon reminds us of the promise of arriving at life’s end, where a new life will begin.
As one participant later wrote, "I had a profound sense that this is a small reflection of our greater pilgrimage through life on our journey toward God."
Newspaper entrepreneur Arianna Huffington wrote about the benefits of walking in a 2013 article. "So the next time you have something to work out, take a walk. It makes us healthier, it makes us fitter, and it enhances every kind of cognitive performance, from creativity to planning and scheduling. And best of all, it reconnects us to ourselves." She points to a saying of St. Augustine: Solvitur ambulando – "It is solved by walking."
On Camino Nova Scotia we often remark on our 25 km daily route, and notice how it takes us all day to go the distance that, in a car on the highway, would take only about 15 minutes. We notice a shift in our sense of place, how we fit into the wider world, sometimes how small we are as specks of humanity on the face of the earth.
When we see wildlife, we’re reminded that we share the land with other creatures. We’re not just users or exploiters of the resources.
I could go on about local pilgrimage and its many benefits, including the rediscovery of the gift of simplicity and the good challenge of living more lightly on this earth. But let me return to the image of walking all day with companions.
There are a lot of wonderful things about the power of personal choice in our generation. Yet there is also a deep spiritual hunger in the modern West, not least because we are losing a sense of connectedness, relatedness and community. The triumph of personal power and the dominant notion that human beings are principally consumers are eroding our spiritual capital as a society and even as a civilization. We become more distant from God, our neighbours, and our authentic selves.
Being truly human, however, is only possible in relational terms. The spirituality of pilgrimage is a spirituality of relatedness – rediscovering ourselves as human beings in a community of other human beings.
Time and time again, pilgrims tell the most joyful stories about the friends they walked with, the bugs they saw and the birds they heard, their companions at the dinner table, and those they met along the way.
It is that opportunity for connection with nature and with others – away from work, obligations, television, technology – that seems to be one of the most spiritually enriching parts of pilgrimage. It becomes a fertile field in which the Holy Spirit plants seeds of hope, grace and renewal. It gives us a glimpse of another way of living.
Pilgrims have a special opportunity to be the people of the long story. And we have all day.
Rob Fennell is founding director of Camino Nova Scotia and academic dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. He thanks Prof. Bill Schmidt of Loyola University, Chicago, for suggesting some of the themes in this article. Learn more at www.ASTheology.ns.ca/home/events-calendar/camino-ns.html or on Facebook.