On Being a Pilgrim (Part 4 – Can’t Let it Go )

It has been almost two years since Lena and I made the journey to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. [A refresher: the Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage pathway through Spain to the tomb/cathedral of St. James. The route Lena and I took, the Camino Frances, is about 500 miles long, from southern France to northwest Spain.] While we were walking I wrote daily about that experience in my blog and Lena reflected in her Facebook page each day we traveled. You would think by now I would have left that trip behind. But in these days I find myself thinking about the journey to Santiago more and more. I’ve read multiple books about it. I listen to podcasts featuring people who have walked one or more of the Camino routes. I find myself searching the Camino Forum to see what is happening in Spain along the way. I can’t seem to let it go.

Near Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

So what can I say about the Camino and pilgrimage now that I couldn’t or didn’t say two years ago? Why does the thought of the Camino have such a hold on me? It’s not so much that I like Spain more than other parts of the world. It’s not so much that I need the physical exercise—I can walk here in Sacramento. It’s not so much that I want to travel far away (though I do). It’s not that I need the “spiritual” energy of the place—there is plenty of spiritual work to do in my life here at home. It is not that people on the Camino are so different from those I meet every day of my life. (But maybe it is the chocolate croissants and café con leche!)

The plains of Spain.

I wonder if it is the coming together of multiple things—my intention, a community of fellow travelers, the daily act of walking with a wonderful companion, and traveling on a path dedicated to the presence of the spirit. Perhaps the draw of the Camino is precisely in the fact that it cannot be explained. There is a book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry that tells a wonderfully odd story of a much different kind of pilgrimage. In the book, the author, Rachel Joyce, describes Harold’s journey with this short sentence:

If we don’t go mad once in a while, there’s no hope.

When I think about the call of the Camino, maybe right now that is the best I can do for an explanation.

As I get older and COVID-19 continues, I find myself wondering if I will ever be able to return and travel “the Way.” I felt like I was a different person when I walked those days in September and October of 2018. I really liked the person I was then. I lived a simpler existence. I was more open to people. I lived with a sense of wonder. I set aside the need to achieve. I looked for signs of the spirit. I released many of the feelings and fears that had me trapped.

As I was writing this, I went back to the last blog I posted at the end of the Camino that Lena and I walked in 2018. I wondered if my old self had some wisdom for my present self. And—though it is weird to quote myself—here goes:

One last thing. There is a saying, “The Camino begins in Santiago.” What I think this means is that the learnings that have shown themselves on the roads of Spain will break out in our lives in the days and years ahead. (Like it or not.) I have a friend who walked the Camino two years ago and he tells me that the Camino, its people, its places, its memories, and its lessons are still forming his life. So, as always, just when I think I am finished, something new is being born. Thank you Saint James. And thanks to all the peregrinos past, present, and future!

Spiritual Practice: Don’t Find An Answer Too Soon

I like it when things are tied up neatly. I like it when life makes sense. Though I often say I love mystery, I am far more ill at ease with unknowing than I care to admit. But what I know is this. Life is full of questions. Days are full of things we don’t understand. I am a mystery even to myself. 

Moments of wonder.

One of the biggest challenges of life is to live with unanswered questions. It is so easy to rush through the mystery, to avoid the wonder, and to accept premature and corrupted solutions and insights. Though it has surely been overused, one of my favorite quotes—one I discovered while in college—still remains with me. It was written by poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Don’t figure it out yet. Love the questions first.

14 thoughts on “On Being a Pilgrim (Part 4 – Can’t Let it Go )

  1. Thanks, Jum, for this piece. I have never been to The Camino, but many friends have traveled there and shared their great experiences, spiritual and otherwise. Your essay brought more clarity to what others have shared. Experience life now and live into the answers. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

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    1. James,
      I appreciate your thoughts – I think this time of COVID is making me yearn for all sorts of things. I sure miss seeing you and Gretchen!

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  2. Again, great writing about the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of on the Camino and after the Camino. Good work.

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  3. I have read several accounts of the Camino, each time I am captivated, it’s not an addition of snapshots, there is something superior that is worth more than the sum of them.

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  4. I have loved and kept this Rilke quote available ever since I first heard you use it,early in your time here in RB. It continues to guide me. Thanks, Jim

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  5. Jim, such a wonderful reflection and augmented by the thoughtful quote by Maria Rilke. I love reading your thoughts….it makes me reflect on my own life and ventures. So appropriate during this time we never expected.

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