"I learn by going where I have to go"
Expectations and Meditations
On the Way of St. James
Jeremy Reed

Pilgrim: What is it that you do here?
Monk: We fall and we get up again.

    from “Setting Out” by Scott Cairns

Without tree cover, the dust on the road had been baked so hard by the sun that it didn’t kick up with the scuffing of our shoes. The dirt stood as still as we didn’t dare to; our blisters made us keep walking because they hurt so badly when we stopped. I was tired and hot like the rest of our group and was trying to find things to fill my mind instead of the pain and the heat. I walked through the discomfort of the gravel and stones pushing up through the soles of my shoes—stop—I walked through the memories of arguments of the night before—stop—I walked through the anger at the shuttering camera lens to my right, attempting to capture the experience of someone having not as hard a day, of someone who saw me as part of their picture—stop. “Stop thinking, just walk,” I thought.

In just that moment, my friend Lauren turned to me and stated a question that has stuck with me since: “I’ve been asking myself lately not only what I’m doing here, but what walking has to do with it. I know doing devotions and praying to God are good things, but what does walking do?”

My friends and I had been talking about, planning, and packing for the Camino de Santiago for months and in the process had set many expectations for ourselves. Just before flying across the ocean and starting the trail, we had all graduated together from Valparaiso University. That last semester, as we bought shoes, practiced walking in the evenings, and met in the library to discuss itineraries, we slowly gained a reputation around campus as the walkers, the ones setting out. We saw ourselves as trying to head straight toward the open-ended questions we had about our lives, attempting to be open to what Frederick Buechner called, “that area of human experience where in one way or another man happens upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage” (Buechner 1970, 75). Our idea of education, or at least what we would gain from it, had changed over our time at Valparaiso; rather than as career training or knowledge gaining, we had come to see our education as acting on us and with us in helping us learn how to “[keep] the window to the transcendent open,” in words our provost had once used (Schwehn 2009). In our time at Valparaiso, we searched for and attempted to live with the mysteries we had come to see as central to our studies and our lives. We began to recognize the narrative arcs actively shaping us, even if we didn’t see where they began or ended, and even if we didn’t see them as clearly as we desired. We held our open-ended stories, and we told them to each other frequently.

For my friends and me, pilgrimage became a metaphor, a way to explain our attempts at making meaning from experiences while connecting to our traditions, our supposed futures, and each other. In our classes, we read about the dust and the desert fathers, the lectio divina of personal prayer, and we reveled in their voices and the conviction they had in their stories, conviction that we didn’t have in our own. But at some point while planning our pilgrimage, we started speaking so clearly about our own future experiences that we lost sight of what had attracted us to the stories of the desert fathers in the first place: their willingness to approach the unknown and to attempt to find the words to describe it.

We were asked repeatedly why we had decided to walk the Camino, and we tried to answer. We saw the trip as a kind of capstone to our undergraduate careers, a culmination of our intellectual and spiritual discussions, a rite of passage to pull us through graduation and the uncertainties of our futures, something to mark our transition in an intentional way. We spoke out many images of ourselves in those months of planning: arm in arm we would walk, day after day we would meet amazing characters, we would share our pain like bread, we would sing psalms and walk as we traversed the mountains and valleys. We stopped seeing the unknown, the mystery, and instead saw a system of signs we already understood. Then we left for Europe.

Once in Spain, the reality of walking five hundred miles in the supposed footsteps of St. James to finis terrae, the end of the earth, set in. Equipped with good boots, twenty pounds of necessities, and lofty notions of what would come, we started walking. And yet, like the pilgrim in the poem who asked the monk, we soon found ourselves asking each other, What is it that we are doing here? In the practice of walking, we found our footing more unstable than we originally thought. The pilgrim’s question needed a response, and we were frustrated, with ourselves and each other, to find ourselves without one. We walked and continued walking, asking, Why take a pilgrimage? What is a pilgrimage?

The Camino has changed quite a bit since it was walked by pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages, but one thing that remains unchanged is the sheer feat of walking day after day. Even in a group of friends, each pilgrim must walk alone on some level, every day, the entire distance, the entire way. This sort of repetitive walking eventually strips you bare and awakens you to a more basic understanding of yourself and your limitations. You live for the next rest. You live according to numbers, kilometers from destination to destination, number of hours on your feet. All you have to do is walk, but just walking is a lot to ask. You keep repeating the monk’s answer, We fall, and we get up again, hoping it proves true.

One afternoon, I felt particular frustration and pain and anger toward my friends who had left me to walk alone. I came upon them sitting on a park bench waiting for me, one of the last ones to arrive, before crossing the bridge into the city for the night. As I sat down at the bench to relax for a moment, I lifted my feet off the ground. Gravity pulled my feet down, making blisters pulse and the pads of my feet feel heavy and full. My ears pounded with blood, and I breathed shallowly to make the pain go away, and I remained, while doing so, in my own head. The rest of the group, relaxed and lively, sat around joking and telling stories from the day, looking over at me every once in a while to make sure I was alright. At first, their jokes were grating, but as I listened to the group’s conversation I began to hear past the anger in my own head and began to hear their stories and jokes. I heard the laughter, genuine and full guffaws, snorts, exclamations. I looked up and without realizing it began to mirror, slightly and then more, the smiles I saw around me.

When we stood up from the bench to walk, my feet hurt even worse than before. As we entered the city, Jake, seeing my tender steps, walked up behind me after spending his day memorizing poems and began reciting Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” a poem we had once listened to while sitting in Jake’s car, that we had recited along with Roethke’s voice over the speakers in Jake’s living room years before. “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.”

As I walked, I turned and listened while watching Jake smile at the memory of the poem, of reading aloud each intricate line in class. He discovered the words again as he recited the poem from memory, as if he were reading lines newly written on a page. Memory, present moment, and expectation combined in an attempt to avoid pain if even for a moment, and it brought us together. We passed under a bridge. Graffiti arced up the wall behind him, framing his body. Our voices echoed in the underpass as we heard the cars rumble by overhead, the whining of their axles turning wheels, and Roethke’s words seemed to stand on their own, between us, and yet hold us together.

In many ways, Roethke’s poem embodies for me what I mean by meditation when I think of the Camino de Santiago, our walking over those six weeks, and of the time spent meditating on that experience since. We all fell; we all suffered in different ways: Paul’s infected blisters and homesickness, Lauren’s stress fractures, Emily’s pride, Jake’s sometimes trying to create group cohesion and sometimes withdrawing into isolation, my knees, my worries about the group and my place in it. But regardless of where we found ourselves on any given day, there were always voices before and with us, words and stories from others, ourselves, and those by our side.

The hardest and last thing I grasped every time I began struggling with myself, my friends, my memories, and my faith was that I actually had asked for the struggle to begin with. It was part of the walking, just as much as the sweating or the planning or the prayers. Maybe more. I had hoped the pilgrimage would be a time for meditation, but the time for meditation came to us through our frustrations and confusions. Sometimes, in the midst of a difficult experience, a space would open up, self-reflection would begin, and a sort of peace would wash over whatever had held my thoughts so tightly just moments before. Meditation came to me in the midst of and because of our stumbling, leaning on each other, yearning for our loved ones back home, sometimes wonderful, sometimes disappointing conversations with new friends, and the sometimes necessary, sometimes hurtful arguments with old ones.

After the first couple weeks on the road, I started to hate the word intentionality because of how often we had used it in anticipation of walking. We had wanted to live our lives intentionally, with purpose and direction, with responsibility. I laughed as I remembered how we had described different pains and discomforts we all had expected but hadn’t understood. We had told many stories about what our walk on the road would be like, and those stories had proven to be woefully inaccurate and inadequate.

I’ve realized since returning that intention is not a dirty word. We eventually made it to Santiago, made it home, but not without many tired steps that turned to stumbles, arguments, and misdirected epithets. And yet, we continued to find ourselves, each day, walking. The process of asking what we think about the future, what we see as our purpose, who we see ourselves as—the process of a pilgrim on the road—necessitates an attempt at forming an intention. Yet that ­process of intention-­positing only continues, only holds meaning as we repeatedly revise both the ­questions we ask ourselves and the answers to those questions throughout our lives. Over time, without revision and amendment, the words begin to stick like sore joints.

Several people along the way told us that “all of life is a pilgrimage.” On the Camino, we experienced the rhythm of expectation, humbling, and meditation, and this pattern continues beyond the road. Now that we’re home, perhaps the pattern is less pronounced, but as each of us returned to our loved ones and our expectations of what would meet us as we stepped off the plane, those rhythms continued, if only faintly. When I slow down long enough to think about my current intentions, I try to keep asking the open-ended question you can only ask as you stumble: What is it that we are doing here? Though each day I may not lace up my boots and hoist onto my shoulders my pack still covered in dew from the night before, I continue hoping the same rhythms and truths from the trip will keep waking me up as I walk. A year after returning, I find comfort in being reminded and reminding in turn that even as we’re always doing the dirty work of intention-making and revising, falling and getting up, we learn by speaking as we go, together and alone. The difficulty remains to walk slowly, listen openly, and remember we all are living on the way.

On July 6, not the first day and not the last but a vague middle day, I wrote in my journal about a Catholic priest who stopped as we were eating breakfast in a small town square. He told us, among many things, “Peregrinar es como vivir, ¿comprende? Peregrinar es como vivimos todas nuestras vidas hasta el punto que vamos al cielo con Dios. Antes de eso, somos peregrinos. You understand?”

We nod.

“You are Christians?”

We nod.

“Then I give you my blessing,” and then he spoke slowly. “I bless you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and always. Go in peace.”

Go up and down in peace, continue in this command and blessing, keep walking, remember and remember and forget and fall and rise and walk and go, in peace and understanding of your own not knowing, and speak back to the voices blessing you in turn.


Jeremy Reed is enrolled in the MA in Literature program at the University of Montana. Portions of this essay were originally written and delivered as part of a symposium at Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University, with Paul Albers, Jacob Just, and Emily Royer.


Works Cited

Buechner, Frederick. The Alphabet of Grace. New York: HarperCollins, 1970.

Cairns, Scott. “Setting Out.” Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006.

Roethke, Theodore. “The Waking.” The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Schwehn, Mark. “Lutheranism and the Future of the University.” The Cresset, 73.2 (2009): 6–14.

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