On an early morning in May of 2015, my brother and sister and I strapped on our backpacks in an immigrant quarter of Bilbao, Spain, and began walking the northern route of The Way of St. James. Even though each of us had gone out for trial hikes with weighted packs in preceding weeks, something about the initial feeling of this journey’s actual heft on our shoulders, backs, and hips steeled us with resolve for what we had undertaken. Unable to appropriate the weeks it takes to walk from there to Santiago de Compostela all in one fell swoop, we decided to divide it into three segments, three years in a row. This May, we aim to reach the cathedral that reputedly has held the bones of Jesus’ disciple James since the ninth century and has drawn pilgrims ever since.
The Way (El Camino) has experienced a major resurgence in recent decades, and one does not have to look far for books, essays, and films about it. Despite all of the history, nature, and culture that converge on this journey, what stands out most of all is the deeply personal and communal character of this pilgrims’ path.
My siblings and I decided to embark upon The Way the previous year while walking through Assisi on a cold and rainy day, noting its sister-city status with Santiago after being struck to the heart at seeing a young woman weeping at St. Francis’s tomb as pilgrims filed past her or lingered to pray in the darkened crypt.
Each pilgrim on The Way carries a scallop shell somewhere visible upon one’s pack—many of which are large and hard to miss. The three of us had smaller, less obvious variants tied to our packs—shells our father had collected during his years as a missionary in our childhood homeland of the Philippines. Our father, gone already eight years when we began, served as his last parish a congregation named St. James, visually represented by the disciple’s symbol of three scallop shells—travelers’ water scoops that serve as a collective reminder of Trinitarian Baptism.
Everyone walks carrying the most basic provisions for personal life, along with the experiences, uncertainties, and memories that add definite heft to our embodied souls. Yet a pilgrim learns that what is needed most at times, be it for the feet or the spirit, is not in one’s own possession but in the pack or life of a fellow traveler.
Much of the pilgrim experience can be summed up and symbolized by two words: attachment and detachment. One needs the attachments of socks and shoes, clothing appropriate for the elements, a sack for sleeping, and certainly the pack which carries those and other necessities—including food and water. Essential as it all is, the weight of even the most basic provisions is a burden one learns to carry while also pondering how to lighten the load by letting go of the inconsequential. Each break begins with the divestment of one’s pack—the elated unshouldering of that load—and ends with the hesitant shouldering of that weight again.
Even if one is entirely un-steeped in the traditional mystical ruminations on attachment and detachment, the discourse becomes lived reflection. What do we carry, by choice or not, for ourselves or someone else? What is necessary, and what is detrimental? What slips from our grip, intentionally or not, and how do we respond? Is the loss a hindrance or an opportunity to say “good riddance?” This is the stuff of life we encounter on any and every path we travel.
Early on the third morning of our first year walking The Way, we grabbed our gear (by flashlight and feel while others slept) from the cramped convent sleeping quarters and took it to the lit lobby for easier pack assembly. An hour or so later, once our day’s walk was already underway, I released my backpack’s hip-belt for a spell to find that I had to keep pulling up my pants. I knew right away that my belt was still draped over the bunk rail, exactly where I left it the previous night. Aside from needing it to keep those pants up, that was my only canvas belt and the object of much adoration. Although I had no need of it while the hip-belt was connected, I found myself lamenting the loss of that belt as I walked—especially what I had paid for it after a long and previously fruitless search. By the end of the day though, I was resigned to the occasional tug and consolation that maybe someone in more desperate need of a belt claimed mine as a fortuitous gift.
The day after returning home the second year, my pack (which had gotten stuck at the airport in Paris) arrived at my house much lighter than I remembered. On inspection, I discovered a host of items missing: the windbreaker I had purchased in Assisi, the new ultralight sleeping bag that was a gift from my brother, an expensive long-sleeved wool shirt and wool socks, five-toe sock liners, a short-sleeved shirt, a pair of underwear, hiking pants that had made several trips to Africa, a regular compression sack, and a trusted compression dry-sack. To be honest, I took those losses in better stride than I had the loss of the belt. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll replace what I need to or just make do with what I already have.” But the emotional attachment to those things and the places they had been still lingered a bit.
Six months after returning this past year, less than a month before Christmas, my brother and his colleagues lost their jobs. His reflections on that reality are his own—deeply informed as they are by the lessons of The Way—but the weight of that loss has also in some way become mine, carried about each day in my ponderings for him and what will come next.
In The Way Is Made by Walking, Arthur Paul Boers articulates convincingly that what The Way and other similar undertakings cultivate is “focal” living—a term employed by social philosopher Albert Borgmann. Amid the prevalent purposelessness, disorientation, and distraction of life as it is now lived, there is very little that centers our attention on a “commanding presence” or intention (135). “Focal realities” center and illuminate life in all of its varied aspects; they confront uswith what we lose and carry along the way while equipping us to deal with whatever comes. Lanza del Vasto captured it so well when he wrote, “Teach your body to die walking. Teach it, step by step, the nature of everything which is to pass.”
One sometimes gets lost in a reverie or conversation when walking the Way, and pays for it when the path has been lost. One’s attention must stay sharply trained for the yellow arrows or scallop shells pointing in the right direction, for The Way takes many turns and forms—from a city sidewalk to a village lane, from the sandy ocean shore to a rocky or muddy forest footpath to everything between. One appreciates the keen vigilance of traveling companions and local residents who whistle and point with their hands when uncertainty is obvious.
Lent calls us to undertake such a “focal” preparation for Easter. Rather than calling us simply to give something up for a while only to take it up again, it challenges us to see what must go and what must not only stay but deepen. It confronts us with Jesus’ question about gaining the whole world but forfeiting one’s soul while echoing his truth that even one losing life for his sake finds it. It points us to observe with full attention that following him as a baptized and risen people means walking a path of self-denial and soul-discovery while shouldering the weight of a cross.
Joel Kurz is is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri, and a contributor to The Center for the Care of Creation.
Boers, Arthur Paul. The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007.