Buen Camino: Blessed Are Those Whose Hearts Are Set on Pilgrimage
David K. Weber

Last spring, eight students enrolled in my class “Pilgrimage and the Metaphysics of Movement.” Between January and May, we met over meals to discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath and Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. We also took long walks in preparation for the class “final.” This final began after we gathered in the city of León, Spain, when we set out to walk nearly two hundred miles of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Once completed, we received the compostela, a certificate confirming that we were counted with some 300,000 pilgrims who would, by year’s end, have walked at least one hundred kilometers of the pilgrimage and that we were among the throng who have walked the way of St. James since the eighth century. When I told one jaded friend about this endeavor, he responded, “Why would you want to do such a thing?” Here is my answer.

Pilgrimage “blesses” the pilgrim in ways that are not evident in the hard facts of the experience. Pilgrimage involves a lot of walking, over a lot of days—miles that could be more efficiently covered on bike or by car. The walking inflicts accumulating joint and muscle pain with blisters on top of other blisters, coupled with the wearing repetition of hot days and chilly nights, the daily demand to find food, and the nightly demand to find a coveted bed in an albergue (which entitles one to experience poor sleep with as many as 120 other noisy pilgrims).

Why do such a thing? Because the bad conditions make for a good pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an ascetic exercise for the purpose of experiencing and enjoying the blessedness of deprivation. Pilgrims are anti-materialists who embrace the distinction between needs and wants: Do I need or want rain gear? Do I want lightweight shoes or will I pay the price of lifting four extra ounces 800,000 times for a bit more foot support? (Support wins!) Must I carry an extra change of clothes for three weeks when one will do? (Yes! Love of the neighbor demands it.) Ascetic deprivation looks like the rejection of material things. It is actually a process of paring and culling that leads one to a deeper appreciation for the few things you have.

Depriving one’s self of things is infinitely easier than dealing with the powerlessness one has over external circumstances. Each day’s destination is not determined by how well any one pilgrim slept, feels, or desires to walk. In fact, around the third or fourth day, no one wants to walk, and no one wants to quit walking. Pilgrimage is a paradoxical experience of conflicting desires, demanding the ascetic discipline to choose the long-term desire over short-term ones. With each painful step, the pilgrim exercises the free choice to slowly and painfully progress toward the fulfilment of the truly desired end. Sometime after the third or fourth day, this movement of tortured soles gains momentum, so that pilgrims begin to existentially feel the joy of progress toward the desired rest.

Pilgrimage is an ascetic exercise, which means it is not a real-life experience. It is a contrived exercise that somehow changes our experience of real life and helps the pilgrim creatively re-imagine the meaning of their life as a movement to the desired end. Specifically, pilgrimage is a way to help us see deprivation as a source of joy. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says to us in the Beatitudes, and pilgrimage allows us to experience that blessedness in a contrived way. To a pilgrim it is self-evident that the harder the walk, the happier the rest; the lengthier the fast, the more gratifying the feast. In the morning, the first cup of coffee after two hours of walking is an almost sacramental experience; in the evening, the feast usually entails drinks served with gratis tapas. Getting a bed for a rest-less “sleep” gives a peace that passes understanding, especially when a volunteer has prepared a place for you. On pilgrimage the blessedness of (contrived) poverty gives a glimpse of how, in real life, the possibility of poverty need not fill us with fear.

 For me, the experience most analogous to this joy of deprivation is in playing a sport. In this context, the happiness of play happens because of the limits of time, space, and action. Why walk when you could drive? Why play a game that prohibits the use of hands?

The joy of a game is not a good analogy, however, when a pilgrim is working through the loss of a loved one, or the loss of one’s health. Under these trying—and common—conditions, the pilgrim’s sanity and survival depend on discovering how even profound losses can offer blessing. One pilgrim I encountered, having learned that pilgrimage was once a penance for soldiers who killed in battle, was researching the possible therapeutic benefits of pilgrimage for those living with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Perhaps, she thought, the free and physical act of putting one foot in front of the other might counter the afflicted’s sense of being trapped, of going nowhere, of being at a loss and being defined by their losses.

Theologically understood, pilgrimage is a physical expression of the metaphysical hope that life’s movement is going good rather than breaking bad. How does one believe that each painful step contributes to the momentum toward the ultimate fulfillment of their desire? This metaphysical wish is routinely expressed in the greeting, “How’s it going?” and in the reply, “It’s going good.” Doubt about this movement is expressed in the familiar phrase, “What is the world coming to?”

Why do we see well-being as a movement toward fulfillment? The word fulfillment answers this question by mashing up the adjective full with the verb fill, defining the going-good life as the repetition of filling that moves toward the desired fullness. Seen sacramentally, the going-good life is experienced as repeated foretastes, that, failing to satisfy, deepen the hunger for the feast to come. Every good thing is a foretaste of a future fullness. Imagining that any one good thing in this slip-sliding-away life is “the feast of victory” is finally depressing.

The blessedness of the going-good life is when deprivation moves like hunger and thirst toward the satisfaction of food and drink. Linguistically, the going-good life moves like a promise from immaterial verbalization to embodied incarnation. Chronologically, when we are closer to the end than the beginning of a going-good life, our anxiety over lost time can be transformed into joy because it measures progress toward the fulfillment of our desire. Scripturally, Genesis understands the going-good life as a movement from nothingness to ever-increasing life—an ex nihilo movement. The Fall reversed this movement, so that life now naturally moves an nihilo, or toward annihilation. Theologically, the Creed sees Jesus’s resurrection as reversing that reversal, so that it is reasonable to once again see life as a buen camino (a good pilgrimage), a move from nothingness to ever-increasing life. Reasonable, perhaps, but still difficult—especially when one’s life is marked by loss.

For me, a most compelling reason to see my life as a pilgrimage is the absence of hopeful ways to make sense of life’s an nihilo movement. To illustrate my point, let’s image an analogy for life’s movement that is anti-metaphysical and anti-ascetical. Consider the late David Foster Wallace’s purgatorial experience of a luxury cruise, told in his 1997 essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” This is an unfair contrast, of course, because pilgrimage has generated volumes of serious metaphysical reflection, while the luxury cruise generates pamphlets promoting the benefits of pampering. The going-good life is not a buen camino, it’s a bon voyage where one gets pampered like you have “never been pampered before.” Pampering’s “positively Prozacian” effect is to make it so “‘indulgence becomes easyrelaxation becomes second nature…and stress becomes a faint memory.’” The going-good life can be experienced with “enough pampering… completely and faultlessly administered.” If tomorrow we die, luxury cruisers might think, let us be pampered to death.

Wallace saw a dark metaphysical “falsehood” in thinking that being “pamper-swaddled” could effect the going-good life. The hard truth is evident in every angry fit of every spoiled child with insatiable demands. Exhausted by the cruise’s pursuit of relaxation, Wallace escapes to his room and avoids shore excursions to shop for luxury goods at ports where people live in poverty. He skips the final night’s “Talent Show and Midnight Farewell Buffet.” Ultimately, disembarking at the end of the cruise gives Wallace a sense of relief to be returning to “the stresses and demands of quotidian landlocked real-world life.” 

Why imagine the going-good life as a buen camino and not a bon voyage? Iris Murdoch famously argued that “fat relentless ego” was the chief enemy of the good life. This means that any hope of having a going-good life depends on defeating the ego’s insatiable demands for pampering, self-expression, self-care, and self-actualization. Alternatively, pilgrimage imagines the going-good life as learning to die to the demands of the self through deprivation. For example, the loss of privacy is exhausting—but it is not only exhausting. Becoming a less private and more public self means others are aware of a pilgrim’s weaknesses and needs. Sometimes these could be met with walking sticks or knee braces or food or some other gift. The self-denying patience and inexplicable cheerfulness of the throng of volunteers infused the ascetic exercise with joy. The pilgrim who embraces this self-dying has tasted the blessedness of living with one’s heart set on pilgrimage. Buen camino.



David K. Weber is a lecturer in theology at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Wallace, David Foster. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 1997.

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