My theme for the year at our church is “(Re)Discovering Ancient Spiritual Practices.” As a part of that, I’ve introduced ritual prayer, labyrinths, sacred calendars, etc. People have been generally supportive and willing to try new things, which has been great. The latest spiritual practice I’ve talked about is pilgrimage.
Like many ancient spiritual practices, pilgrimages are sort of in vogue right now. The Camino del Santiago through France, Spain and Portugal is as popular as ever, despite the declining levels of religious affiliation in Europe. Pilgrimages to holy sites in other major world religions are only growing as well.
Rituals like pilgrimages aren’t traditionally part of the Anabaptist repertoire, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors felt that if you needed to go away or sequester yourself somewhere to connect with God, that was a sign of spiritual weakness, not strength.
So, reminding my congregation of that, and clarifying that rituals are fine as long as the actions point a person to Jesus and not to the actions themselves. I talked from the pulpit about wanting to do a little pilgrimage of my own. I said at some point soon I was going to walk the 20km from my house to the church building. Making statements like that from the pulpit is a good way to ensure that people will ask you about it until you actually do it.
After one week of standing at the pulpit and admitting that rain and personal schedules prevented me from making the trek, I decided I would take the next available good weather day. This past Monday was just such a day.
I set out just after ten in the morning and essentially walked four segments of 5 kilometers. Each segment took a little longer than the one before it. I got a new perspective on certain landscapes, I enjoyed nature more than I would have had I been driving, and got a new appreciation for the workings of the human body, but I didn’t experience what I would describe as a spiritual epiphany.
I have a few ideas as to why.
I imagine that people doing actual long distance pilgrimages don’t have the biggest revelations on their first day. A one-day pilgrimage like mine should probably have a different name, like “hiking.” I was barely able to unplug from the world before I was done. I decided that morning to do the walk because the weather forecast changed, so maybe longer preparation time would have been helpful as well. I also wasn’t able to walk anywhere unfamiliar, so I might be able to expect more from a longer, bigger time commitment.
I walked mostly on roads and gravel shoulders, so the solitude and quiet other pilgrims benefit from eluded me. I wondered if even the path that I was taking was unspiritual in a number of ways. While pilgrims around the world retrace steps taken by religious seekers and saints of old, I was following the path people drive from their home in a bedroom community to their workplace in a large city. I recognize there is a sacredness to our routines of work and vocation, but driving speed limit and above with the variety of available mind numbing radio stations rarely encourages spiritual reflection, so those travailing this route before me may have laid the spiritual foundation that I would be unable to break free of.
I also had plans for later in the day, so my mind was occupied and my pace was a little rushed. Only when a fellow church member joined me near the end did I realize that I was at least half an hour ahead of the pace I had set for myself, did I allow myself to slow down. At that more relaxed pace, I could enjoy the scenery a little more, but by then I was already quite tired, which leads me to my last point.
Maybe I didn’t have any revelations because it really hurt. After about two hours of walking, I realized that blisters were starting to form. Soon my skin, muscles and joints were making it clear to the rest of my body that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. At the beginning of the walk I felt free to venture off the path for all kinds of reasons, but as the end approached, I knew that walking into the ditch and (legally) hopping a fence would mean more pain for my feet, so I walked the long way around. If life is like a pilgrimage, you can be sure that the last little bit will be filled with various kinds of pain.
Besides the pain, I actually did enjoy the experience quite a bit, and I will be hoping to do a longer hike this summer. More pilgrimage thoughts will follow.