What is the nature of a pilgrimage? What is the character of the Camino as pilgrimage? It obviously has a religious character, as peregrinos are traveling many miles the reach Santiago de Compostela, to the remains of James, one of Jesus apostles. As pilgrims travel their way they visit many cathedrals, churches, and holy sites. They might be seen attending pilgrim masses or blessings and offering their own personal prayers.
As we entered León today, the site of an incredible 13th Century Gothic Cathedral, I wonder what it must have been like for ancient pilgrims. I can’t imagine they did the traveling that many of us do. They certainly did not have digital or print images of what they were about to see. There must have been some excitement as they caught a first glimpse of the spires of the cathedral from the hillside. Perhaps they had heard stories. They must have been flabbergasted when they entered the space to see the mass of stained glass. (Frankly, I was overwhelmed – and I knew a bit of what to expect.) Was it a foretaste of heaven for them? Or was it simply a human-made wonder that they admired as one among many things that men and women have created? Was it a religious experience for them?
Which begs the question, “what does it mean to be religious?” I actually don’t use the word too much. “Religion” has a kind of bad taste in our century and many people would prefer to describe themselves as “spiritual.” Even in my own faith, Christianity, religion gets a bad rap and is often associated with rote compliance to empty ritual. But let me give you a window into what I mean by “religious.”
I think religion is the practice of what we do to open ourselves to the divine, the holy, the spiritual. It is something we can control that opens us up to that which we can never control. Praying the Lord’s Prayer can be a religious act. Living out the 12 Steps of AA or NA can be a religious act. Walking the Camino can be a religious act. I don’t think religion can ever produce God’s presence. I don’t think our practices are transactions that can automatically manifest the spirit. But, I think our religious acts make us ready for that which we can never produce of our own accord. The presence of the holy always comes as grace. So I celebrate ritual, prayer, worship, pilgrimage, architecture, spiritual direction, and anything that prepares our hearts for something beyond ourselves.
So yes, the Camino is a religious act. I know that I am looking for something beyond just a challenging walk. It feels very different to me than marathon training (although to be fair, long distance running does have a spiritual component). I bring certain intentions and realities to my pilgrimage. I have just retired. I am in the latter years of life. I am a Christian. I am traveling with the person who is my best friend, my lover, my wife. I am a person with wealth and resources. I want to be part of the global human family. I am a questioner. I want to be open to the unexpected.
So will God show up? Will the Spirit become manifest? Will I be transformed? Will miracles happen? I have no idea. But, why not wait and see? Why not walk and see?