In our Pilgrim Discussion Group this past weekend, an interesting comment was made by the author, John Brierly.
The comment was to create some thought around the difference between a “pilgrimage”, and “just taking a long walk”.
For those who have not yet walked a pilgrimage, Mr Brierly has authored several collections of maps and guides all relating to the famous Camino de Santiago.
Mr Brierly is not only an author, but he is also a proponent of the pilgrimage as a way to re-evaluate life’s purpose. He recommends that this “long walk” can have a massive impact on your life.
I was reminded of the scene in the movie The Way, when Tom’s character played by Martin Sheen says to Sarah, that “we are all just taking a very long walk”.
This comment is, of course, made very early on in Tom’s journey.
Tom has just discovered that his son died in a storm in the Pyrenees, which is the route you would take if you were walking the Camino Frances, from St Jean Pied De Port.
We find out that Tom doesn’t really understand his son’s penchant for the wanderlust. So when Tom is called to identify his son’s body, it sets in motion Tom’s own journey of self-discovery.
What is the difference?
I agree with Mr Brierly’s sentiment that at its core, the fundamental difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk is, faith.
When you purchase a Brierly guide book, as part of the introduction, he asks you to do a short exercise to discover your true purpose of why you are going to make this pilgrimage.
Setting off on my first pilgrimage and in preparation, I did that exercise. Admittedly, I didn’t fully understand the importance of it until I reached Santiago de Compostela on my second attempt.
When I got home, I took the time to consider the changes that had happened to me. It was then that the massive impact made sense.
Getting back to the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk, I understand that it is faith that sets you in motion. It is from that same faith that brings you to your final destination.
I want to write a little bit on faith because I am now only just getting to grips with it myself. Very deep down inside of me, I have always had a sense of faith. It does not essentially stem from a religious connection, but more a physical and mental belief in myself, and also an understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses.
It is quite a paradox. Since I am not formally religious in any sense, I am more spiritual than I am religious, I do have a very profound level of love and respect for the traditions of religion. I feel this every time I walk into a cathedral or a church.
When I first walked into St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, I felt the embrace of the column’s around me. Those particular columns designed so long ago in the shape of welcoming arms.
I was filled with complete reverence when I walked in St Peter’s Cathedral. The same feeling of veneration engulfed me when I walked into the square in Santiago de Compostela. Entering the Cathedral was complete overwhelm.
It was a culmination of achievement and gratitude, which was deepened because of the pilgrimage I had taken. It was the realisation that every step I had taken was one made in complete faith.
My first attempt was unsuccessful.
When I first walked the Camino de Santiago, I injured myself some six days into my journey. It was this unsuccessful attempt that had me questioning everything about my faith.
Up to that point, I had lived every day with faith. At least I thought I had. Faith got me up to go to work. It was what drove me through the traffic. Faith had me manoeuvring through the day, regardless of what challenges lay before me.
I am a problem solver, and I have always thought that it was my faith rather than my skills that got me to the point of completion of my daily tasks.
Having to come home after my unsuccessful Camino and then deciding to go back, was the first real test of my faith. I was honest with myself; I really didn’t have the skills to make such a long walk. So I was returning on complete and utter blind faith, and this is fundamentally what a pilgrimage is all about.
My injuries are with me always.
In my early twenties, I had a triple osteotomy on both of my hips. I was blessed with shallow hip sockets which is what is known as developmental dysplasia. It was always with during my childhood and was probably the cause of the most excruciating pain in my legs as I grew older.
The nature of this type of operation has your entire pelvis being realigned to create better coverage and support of the femoral head in the hip socket. I was in the hospital for eleven days, and on crutches for six months after both operations.
I was blessed, though. Blessed because my hips are part of my journey of life. They have made the strong person that I am today, and in the same instance, have made me far more aware of where my limitations lie.
Knowing where our limitations lie is such a great opportunity to understand where development is required. It is my fundamental belief that we are only really limited in our minds, as long as we take committed steps to acknowledge our fragilities.
My faith showed me that on my second time back to Spain.
My faith got me to Santiago De Compostela.
I arrived in Sarria, opting to do the shorter version of the Camino with an inflamed pelvis and a pulled calf muscle, which was settling down into some comfort.
My osteotomy’s had not fully resolved my issues with my hips. In my late thirties and early forties, I had had both hips replaced. So, I was now really the bionic pilgrim!
This nagging issue in my pelvis is a result of the previous operations and the skilled surgeon’s efforts to make do with what my bone in my pelvic area has to offer. It will always be with me. This weird feeling, not always a pain — in the nether regions.
Equipped with the lightest load that I could muster, my trusty walking poles, which support my penguin-like gait, and well-worn pair of trusty old boots, I set off.
I walked every day, sometimes splitting the stages in half only walking 10km’s on some days. As I progressed, I felt stronger, more comfortable, more aware of my surroundings. I felt joyful, and a complete sense of happiness was with me every day that I walked.
It was then that I realised how much faith was driving me. I had booked the return ticket to Spain on complete faith. My calf had not quite healed, but I booked the trip nevertheless, knowing that I would be ok. Faith.
I arrived in Sarria having complete faith that the next day when I started on the final 100km’s that I would ok. I never booked an Albergue and had faith that I would be alright and find a bed for the evening. I was never let down.
I was never let down having the support from fellow pilgrims, sharing a meal, finding a bed, passing around sweet treats while walking in a group. Being alone on the trail, and revelling in the beauty of the Spanish countryside and the silence that allowed me to acknowledge how my renewed faith was my driving force.
A long walk is just that — a long walk.
On Sunday, I was walking. A practice walk in one of the local nature reserve’s around Johannesburg. I am preparing for another pilgrimage next September.
I will walk from St Jean Pied De Port to Santiago De Compostela and then onto Finisterre. On my first Camino, I started in Pamplona and reached Los Arcos before I had to surrender.
My long walk yesterday was just that. It allowed me to enjoy some quiet time outside of the city. I was amazed at how nature had restored itself after what looked like quite a big fire — the little green spruces of grass where all pushing through the black cinders with great gusto. There were a few animals about grazing on the lush parts of the plants that had grown from the past weeks’ rain.
It allowed me the time to consider what a pilgrimage means to me. It gave me context about where my faith had faltered and at which point it had rebirthed itself for me.
The truth for me is that my renewed faith doesn’t just get me to a place where my thoughts are on pilgrimage. It is with me every day now, as I progress through my newfound career. Not in the way it was there previously, but now a real and active point of reference upon which I base my purpose, and upon which I anchor my values of freedom and adventure.
When I set off in September next year, in 2021, when the world is again open to all of us, I will set off only in faith.