Are You a True Pilgrim?

This past spring, I watched The Way, which follows the story of Tom (played by Martin Sheen), an ophthalmologist, who receives a phone call telling him that his only son was killed while walking a pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James.

Tom comes to Spain to recover his estranged son’s body and decides to honor his son by walking the Camino with his cremated remains, spreading his ashes along the route. He walks this pilgrimage with a mixture of anger, sorrow and regret. Along the way, he meets three other pilgrims who are each broken in their own way, a jolly Dutchman, a cynical angry Canadian woman and Irishman with a writer’s block.

The movie is partly based on Jack Hitt’s book Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain . Ironically, though he is walking a religious pilgrimage, Jack Hitt is something of a skeptic, but this also makes him much like the characters in the movie. One of the questions discussed in both the movie and in Jack Hitt’s book is what makes a “true pilgrim?” Men and woman have been walking the Camino for over one thousand years. Many have experienced extreme physical depravation along the way, and yet not every pilgrimage is the same. Pilgrims might start their journey in different cities.  Modernity has brought other changes to the pilgrimage. Would a true pilgrim use an expensive tent from REI? Would a true pilgrim ride a bicycle or use a credit card to purchase food along the way?

At the beginning of his journey on the Camino, Jack Hitt meets Madame Debrille, a much celebrated eccentric who hosts pilgrims in her home. She pointedly tells Hitt, “You are not a true pilgrim.”

Hitt writes in response:

Shivers consume me, yet my doubts about being a true pilgrim and worrying about my clothes, my shell and my convictions are easier to assuage after a day of such intense labor. The historical pilgrimage shouldn’t be the model. . .No pilgrim can make sense of the road if he reduces it to a mere reenactment. I can’t be a medieval pilgrim.

I can totally sympathize with Hitt’s insecurity and self doubt. It’s the moment when you have been judged and found wanting.

In this particular case, Madame Debrille’s opinion on what makes a “true pilgrim” is large based on her knowledge of history. Her home is a kind of living museum of the Camino, with ancient leatherbound guidebooks on the Camino and artifacts from the road. Ironically, Hitt discovered that while Debrille was obsessed with the Camino, and had strong opinions about what makes a pilgrim, she never actually walked the road to the Camino de Santiago.

There is something in Hitt’s experience on the Camino that describes our own journey and even a life of faith. In our own journey, there are any number of people who are ready and all too willing to tell us what our life should look like. We live in the shadow of expectation. We have stories and biographies to give us inspiration from the past, and these do not make it any easier. They inspire us for a moment, and then we come to the sudden jarring realization, “I’m not them.”

Many times, as in the case of Madame Debrille, the people who would influence us, know nothing of our journey and have never even walked the road. These people never really walk the road of faith, they just try to tell others how to live. They create so many demands and expectations, nobody would ever want to travel this road and none of us would ever want to be a pilgrim.

In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus tells us the road to life is a narrow one. Given Jesus’ description, we understand the narrow road is not always easy, but sometimes we also make it unnecessarily hard.

In Matthew 23:4 Jesus said of the religious leaders of his day:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

In Jesus’ day the religious leaders had so encumbered faith with religious practices they made it difficult for anyone to walk with God. This is something that can seem familiar to us, even two thousand years later. Being a Christian has become more about doing religious stuff than about following Jesus.  Our journey and pilgrimage becomes encumbered and burdened by the expectations of others, by the Madame Debrilles of life.

Unfortunately, the question of what makes a true pilgrim, much like the question of what makes a true Christian, often suffers for its lack of depth and imagination.

God created each of differently. We are each unique. We are both fearfully and wonderfully made. God created each of us with different gifts, moreover each of us have a different life experience. While we might gain inspiration from the past and from the people in the Bible, we live in a very different time and place. As much as we might admire a Paul or a Barnabas, we cannot be them. All of this means that our journey and our life pilgrimage will be different from anyone else who lived before us.

We are not trying to slavishly imitate a pattern of spirituality or living. It would be impossible, and such an attempt would be like butting our head into a stone wall. Our journey and life with Jesus is not meant to be a reenactment of the past, moreover the road cannot really be understood if we reduce it to such.

Far from make our road uncertain or unsteady, this understanding should give us the ability to walk freely and joyfully. We can enjoy the road and the company of our fellow travellers.

This is my pilgrimage. It’s different from anyone else and this is a good thing, because it allows me to walk my pilgrim path in faith and in conversation with God. It becomes my personal journey with Jesus.

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