There is a striking scene towards the end of the movie The Way starring Martin Sheen. A dad who got that most devastating of all calls in the middle of the night, Sheen must travel to France unexpectedly. He is going to pick up the ashes of his somewhat estranged son who died in a freak storm as he started a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James). One thing leads to another, and Sheen decides do the pilgrimage, carrying his son’s ashes with him. There are beautiful, transformative moments along the path, filled to the brim with grief, self-discovery, laughter. Finally, he arrives in Santiago and heads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to participate in the daily Pilgrim’s Mass, replete with medieval majesty and mystery.
One of traditions of the Camino involves getting on your knees for the very last stretch of the journey, as you make your way from the entrance of the church to the foot of a large statue of St. James. Sheen, whose character is a hard-charging lawyer, has been reclaiming his Roman Catholic identity all along the way. In the doorway, he hesitates for a split second and then slowly, carefully, not without difficulty, goes down on his knees to end his pilgrimage as millions of other faithful people have done since the eleventh century. I found that scene very moving, always imagined I would do the same. To me, it’s yet another way in which our bodies can be vessels of grace and give witness to the agency at the heart of all faith. You choose to take those final steps on your knees not because you have to, but because you can, because it is an act of humility, because to me, this is an act of gratitude. I don’t believe a statue is endowed with any special, magical powers. Rather, it is part of the sacramentality that has been so central to my faith: what we can touch, feel, see, smell is able to serve as an outward and visible sign of an inwardly and invisible grace. Even if I never walk the Camino, I will always be able to imagine the awe I’d experience after walking from Porto to Santiago, the joy in my capacity in body, heart, and mind, to go in search of, and find a holy place.
Reflecting on the stretch of time I will have in September, I’ve wondered what a pilgrimage might look like for me in my current, bounded, set of circumstances. When I am willing to practice patience (not often), I find a new possibility usually emerges that cannot replace what had to be let go of, but has its own wonder and meaning—its own holiness.
Instead of going to Santiago, I am going to spend most of the last two weeks of the month in Maine. In the strictest sense of the word, this won’t be a pilgrimage. By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey to a shrine or sacred site. That’s not what I’m going to do; I’m not even sure I’ll make it to church at all. I am simply yearning to spend most of those days outside. I am already selecting the trails I will hike, the places where I want to sit on the edge of a cliff, looking out at the same Atlantic as I would have seen had I been on the Camino. I’ll even wave, in case Mary can see me. One day, I hope to be a straight-out tourist: go out to sea to try to see whales. The first time I went on retreat, my friend Robin told me to take a camera to look for God. It’s been advice I’ve followed ever since. I am looking forward to doing lots of photography. I also have a brand-new Moleskine to write in. And I will get to keep silence. Lots of silence. I have a couple of visits planned but I will spend most of my time alone, and I am putting a plan together to go to places where there will not be big tourist crowds. That feels like heaven.
“Lord, you give the great commission” is a well-known hymn in the Episcopal Church. When I took my General Ordination Exam, I had to write an essay about the theology of mission of the hymn. The line that guided my effort to answer that question is at the beginning of the third verse: “Lord, you make the common holy…” That line comes back to me as I consider my time in Maine. There may not be a shrine. I surely will not approach the statue of a saint on my knees to touch it as I raise a prayer at journey’s end. And. I will be on holy ground because all ground is holy and all time can be sanctified. Not the Way of Santiago, but actually, a pilgrimage nonetheless…