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In the fall of 2018, I sat across the table from Wes Granberg-Michaelson at The Dandelion Pub, a few blocks over from my church’s offices in downtown Philadelphia. I was preparing to take a much-overdue sabbatical the next summer.
Wes is someone whose wisdom I have long respected, so I wanted his input about how to shape and structure the time. Amid all the helpful perspective he offered, one moment stuck, more than anything else: when I asked him what one thing he’d do if he were in my shoes, he leaned back in his chair, thought for a moment, and replied: “You need to make a pilgrimage.”
So I did.
The next summer, I flew to Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago — “The Way of Saint James”– is a network of historic Christian pilgrimage routes, traversed since the 8th century, which converge on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the city of Santiago, in northern Spain. Christian tradition holds that the remains of James the Apostle, who brought the Gospel to Europe, are buried there. Now, (or, at least until the onset of COVID-19) the Camino routes are walked by thousands and thousands of people from around the world every year.
As I began walking the Camino, I was exhausted, depleted, directionless. The preceding season of ministry had been an excruciating one. I’d led through conflicts, weathered pastoral emergencies, endured a few betrayals. But the exterior journey I took, walking the Camino from A Coruna to Santiago commenced an interior journey of healing, transformation, and redirection.
The Camino taught me more than I can offer in this space: an embodied spirituality, the varied gifts of solitude and community, receiving uncertainty as a gift, and more. But one main gift the Camino gave me were the prayers. I deliberately prohibited myself from bringing theology or leadership books with me while on pilgrimage. I only permitted myself fiction, poetry, and prayer. While walking, I memorized the Songs of Ascent, and those well-worn prayers (Psalms 120-134), tucked discreetly into the Psalter, became a primary companion on my journey.
The Songs of Ascent, most scholars agree, were developed, prayed and sung by ancient Israelites as they made pilgrimage, three times a year, to Jerusalem for the main festivals of Jewish worship. These prayers, in all likelihood, would have been prayed by Jesus, year in and year out, as he grew, developed, and discerned his holy sense of vocation from the Father; and these would have shaped his praying as he “set his face to Jerusalem” toward cross and empty tomb.
One morning, while having a croissant and an espresso for breakfast on the plaza in Betanzos, I journaled about what these sturdy old prayers were teaching me: “I have been internalizing the Songs of Ascent while on the Camino, as they’re the pilgrim psalms. And I’ve been finding in them a language for the whole pilgrimage of faith, and a language to pray this last life season: longing, repentance, trust, pain, and joy; work and rest; praise and lament; wronging others and being wronged; calm and trust and exuberant worship.”
I’ve had this liminal time on my mind lately as the church I now serve is traveling through the Songs of Ascent this summer. The gift of this set of psalms, that I experienced while walking the Camino, is the way in which they cultivate a pilgrim identity. And that’s the gift I’m watching them give to those I now serve, too.
The theologian Alister McGrath, in his sage book The Journey: A Pilgrim in the Lands of the Spirit, observes that one feature of the Church’s post-Enlightenment hangover is that we primarily conceive of Christian faith as assenting to a set of ideas.
The Camino, the Songs of Ascent, the long witness of God’s people, and the scriptures themselves all insist otherwise. To be a Christian isn’t just to assent to and disseminate platitudes, it’s to be someone who “belongs to the Way” (Acts 9.2); to be a traveler, someone living a pilgrim-way of life, a person on a God-initiated, Jesus-led, Spirit-accompanied journey to the One who is our true home.
My grasp of Spanish is nearly nonexistent. I did, however, pick up a few basic words and phrases while walking the Camino that enabled me to communicate in a rudimentary way. One was the customary greeting pilgrims offer one another when they meet or depart: buen camino — “good path,” or “good way.” So, buen camino: may yours be a good pilgrimage, following Jesus home to God.