One of my Facebook friends just completed a virtual walk of the Camino de Santiago. “The Conqueror Virtual Challenge” company hosts a number of these virtual races: The Camino, the Ring of Kerry, Mt. Everest, the English Channel, etc. You complete the distance of these routes by any means of exercise wherever you are over a period of weeks or months, logging your progress as you go. This updates a map of the virtual area in which you’re competing, and once complete, you win a medal. As an added bonus, for every 20% of the route you complete, the company plants a tree.
It’s a fun idea—adding some motivation and interest to a perhaps otherwise routine and dull exercise regimen. And, since we can’t actually go see any of these places or compete in real races at the moment, it might be the closest many of us get to walking the Camino for a while.
Of course, walking the Camino and walking the distance of the Camino by doing laps around your neighborhood are two very different things. People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, but it is, at its core, a pilgrimage. You start in one place and end up at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Along the way the walking, day in and day out, becomes a sort of meditative practice. Your mind is allowed to wander and be still. You meet new people who ask you new questions, you spend a lot of time in silence, you live simply.
All of which, hopefully, opens you up to learning something new about yourself, or the world, or God. People hope to experience something profound, something lasting. A pilgrimage gets you from Point A to Point B, but the point of a pilgrimage is very much the pilgriming itself.
I read an article last week in which the author posited we should see this new year as a sort of pilgrimage, and I very much like that imagery. It seems to fit especially well for 2021. I imagine many of us rang in this year with less triumphant certainty than we did the last. I know many still set goals and New Years resolutions because Meijer was almost completely out of Whole30 approved condiments a few days ago. But we’re also going into the year with fewer plans, less definite ideas of what might happen this year. Who knows if we should buy those baseball tickets, or plan a cross-border trip, or if we won’t be pushing our luck by planning an indoor June wedding?
One option, in the face of this uncertainty, is to grow evermore anxious and frustrated. We love to plan, after all. It gives us something to look forward to, something to hope for, something to work towards. “All I have to do is get through the next month and a half and then I’ll be in Mexico for a week.” Planning anchors us, gives us something to hold onto.
But perhaps a healthier option is to enter this year with a pilgrim mentality, an openness and curiosity about what will come. To embrace the abnormal, the new, the different, and allow it to reveal something about ourselves, about the world, about God. We’ve been living with the different for a while now, muddling through, enduring. What does it look like, not simply to endure, but to embrace? Is that mere wishful thinking? Perhaps. After all, we’re still dealing with the traumas of the last year, the grief of loss, the anxiety of the unknown.
But it seems to me that it’s precisely in the face of grief, heartache, transition, and change that many people elect to go on a pilgrimage, seeking a chance to reconnect, re-center, process, heal. I know it’s harder to do those things when we can’t really get away from the things that cause anxiety and grief in the first place. But perhaps there are practices we can adopt in this new year that will give us that space, that newness, that openness and awareness, that a pilgrimage might otherwise afford.
Perhaps a simple prayer, while lying in bed each morning, asking God to bring an awareness of him throughout our day.
Choosing a different place to go for a hike or a walk each week, exploring our own corner of creation, feeling our sense of place expand.
The practice of the examen at night, reflecting on the day’s events, on our trials and our triumphs, our sins and our blessings.
Maybe we choose to connect virtually (I know, I know, we’re so sick of virtual) to lectures and concerts and tours of art museums, to experience something new, something otherwise difficult for us to access.
Perhaps it is the simple practice of extending our hands, palm up, before each new day, or new activity, as an act of offering our life to God, and receiving in humility from him.
And maybe to be a pilgrim is to do no new thing at all, but simply to live with an acceptance, an openness, to what might come your way.
There are so many ways in which to enter this year as a pilgrim. What are some that you would add to this list?