I love to travel. I caught the “bug” in college and have never quite been the same since. I notice an antsy-ness whenever I experience extended absences of travel and exploration. And of course, every trip makes me yearn for another. I have learned how to take this love of travel into my own surroundings, searching for new, unexplored neighborhoods – which is a good discipline for the seasons when I’m unable to travel. I thrill at visiting a new place: experiencing the people, tasting the food, soaking up a differing way of life. My favorite moments are those unplanned ones when I can just walk and discover. A gem of a restaurant. A beautiful building secluded down a hidden alley. A conversation with a stranger.
Lately this desire has emerged through my resonating with stories of journeys. Last Friday I noticed how within a week I had watched a film about the Camino de Santiago and had picked up the audio book for “Wild,” a story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. God brought these two seemingly unconnected occurrences together by identifying a desire within me to get away. Initially I dismissed this desire, assuming it came from a place of wanting to escape life. This may be true to some extent. And yet, God invited me to re-consider this desire.
What is it about the narrative of journey that sparks the imagination? The idea of pilgrimage seems to promise transformation, growth, transcendence. I suppose I desire all three right now (although they are variations of the same meaning). Yet, God works in many ways. He grows us through journeys. He grows us through sorrow and pain. He grows us through unexpected circumstances. He grows us through astounding acts of mercy.
Still, there is something unique when we take extended time away from our regular lives.
I once spent three weeks on a silent retreat. Just me, God, and my morning appointments with Brian, my spiritual director/therapist. This was not one of those lofty, Buddha on the mountain top experiences. No, it was a space to dig into my past and feel all the emotions I had stuffed down for close to 30 years. With God. An important part of my retreat came in the form of my daily walks. As a child I often felt stuck and trapped in my house. So, being in a house for three weeks, while avoiding the company of others, brought me back into my childhood home. My anxiety would explode as the hours would drag on and I felt utterly confined. When I went on these walks, I returned to the truth that I was not stuck. Somehow, during those walks, my heart could once again accept that I was free. My body emerged from anxiety mode and all the narratives wrapped up in that place. Instead, I could just be with God, feeling both held and free. Since then, I have learned that walking continues to be a place for me to re-orient in God’s truth.
I wouldn’t say that my relationship with God is purely mystical – there are very real, physical aspects of how I relate to him. However, I can easily overlook the importance of a walk. I suppose that’s the gift in a pilgrimage. Sure, we are propelled by desires of spiritual transformation. But we quickly experience the exhaustion from long hours on the trail. Our feet hurt. Unforeseen obstacles shift our plans. This is all part of the transformation. It is an earthy transformation. Our regular way of separating the body from the spirit breaks down. We cannot over think. We just are. This is the journey of a pilgrim.
Maybe I will walk the Camino de Santiago. Maybe the image of journey will continue to be an encouraging metaphor to me as I walk a confusing season of life.
Still, I am a pilgrim.