It was a full weekend for my husband Bob and me. We shopped for holiday groceries and hung out at our favorite Mexican restaurant.
We listened to the University of Iowa game (happily, they’re now 11-0) and the end of the Iowa State football game (sadly, they’re now without a coach).
Bob fixed the light in the kitchen and the toilet in the lower level. He cleared the driveway of Friday’s snow, and we worked on plans for a trip to a family wedding.
Nothing remarkable. Just the stuff of life—until we spent part of Sunday afternoon hearing about two friends’ recent pilgrimage, walking El Camino.
Also known as the Way of St. James and the Road to Santiago, El Camino is a path that runs from France across the northern part of Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are buried.
Over the centuries, so many people have made the journey that, just inside the doorway of the cathedral, they’ve worn a groove in a stone pillar by laying their hands on it as they enter.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world walk all or part of it each year for reasons they may or may not be able to explain. In fact, the reason eluded our friends Renee and Julie before they went, and now that they’ve been back for a few weeks, they still struggle to name it.
Renee found two definitions of the word “pilgrimage” that seem to fit especially well:
“A long journey or search, especially one undertaken as a quest for active devotion.”
And the Merriam-Webster definition: “The course of life on earth.”
Still, she has settled on the experience being “ineffable”—incapable of being explained through words.
Renee and Julie went through the mental gymnastics of “Should we go?/Shouldn’t we go?” for four months before Renee randomly opened an El Camino guidebook to this quote: “Whatever you do, don’t put off starting, as it might just prove to be a major turning point in your life.”
Five minutes later, she says, she was on the phone with Julie to say, “We’re going.”
No matter how much they wanted to resist, the pilgrim’s path had decided for them. “Damn Camino,” Julie says.
Clearly, they couldn’t turn down a direct invitation from Spirit, and so they walked, following the path’s yellow arrows and signs with seashell motifs, covering anywhere from five to twenty miles in a day, staying overnight in villages and laying down their burdens literally and metaphorically along the way.
They saw gorgeous verdant valleys, rugged mountains, attentive dogs and herds of cows, a bar in every town with Coke and beer to satiate their thirst, makeshift stands with fresh-squeezed orange juice and massage along the way.
And then there were the people. The folks who saved them when they were lost, befriended them, celebrated with them and moved in and out of their lives as they all traveled at their own pace, creating a stream that gently flowed between solitude and community and back again.
What was the most important part of the journey? Letting down the façade, Renee said. Nobody cared what you did for a living, Julie concurred. When you talked, even with complete strangers, you got right to the heart of it right away.
And because the basics of life were present but stripped of all the external noise in our lives, “it was just easier to see and discern what was important and not important,” Renee says.
If you wept while you walked, everyone understood and gave you space.
If you broke down for a while sitting on a tree stump, you could release whatever emotion was washing through you, then stand up and walk on, feeling cleansed of something as ineffable as the path itself.
Now that they’re back, Julie and Renee are hoping to bring elements of their walk into their everyday life.
So I wondered. How do you do that? What would our ordinary weekend have looked like if we’d seen it as a pilgrimage? How DO you bring it into everyday life?
And because I had no answers, I turned to my inner guidance. Here’s what I heard:
Pilgrimages don’t come along every day. Yes, your daily life may be a pilgrimage if you set your intent toward it. But this is the difference: Journeys can be passive, but pilgrimages happen because of a deep desire to experience life in a different way, and to find the meaning in everyday things. If you go through your life without thinking or contemplation, it is simply time travel. But if you take time daily to reflect on the meaning of your life events—not the meaning out in the world, but the meaning within you—then you can be a true pilgrim throughout your life.
The reason El Camino has become so popular is because it is a set course. It has boundaries and markers so that pilgrims can see the way, and there is a feeling of accomplishment at the end. There is a clear beginning and ending.
You can find this in your daily life. Use the morning and night as clear beginnings and ends. Set up a pilgrimage of a weekend or a year or an hour. In truth, the place and the duration are not the important factors. The important factor is the sense of intention that you bring to it.
There is also the sense of preparation. As Renee discussed, she went through a pilgrimage before the pilgrimage even began. She was already learning by seeing her patterns of mental inquiry and understanding that this was different. It was different because it had a different energy to it.
And that is why El Camino draws so many as well. There is a collective energy there that comes from the collective intent. This is why it may be harder to make a pilgrimage of your own life, because you alone are traveling it with the intention you have. There is no groove of intentional energy that has already been cut by previous travelers. And so you must do that for yourself. But it is not difficult because we will help you.
The pilgrimage of your own making can happen every day. Here are the elements: set a beginning and end to give it structure. Take time for preparation and then contemplation along the way and processing after. Use the time of the pilgrimage to drop the facades and to remove yourself from unneeded stimulation from the world. Be present along the way. See every person as a fellow traveler. By doing this, you truly can make every day a pilgrimage.
Aahhh. Even an ordinary weekend—a weekend of shopping and baking and cleaning—can become something special.
As Renee and Julie learned and now are generously sharing with others, the pilgrimage can become a way of being in our “quest for active devotion” and “the course of life on earth.”