In 2010, I had the distinct privilege of walking the Camino de Santiago. For those of you unfamiliar with the Camino, it is a journey (Camino) through the north of Spain to the cathedral at Santiago. It is a pilgrimage that has been walked for the last 1500 years by individuals with a desire for a Spiritual journey.
One of the most distinct features of the Camino was that I, and everyone else on the journey, were on it for our own unique reasons. Each day, we would all get up before the sun rose, pack up our packs, lace on our boots and step out the door in the pre-dawn light to begin the journey again. There was a phrase that we, the pilgrims, would use on the Camino which was “bon Camino”, meaning “good journey”. This was the greeting we gave each other when we would start the morning, it was how we would greet one another as we passed each other at cafés, and it was the greeting we would give each other as the faster walkers would pass the slower – this was how we greeted and it was also how we would express a simple blessing for one another. From the basis of this greeting “good journey”, we knew we were connected to one another by a very simple fact, that being: you are on this journey, just as I am on this journey, because we are seeking something good and beautiful for our souls. This simple, but profound connection created an environment that while we were each alone on our journey, we were never really lonely, because you knew that everyone was there for the same reason – the journey. This knowledge created an ease in relating to one another that would happen every afternoon and evening as we arrived at our albergues or refugios (hostels). At night, you would walk into the restaurant for the pilgrims’ meal where you would see a table with two or three people at it and instantly know you were welcome at that table. If there was a language barrier, you would simply point to a chair and you would be invited to sit. Stories, aches and pains would be shared around the tables and so you belonged – you were connected – because everyone was on the journey together. Generally, I would have very little in common with the people there, other than we were pilgrims on the Camino – yet, this commonality was more than enough. From this foundation, I was able to learn from the folks I was walking with. I could listen, I could share. I recall one wonderful Swedish man named Morte who saw me limping as a result of issues I had developed with tendons in my ankles. One evening over dinner, Morte in his broken English said, “Tomorrow I teach you how to Swedish-staff walk, and you can use your umbrella for that.” (If you know my story, you have heard of “Umbrella”).
What if this story about the Camino could be a model for Christian Spirituality?
What if our definitions for belonging, connection in community, and travelling together were rooted in something deeper than our desire for connection? What if we belonged together, not because community was the goal, but because the journey was the goal, and journeying together was the purpose of life? It would take so much pressure off churches and faith communities all over the world if it were no longer their responsibility to create a sense of belonging. Rather faith communities and churches could be like refugios – providing shelter and context for relational connection, helping to heal wounds received along the path of life and inspiring pilgrims that this Spiritual journey really is the gift of life.
If we allow the journey to be the purpose, we can ebb and flow. All of the pressures of creating relationships can be relieved because we are allowing people to come into our lives for a time and in a special way. When, and if, departure happens the separation is seen as being natural.
Relationships become about receiving people as opposed to needing people. In the Church I serve as Spiritual Director we have a saying, which is: It’s not who we keep, it’s how we love.
This simple statement has freed us up to imagine better ways of loving people, rather than attempting to keep people as a purpose. I truly believe that if community becomes the purpose rather than the effect of churches, then we might as well be a club. Clubs are great, but the Church should not be club. Spiritual community is simply people coming together on their unique journeys, and through this coming together, breaking the isolation through our commonality that we are all on a journey towards Christ. I think most of the ailments in our culture today around loneliness are not a result of a lack of community, but rather a result of a lack of understanding that we are all on a journey together.
I think when we remove from our lives the commonality of our journey (our journey being the discovery of who we are and who God is) we become isolated and so we look to people in proximity to relieve our loneliness. But, if we view people as fellow travellers, they no longer become objects or tools to make us feel better – instead they are equals fumbling towards God, just like you and I.
When I arrived at Santiago, I sat down in the Cathedral and looked around for some of my fellow travellers, but there were so many people I didn’t see any I recognised at the time. As I sat there alone with my thoughts, I had a deep sense of gratitude for each person I had come across along my journey; however, I didn’t’ need any of them alongside me to appreciate what I had experienced. Lost in my thoughts of this, I suddenly became aware of Desmond who had come to sit down beside me. Desmond had walked the Camino to relieve his guilt. I won’t share Desmond’s story here, but as he sat down beside me, I remember him being very clear about what he was looking for in his journey. And so, I asked him, “Desmond, did you find what you were looking for?” Desmond looked me in the eye and answered, “No, not yet.” As I look back on that statement, it reminds me today that none of us can get off this journey until we are off.
Yet, the beauty of the journey lies not in what we find – it’s in who we are.
I think Desmond was looking for relief, but instead what he found was himself and what actually is. He also found a friend in me, and I a friend in him – a friendship that has lasted until this day even though I haven’t spoken to him since that moment.
We’re all on this journey together, we all belong on it – it’s the human story. So let’s give Christian community a break, and by that I don’t mean let’s stop Christian community, I mean let’s give it a break by recognising we are all just travellers trying to have a “bon Camino”. Maybe this desire is all we really need to connect in all the meaningful ways we hope for. Right now, as I write this, I am feeling a great sense of gratitude for all the people I have had the privilege to journey with on this, my life, a bon Camino.