Leon, Spain. Over half way to Santiago de Compostela. We ´ve walked over 250 miles, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. We crossed the Pyrenees, through dense fog and at times heavy rain, reaching Roncesvalles, Spain, wet, sore, and exhausted. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Over the centuries, the greatest spiritual leaders in the Christian tradition have often described spiritual growth in painful terms. Suffering leads to new insights and depth in our relationship with God. Therese of Avila, among others, describe the three fold mystical path as one of purgation, illumination, and communion. One type of experience leads to the next. Yet, the process is often cyclical throughout our lives.
I was drawn to El Camino (the pilgrimage pathway), because I wanted greater understanding about my life, my future, and God. I understood that first I might need to undergo some “purgation” as part of the process. I don’t like suffering any more than anyone else, but I was willing to do whatever it may take to move forward with my life. And if purgation could mean being freed a little more from the things that are holding me back, from anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, anger or any other self-defeating or wrong attitude or behavior, I was all for it.
Most days so far have been long trudges over rocky paths, up and down hills, or through arid wastelands–though we have seen some beautiful valleys and mountains along the way. The temperature the last few days has hit 100. Our feet blister, ache or swell. Getting up at 5:15 a.m. has gotten old. Today, we are taking a rest day. We ´re that exhausted.
Still, the walking has been an incredible, grounding and illuminating experience. Most of the time, I ´m not aware of what is happening internally while I ´m walking. Then, all of a sudden, emotion will surge out of me–anger, longing, sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret, relief, hope. (More than a few gangly weeds along the Camino are no longer standing, because of a sudden thrashing from my walking stick!) Then, clarity and conviction. We ´ve had a number of difficult, but very fruitful relational conflicts and conversations as well. Other times, we ´ve laughed, poked each other, teased, and felt really close.
Early on, as I was praying for clarity about my calling, I heard a response that made sense: “This pilgrimage is about preparing you to hear your call–not to tell you what your call is.” Though I like easy answers when they ´re available, I realized that I needed to be changed internally first in order to be able to understand and, more importantly, to accept God ´s next call. Otherwise, I may keep trying to pour new experiences and insights into old wineskins.
The most surprising revelation so far came during one of my times of solitude–when I walk for long stretches by myself. Out of the blue, I heard myself tell God that I was fairly satisfied with my spiritual life as it is, based on what I know about God and spirituality. Maybe a 9 out of 10. I know there ´s an infinite universe worth of knowledge about God out there, but I suspect that most of it is well out of my grasp. Futhermore, don’t the huge needs of the world call for Christians to roll up their sleeves and devote themselves to concrete, this-world concerns, as the hands and feet of Christ?
Well, yes, generally speaking, it ´s true: Christians are needed everywhere to meet human needs and to be actively engaged in developing solutions to local and world issues. Nevertheless, almost as soon as I announced my intention to become more practically minded, I knew I was being led down this line of thinking for a different outcome than I had imagined.
Paul ´s words to the Philippians came to mind. He said that nothing mattered more to him than knowing Jesus Christ and the power of his suffering and resurrection. Paul was very involved in the “real world” as a church planter, evangelist, fundraiser, author, public speaker and teacher. Yet, his heart and passion was first and foremost for his relationship with God through Christ. His words struck home.
Does God want me to risk “wasting” my life, my time, my energy, pursuing a deeper spiritual life? It seems the answer for me is “Yes.”