The Common Good
February 2012

Passages and Pilgrimages

by Julie Polter | February 2012

Why sometimes life can seem like one big road trip.

WE ARE ALL on a journey, it seems—the butcher, the baker, participants in reality shows from The Bachelor to Pit Bulls and Parolees, those with chronic or terminal illnesses, the grieving, the people in pink walking for three days to raise money to fund breast cancer research, and, of course, actual travelers moving from one geographic point to another. A movie about a pilgrimage, The Way, even enjoyed a grassroots-fueled, quiet-but-steady success this fall.

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As Jack, a character in The Way, exclaims, in an enthusiastic monologue on travel-related metaphors to warm the hearts of English majors everywhere, “The road itself is among our oldest tropes!” And more popular than ever, if our cultural rhetoric is any indication.

This plays out in how we describe important emotional and spiritual events or challenges: Counselors often use journey language to describe grief, for example. Many who’ve suffered the death of a beloved can describe how loss casts a person into unfamiliar territory, and how the process of working through raw emotion and “finding our way back” to accept new realities takes us to, and through, different emotional or spiritual places.

“Journey” is now the go-to word in today’s pop psychology lexicon for most any kind of personal process or narrative. This is seen to mixed effect on reality shows, where the term is ubiquitous—sometimes used poignantly, bearing real freight as people attempt to deal with life-and-death issues such as addiction or morbid obesity. Other times it can seem laughable—earnestly used to describe the search for “true love” in an audition-selected pool of carefully pruned and polished contestants or for purported wisdom gained between Real Housewives smack-downs and party planning. Alas, just because you say you’re on a journey doesn’t mean you’re really getting anywhere.

SOMETIMES WORDS SUCH as “road,” “passage,” and “pilgrimage” are used to describe our internal meanderings. Other times we put our actual bodies on actual paths in actual motion, and not just for the hamster wheel of a work commute or errands.

We hit the streets to raise awareness of an injustice and advance a cause: Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March in protest of the British monopoly on salt production in colonial India. The Freedom Riders, black and white civil rights activists who defied segregation laws by riding together on public buses and trains in the Deep South in 1961. Or Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who, in 1999 at age 89, began a 3,200-mile, 14-month walk across the U.S. to raise awareness for the need for campaign finance reform.

The fund-raising illness- or issue-awareness walk is a variation of this. Some are short and breezy, other provide a genuine endurance challenge. The Susan G. Komen 3-Day promises that walking 60 miles will make you a part of “the boldest breast cancer event in history.” And while that may in part be team-building hyperbole, in this day and age, when most of us are carried from here to there in some form of internal combustion-propelled conveyance, it can be a radical experience to put our own feet on pavement, to feel the shock to joints and the blisters on the feet caused by walking 20 miles a day. Perhaps even more so when done in the company of strangers, some of whom have survived wildernesses of illness and grief. Mingling our stories (that are so often shielded in regular life) in such a situation can be almost countercultural, even as it occurs within what is a noble, but intensely branded and orchestrated, experience.

Then there is the pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was not a common concept in my low-church Protestant upbringing; we weren’t big on bodily experiences or rituals, aside from altar calls and a follow-up dunking. What mattered was a personal relationship with Jesus, which was supposed to manifest itself in improved behavior, but not so much in physical gestures or travel. After all, if Jesus was my co-pilot, what was the point of going anywhere? Wasn’t the One who was supposed to be my All-in-All right there in the next seat?

But of course, millions of contemporary people of all faiths and uncertain faith (including, I now know, Protestants) travel each year on some form of pilgrimage. It might be to a specific shrine or holy place where relics, miracles, or memory testify to God’s special presence, or along a path worn deep by generations of seekers. A secular form of pilgrimage is hinted at in those “Find Out” commercials for REI outdoor gear, in which people find awe and community while hiking.

In a pilgrimage, people incarnate all those travel tropes and hit the highway or hiking trail or airport in a search for meaning, wisdom, or healing, or in a full-body gesture of religious devotion. In other words, the metaphor circles in on itself and we embark on a journey, in hopes of an emotional or spiritual Journey. We start walking or driving because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves, and then realize our hearts and souls are on a mission. Or we take an intentional pilgrimage, intellectually choosing a way or a destination with spiritual significance, hoping our spirits will rise to the occasion.

The film The Way portrays contemporary people walking one such path. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, it stars his father, Martin Sheen, as a man who goes to France to collect the body of his adult son, who was killed in a storm in the Pyrenees just as he was beginning to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This network of pilgrimage routes (in English called the Way of St. James) winds through several countries to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, which is supposed to be the final resting place of the apostle James, brother of John. Pilgrims have walked the Camino since medieval times. Last year more than 150,000 “certificates of pilgrimage”—given to those who have walked at least the final 100 kilometers or biked the final 200 kilometers of the Camino in one stretch—were issued.

In the movie, the father, Tom, spontaneously decides to complete the pilgrimage his son had begun, taking his son’s ashes with him. He is soon joined, to his irritation, by traveling companions—a large, garrulous Dutchman, Joost, who’s ostensibly walking the Way to lose weight; Sarah, an angry Canadian woman who says she’ll quit smoking when she reaches the end; and Jack, an Irish travel journalist battling writer’s block.

This is not a flashy movie, just gentle and touching, laced with enough humor not to be cloying. There are no miracles (although the scenery qualifies as divine and Tom has recurring visions of his dead son); in the end, addictions and grief persist. Nonetheless, it is evident all have experienced some form of healing. Tom, a California doctor, has opened up to wonders of people and places beyond his previous cocoon of office hours and golf; he is a less-lapsed-than-before Catholic. Jack is writing. Sarah is still smoking, but she may be letting herself forgive and be forgiven. It’s uncertain if Joost will find a way out of the pleasures and security of gluttony, but his generosity of heart throughout the film left me rooting for his eventual joy.

Perhaps these realistic ambiguities are one reason The Way has struck a chord among many: We all hope for transformation, all of us, on all our many journeys, and the road may indeed change us a little, inch by inch, mile by mile. It’s valuable to get out and about (whether literally or figuratively). But dramatic miracles are rare; becoming whole people rarely fits in the span of any given trip or even a reality show season. So don’t forget to enjoy the scenery and make grace one of your traveling companions.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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