What the Church Can Learn from Pilgrimages

Commentary
Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock.com
Tired pilgrim statue at Plaza Rey San Fernando in Burgos, Spain. Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock.com

To prepare for the Camino de Santiago, I started walking several miles each morning at home in Santa Fe, N.M. In the process, I developed a blister on my toe. The blister became part of my preparation; blisters are nearly unavoidable on the Camino.

A blister doesn’t just affect one’s foot. Because of the pain, the leg and knee compensate, affecting the hip, and then the back, throwing it out of balance. Messages are received and sent by the brain to respond to the pain.

It’s a simple illustration that demonstrates the truth about the body, and the body of Christ, as explained in 1 Corinthians 12. Each part of the body is interconnected, and part of the whole. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). This belonging to one another is a given, not an option. We are members of one another, comprising the body of Christ.

Here’s what's interesting; the interdependence of my body, revealed through a simple blister on my toe, would never have been realized if I hadn’t started walking on a pilgrimage. Staying home in my normal routine would have left me feeling fine. Walking several miles a day revealed the vulnerabilities of my interconnected body. I had to figure out how to keep going forward without leaving any part behind.

It’s that way with the church as well. The great temptation for the church is to remain settled in its comfort zone, doing the same routine. While it may be on the course to a slow death, it can get by and not feel much pain. But the people of God are never meant to be settled; they are called to join in God’s transformational mission in the world, bringing God’s intended justice, healing, and reconciliation to a wounded creation. This requires an intentional commitment by the church to embark on a pilgrimage.

When it embarks on the journey, its points of pain and vulnerability will be revealed and it will reverberate throughout the whole body. Moving ahead on a pilgrimage will create friction. As most pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago say, “Don’t think you can avoid getting blisters.” Blisters are part of the experience. The challenge is how you will deal with them and allow them to mend and heal as you take the next steps forward.

There’s a saying originating in the Middle East: “The dogs are barking but the caravan is moving.” When a congregation or a denomination makes an intentional commitment to embark on a pilgrimage, that is moving toward God’s intended future, anxiety is raised, wounds are exposed, conflict is created, power dynamics are threatened, and traditional roles are challenged. Complaints are heard, sometimes whispered behind one’s back and, at other times, barked loudly for all to hear.

The temptation is to try to bury the conflict and pain. That never works. Just as blisters need exposure to the open air to heal, wounds encountered when a church begins the journey of transformative, missional change must be brought into the light of day. We are all connected to each other.

We should be clear: Determining that our faith in Jesus compels us to join in God’s ongoing mission of bringing justice and peace is no simple journey. It’s a pilgrimage that will open us to pain, conflict, and resistance. It requires a long-term commitment to continue moving forward. Daily obedience will reveal moments of unexpected grace and surprising joy.

It is not unlike the commitment to the Camino. It means walking faithfully, daily, toward that destination, going 10, or 12, or 15 miles a day, and then starting again for 10 days, or 20, or 30. It is long obedience in the same direction.

Before leaving for the Camino, my pastor, Talitha Arnold, gave me a prayer. It’s a Christian Arabic prayer from Spain by those living under the occupation of the Moors beginning in the year 711. It seems to be a prayer for all hearing the call to embark on a pilgrimage today, desiring to connect more deeply to God:

You call us from our settled ways, O God,

out of old habits and rutted traditions.

You call us into the land of promise,

to new life and new possibilities.

Make us strong to travel the road ahead.

Deliver us from false security and comfort,

desire for ease and uninvolved days.

Let your Word and Spirit dwell in us

that your will may be fulfilled in us

for the well-being and shalom of all. Amen.

- Mozarabic Prayer 700 C.E.

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