The Pilgrimage Question

Why do you walk?

It is the most common question I got before I left. It is the question the old woman asks me now. She is from Bogota, Columbia. She too is a pilgrim.

"I am on pilgrimage," I tell her.

"Yes," she smiles, "but why do you walk? What is there at Compostela?" I am not sure what she is asking. I start to explain that it is an ancient pilgrimage site. She nods and waves her hand impatiently, "Of course, yes, I know this. What is there for you? ¿Porque caminas? Why do you walk?"

This question has gotten more and more difficult for me to answer. I think I had an answer when in the planning stages. I think I had an answer after buying my ticket. But the last week before I left words abandoned me and the only ones left were, "because I need to go."

There is something terribly lonely about the path, even though there are other pilgrims on it. Perhaps because there are other pilgrims on it. Days 5 and 6 since I left home are so lonely, and the ache in my chest is so heavy that I am not sure I will make it.

My muscles and feet are fine.

And meal times are times of beautiful connection.

But there are lots of empty spaces. Some are for thoughts, some for prayers, some for just being. Some swallow me up and threaten to sadness.

So much is beautiful.

So much is wonderful.

So much is glorious.

So much is plodding in the heat, in the wind, putting one foot in front of the other up a hill while carrying a pack.

I left home six days ago, and the question is asked of me daily on the road, in the pilgrim houses, and the answer has buried itself so deep inside that all I have to offer by way of explanation is completely unsatisfactory. I walk because I am a pilgrim and I need to know what that means.

Beginning (Again)

I am not sure exactly when the desire to pilgrimage was planted in me. I don't know how long it incubated and then grew. I do know that it hasn't disappeared. There are things I hear on pilgrimage that I cannot hear any other way, any other time, or anywhere else. Pilgrimage is a great metaphor for Life. However, it is not Life. That means that I require the actual living of Life after a pilgrimage to begin to understand what I learned while walking.

It has been about 10 months since I left for Portugal to begin walking The Camino. I wanted the first stamp in my pilgrim passport/credential to be in Lisbon. The geography matched the landscape in my heart. I wanted to see the broken pieces, I wanted to witness the renewal.

Cobblestone sidewalk Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

Lisbon is a city built of rubble.

The three biggest natural disasters to hit the city happened all on the same day in 1755. First, there was an earthquake that brought down many of the main structures. Scientists estimate that quake was between 8.5 and 9 and that it lasted for 3 minutes, collapsing stone walls, demolishing filled churches and opening up 2 meter-wide gaps in the streets. The shaking ground caused candles to fall over and fires tore through Lisbon and surrounding areas burning wooden structures. It took 5 days to get the fires under control.

The epicenter of the quake was in the Atlantic Ocean. Townspeople trying to escape falling debris and fire ran to the docks. Within 45 minutes of the earthquake the first of 3 tsunami waves hit those docks. The wall of water was 9 meters high when it reached the city, the worst recorded tsunami to hit Europe. 90% of the buildings were destroyed. 75,000 people in Lisbon died as a result of the 1755 earthquake.

How do you recover from something like that? Everything was broken. Everyone was broken. Every single person left alive was grieving someone, grieving home, grieving.

The mayor surveyed the rubble and said,




tile Lisbon Portugal pilgrimage

We rebuild.

Bury the dead.

Heal the living.

Gather the pieces and start again."

The roads in Lisbon are cobblestone streets, but they are not made of big stones like in other cities. The stone streets are made of smaller rocks. The sidewalks are also built of bits of stones. The buildings went up quickly too. Providing dwellings kept the remaining population from illness. There was no time for decorative carving or for painting these new buildings. Lisbon was known for tiles and many of them were still whole. In fact, they had piles of them, so as buildings went up the exteriors were covered with those stacks of tiles.

Lisbon is a city built of rubble. There are bits of pieces everywhere. And it is beautiful.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when a pilgrimage begins. Is it the day we start walking from a specific point? Is it when we start packing? Or when we first realize we have the idea? I'm not sure it's possible to clearly identify the beginning, however, once we get started, each day is a decision to start anew.

Every day is a pilgrimage.

Every day we get up again, no matter how sore or broken.

Every day we begin again.

We gather the broken pieces and make a way.

We build atop the rubble.

And Life is Beautiful.       

Noticing the Way Marks

Before I left for the pilgrimage in Spain I had heard that the way would be clearly marked. No one said exactly what those marks would look like, just that they would be obvious. It turns out that every district along The Way keeps its own way marks, so they all look different. And yet they were similar enough to easily recognize and follow.

After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene went back and looked into the tomb. Just as trauma survivors do, she had to look again at the place of intense trauma. And the tomb was empty.

But, wait.

No, it wasn't empty. It was filled with memories of the horror and grief of the past few days, but it also housed the sacred. What she found there were way markers pointing to evidence of God's presence, Christ Himself.

Today I hold my tender places in God's gaze and ask Him to reveal for me the way marks hidden in my memories. Lord, where were you in those times of trial? Show me where the tomb of grief houses what is sacred.

Today I add to my Sacred List: The hospice room where my father died two years ago. It was truly a place of grief touching the sacred.

Noticing the Sacred

I went for a walk in September last year. I walked and prayed for over 200 miles.

And I wondered, What if Jesus Christ really is The Way?

Not just the goal. No. What if He is the road we walk? What if He carries us continuously? Wouldn't that mean that everywhere I step is Holy Ground? What would my life look like if I lived that way?

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to notice the sacred in today. The essence of poetry is the same as the essence of prayer--paying attention with your entirety. What if you are standing, right now, on Holy Ground? What if you treated the person in front of you as Holy? What if this moment, this object, this...This was sacred?

My Sacred List for the month of April begins with these:

1. Warmth and the smell of applewood just beginning to push back the cold in the morning, thanks to the hands of my beloved who rose before me and braved the cold floor to make a fire.

2. A text--a smiley emoticon from my 19 year old son away at college.

3. My yoga mat. It used to belong to my father, now I use it to connect my spirit to my body and to pray for the people with whom God populates my heart while I'm stretching.

What's on your list? I would love a glimpse into your sacred life if you are willing to share in the comments.

Thank you. And. Happy National Poetry Month!

Homing Instinct

Is it faith
In the stories
Passed through generations,
One freckled butterfly
To the next
That carries them brave
Over seething seas?
Is it hope
In the fragrant fields or
The promise of nectar
Sweet for their children
That steers their purposeful wanderings?
Is it devotion
That tethers the bee to her hive,
That enables her to carry
Four miles of heathered hills,
lilac and clover
inside her brain the size
of a grass seed?
How do Jews always know where Jerusalem is?
How do Muslims know which way to turn
To face Mecca?
Most of the time, I don’t even know where I am or
Where I’m going
Let alone the direction of
My hidden home.
                              —Michelle Winter