The biggest difference between tourism and spiritual pilgrimage is the intention and way of the pilgrim’s travel. That journey actually begins long before the pilgrim leaves his or her house.
My journey to Santiago de Compostela began about 3 months ago. The chaplains at the University of Indianapolis were exploring where our office would take students on spiritual pilgrimage. Camino de Santiago, Rome, and returning to our previous pilgrimage at Taizé, France, were the most serious considerations. We chose Camino de Santiago for several reasons. We were pretty sure that Rome would appeal only to our Religion majors and Catholic students. Taizé was still a good possibility but some changing dynamics within our ministry meant a new location would be a good choice (the chaplains had led 4 previous Taizé pilgrimages).
Camino de Santiago was a great choice for several reasons. We knew that many Catholic students would be drawn to long heritage of the practice within Catholicism and the Catholic practices of the Camino. We also knew that the opportunity to walk through a Spanish speaking country would be exciting for our Spanish majors and minors. This will likely be a group of students that would not otherwise be interested in spiritual pilgrimage and that can potentially be quite transformative for them. We also thought that some that are interested in hiking and the physical challenge would want to go. Finally, many of our Evangelical and Protestant students have said that they are drawn to an opportunity for growth that is centered on prayer and the community of an international fellowship of persons that are hoping to experience God. So we were pretty sure that the trip would have a broad appeal.
The most important aspect of the selection was simple: we believed that the demands of an endurance walk combined with a community of spiritual transformation created the best opportunity for the most students to have a transformative experience.
The decision to do a pilgrimage and the selection of a location are actually the beginning of that pilgrimage. We spent lots of time praying and considering what we most wanted for our students. Who did we want to go? What kind of experience did we want for them? That extensive time of prayer was itself formative for me. The large amount of time spent in prayer drew me closer to God. And considering my hopes for our students forced me to recenter my attention on my calling to them. Every person will have different considerations. But each pilgrim will begin their spiritual transformation as they take seriously their motivations and hopes for pilgrimage. The tourist can simply decide based on desire and the availability of financial resources. The pilgrim makes the decision steeped in prayer and with an eye toward conversion.
The decision to go is the first “step” of the pilgrimage. The second step includes all the preparations to go. For first time travelers this may include getting a passport and additional vaccinations. Pilgrims may be surprised at the joy and excitement when they hold their passport for the first time. Anticipation builds as the adventure begins to seem more real.
Even for veteran travelers, there will be extensive research into the demands of the pilgrimage. When walking the Camino, pilgrims carry all of their supplies from town to town and sleep in very basic housing called albergues. On this pilgrimage this means taking seriously what are the most basic necessities because anything extra will have to be carried.
Personally, I eat far too much microwaved food and drink too much soda. I like being able to buy a gadget or tool for whatever I need to do. When you carry everything in your backpack, you have to simplify. Simplicity is a spiritual discipline and it’s also a discipline of pilgrimage.
These two spiritual disciplines are the first steps of pilgrimage. The picture at the top of this post is the very first way marker that we found as we walked in Leon this afternoon as we prepare to begin walking tomorrow. But our pilgrimage started long before we found this first marker.
Related post: What is a Spiritual Pilgrimage?