Making A Pilgrimage
In 2009 Amy and I became pilgrims, and pilgrimage changed us.
With our boys, 12 and 10 at the time, we flew to Madrid, Spain, and took a bus to a little town called Sarria, which is 111.5 kilometers from the Cathedral of St. James. The number keeps rising, and last year over a quarter of a million people walked some portion of the well-worn trail, El Camino de Santiago. That path tethers Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela by 500 miles of yearning steps and 1,000 years of prayers.
Most people who walk the Camino these days are affluent tourists or adventurous travelers, secular in their pursuit of the Cathedral. When the masses started walking to that cathedral to venerate the bones of Jesus’s brother, James, however, most were poor, and none walked because they’d seen a picture in a glitzy travel magazine. Say what you will about a theology bound up in worshiping bones or currying favors from the pope, there’s something to be said for taking a pilgrimage.
Ironically, even most of the secular walkers find that vacation becomes pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is vocation: walking to tend the soul.
The experience was so significant that when we were asked last year to perform a wedding in Scotland (next week), we could hardly get “We will” out of our mouths before Googling “pilgrimages in Scotland.” I’m typing these words from the Scottish village of Leven, on the banks of the River Forth. We arrived this afternoon, three days and 41 miles from Edinburgh. We’re walking The Way of St. Andrews.
Our particular route to the venerated Scottish sanctuary is called St. Margaret’s Way, which starts at St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the city. After a picture and a prayer the way took us by pubs and shops, through Edinburgh’s “Botanic Garden,” in and out of neighborhoods, some quaint, some posh, through patches of open field and hardwood forest, past numerous villages and down the 121 steps past the Dalmeny Rail Station into South Queensferry.
Rising early yesterday we put in 16 more miles, crossing the 1.5-mile-long Forth River Bridge, and following the Fife Coastal Path the diversity of terrain and sights and smells of which are too varied and numerous to name – but “spectacular” fits all of them. Again today we followed the coast, each turn opening us to a new “wow” moment, with forests and glades of amazing wildflower, lush pastureland and breathtaking overlooks, caves and coves and cafes, all under an incredible 68-degree Scottish-blue sky.
Today will take us another ten miles to Kilconquhar. (And try pronouncing “Kinahcher” with the right Sottish brogue if you’re a boy from SC!) We’ll put in 14 miles on Saturday before the Cathedral at St. Andrews comes into view. All of that, and for what? The venerated bones of Jesus’s disciple are no longer even held there. The church is in ruins. But pilgrimage never has been about the destination, as much as the discipline.
In Spain every cathedral, church and chapel along the way is open for business, which means open to receive pilgrims who stop to light a candle or say a prayer, or, in our family’s case, to sing a song and continue reading through our church directory as a means of praying for all our church family. In Scotland, dishearteningly, we’ve not found any churches open, and some we’ve passed are ancient, crumbling ruins. These stone ghosts, rising roofless into the Scottish sky, husks of history are, yet, a praise to their sacred past, reminders of a Church which called the faithful to acts of penance and prayer and pilgrimage, not mostly to dogmatic certainty and partisan politics masquerading as orthodoxy, which have become the vocation and preoccupation of the modern church.
Entering several of these crumbling sanctuaries, we felt the silent stones reverberate their sacred calling, and we took out our three-times-a-day prayer guide, read scripture or a poem, sang a song, called more names, winding through our church membership (lifting nouns as prayers). In those moments of discipline we also paused to wonder about a church whose only message is the headstone it has become -- a beautifully dead reminder of the life it once lived.
Those pregnant moments gave us pause as we reflected honestly and humbly about our own calling, and the vocation, mission, and future of The Christian Church. But then the road called us on.
The questions remain, and St. Andrews is still 20 miles ahead of us, so for tomorrow we’ll patch our blistered soles, load our aching packs, turn the next page in our prayer book, and sing a song as we take the next step.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church.)