Just returned from walking El Camino, an 80-mile, seven-day pilgrimage from Vigo to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Since the 9th century, it has been one of the three great places of pilgrimage for Christians, along with Jerusalem and Rome. The road is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; more than 200,000 pilgrims walk there each year. I walked with four friends; it was a once in a lifetime experience. As I write, Advent Lutheran Pastor Anita Warner is walking the El Camino route on pilgrimage.
One of the results of my pilgrimage is that I intend to walk more. I want to contaminate less and protect the environment. My resolution is to walk to any location within a mile.
Being a pilgrim is different from being a tourist. A tourist goes to see, observe, learn about places and people. A pilgrim goes for a religious purpose: to come into contact with the sacred, to adore, to do penance, to fulfill a vow, to ask for a blessing, to come into contact with oneself. Traveling the many miles each day, there is plenty of time to reflect and share with fellow pilgrims.
Pilgrimage is important to all major world religions. For Muslims, it is the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca; for Christians and Jews, as well as for Muslims, it is Jerusalem.
I had the privilege of making numerous pilgrimages, including eight times to Jerusalem. I have also been to many specifically Catholic places of pilgrimage: Rome, Italy several times; Guadalupe in Mexico, and other Catholic shrines.
But I also had the chance to go on pilgrimage to the holy places of other religions. I went to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs. I have been to Deer Park in Sarnath, India where the Buddha was enlightened and many Hindu holy sites in India including the Ganges in Varanasi. I felt the sacred in each of them and admired the great devotion and sacrifice of the pilgrims.
So many great literatures speak of pilgrimage: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the classic of Protestant spirituality; The Pilgrim’s Progress by Paul Bunyan; the classic of Catholic spirituality, the Camino de Perfección of Saint Teresa of Avila; and that of Jack Kerouac On the road. There is music: that of Mahler Songs of a Travelerby Liszt Anne of Pilgrimage. Many poems speak of pilgrimage, including that of Robert Frost The road not taken.
The pilgrimage is a metaphor for life. Our whole life is a pilgrimage, a journey towards the sacred. The great Spanish poets talk about it. I remember Antonio Machado:
Traveling, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
and al turn over the vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Traveler there is no road
you make the road by walking.
By walking you make the road
And when you turn around and look back
you see the way
you’ll never walk on again.
Father Jose Rubio is the retired parish priest in residence at St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Gilroy. He is one of the original members of the South County Interdenominational Clergy Alliance. Father José can be reached at [email protected].