One day I would like to hike the Camino in Spain. Until then, I will have to watch the new movie Walking the Camino, or re-read Arthur Boer’s great book The Way is Made By Walking.
My wife was in England a few years ago, teaching a course at a seminary near Manchester. One Sunday afternoon she went with her English friends on an eight-kilometre hike in the countryside.
At least, that’s what she thought it was. But, she was told, it was not a hike. It was a “ramble.”
It turns out that the British have more than one word for walking. A ramble, for example, is different than “amble,” which is a long walk in a park.
A “walk,” meanwhile, is something you do to get from your house to the corner store. And a hike only occurs when someone walks 32 kilometres or more.
By that definition, Arthur Boers went on a very long hike—800 kilometres, and just to get to church.
Boers, who teaches at Tyndale University College in Toronto, hiked the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, in 2005.
The famous and ancient pilgrimage runs from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It ends at a cathedral that is purported to be the final resting place of the Apostle James.
The journey, which crosses four mountain ranges, was “hard and tough,” he says.
The arduous trip took 31 days, and included a visit to a hospital to treat his badly blistered feet. But although it was hard on his body, it was a refreshing spiritual experience.
“Pilgrimage is a way to become totally involved, body and soul,” he says. “Very few things we do today engage us so totally.”
Boers has written a book about the journey called The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s oldest and most famous pilgrimages, rivalling Rome and Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.
Over the past 1,200 years millions of people have walked the route; today it travelled by thousands each year.
In the book Boers describes how a simple act like walking can become a spiritual activity, and how Christians today can experience pilgrimage even in the midst of their busy lives.
For Boers, the trip was a time to recall the history of the church, think about major themes of Christian faith, and reflect on the ancient practice of pilgrimage itself.
“Pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination,” he says, noting that the days were filled with talking with the new friends from around the world that he met along the way.
At the same time, he had a profound sense of meeting God as he walked, prayed and reviewed his life.
“As I looked back, I had a deep sense of God’s presence and comfort in my life,” he says.
Some of his fellow pilgrims found it strange that a Protestant would go on a pilgrimage—something that has been traditionally thought of as a Catholic practice.
But, Boers says, “the walls of the Reformation are coming down,” and more Protestants are thinking seriously about spiritual disciplines like pilgrimage.
As well, he notes, many people who do not profess Christian faith at all are being drawn this ancient form of spiritual practice, he notes.
“A prominent paradox of my sojourn, and the one that surprised me and taught me the most, is the fact that so few fellow pilgrims I meet counted themselves as Christians,” he says.
Even more surprising, he adds, is that “these folks ended up teaching me more than I realized I needed to know.”
Not everyone can walk the Camino de Santiago, but Boers believes that everyone can experience pilgrimage in their own lives by walking, or by taking time out of a busy schedule to serve poor people or fix up a house in the inner city.
“Whatever expands your sense of spiritual direction can be a form of pilgrimage,” he says.
Even something as simple and everyday like going to church can be like a pilgrimage, as long as people go there “with the hope and expectation of meeting God.”
“Jesus calls us to live out and practice what he taught and modelled, to walk the walk," Boers says. “All pilgrimage unfolds as God leads and we are invited to follow.
“The way commended by Christ has to be journeyed. It is made by walking.”