Monthly Archives: July 2014

Pilgrimage: Die Before You Die, and Have Fun Doing It!

Me and Jed on the Camino 5.25.14 small

On the Meseta — May 25, 2014

Why walk 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela? I mentioned my struggle with this question to a very thoughtful friend, who said, “It used to be that to get to Compostela you had to walk to Compostela.” That’s clearly no longer true. In our modern world, with instant communication, almost-instant travel, and diversity of religious beliefs, walking to Santiago de Compostela is a choice. Most of us no longer believe that making pilgrimage to a saint’s tomb will give us a free pass to heaven, even if we think we need such a pass. We don’t believe that the relics in cathedrals, even if they are really from the true cross or the corpse of some long-dead holy person, confer any special mojo — any special forgiveness of sins. (Related question: what are sins?)

Indeed, there were moments on Jed’s and my recent pilgrimage when walking to Santiago seemed the opposite of holy. It seemed possibly cruel and probably a sign of mental illness to walk through pain. I have been wondering why we do it. Why I did it. Yet people who make this choice seem to benefit from their walk. Why?

Here’s my current hypothesis: We go on pilgrimage to practice dying, and because pilgrimage is really fun.

1. Pilgrimage as practice in dying: Pilgrimage, like any discipline, is practice in letting go of ego and expectations. It’s an expansion of our comfort zones in order to commit to what we truly value. Daily prayer or meditation, intentional service of others, eating a vegan diet, writing three pages every morning, whatever — discipline is learning how to do the hard stuff. God knows it seems easier to stay in life’s comfortable shallow end, trying our damndest to keep pain and fear at bay. For most of us, life will bring painful stuff — illness and death and loss in all its forms. C.S. Lewis said, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Pilgrimage is an opportunity to “die before you die,” to practice staying present to pain and fear, to practice letting go of control and expectations. When we stay present and open to pain and fear, we become more resilient and confident in our abilities to choose love in the midst of pain.

Pilgrimage allows us to do hard things in a relatively safe context — supported by ancient history and tradition, following directions and instructions that are millennia old, and in the company of others doing the same work.

2. Being a pilgrim is just plain fun. Even when I felt tired and sore, the Camino’s freedom and focus, hospitality, intellectual stimulation, companionship, rich social life, ample outside exercise, and incredible beauty were simply and juicily fun. I never stopped saying and thinking, “Honey, we’re in Spain. We’re in SPAIN!” The gift of being in the pilgrimage bubble, outside of normal time with its demands and constraints, was priceless. I felt at home in my body again — at one with my “god pod.”*

So, these are my answers for why modern pilgrims leave their homes to walk miles and miles: To practice doing hard things, and to have vast amounts of fun.

There’s a lot more to unpack, which I will be doing over the coming weeks on the blog now that my thinking is more coherent.

Thanks for walking with me. ¡Buen Camino!

Photo credit: Joe speetjens, a fellow peregrino from mississippi.

*”God Pod” coined by fellow martha beck coach susan hyatt


Lily Pad Moments

Frog on lily pad, larry ostbyI am blessed with old friends. We’ve been friends for forty years or more, since elementary and high school in Arizona. We get together every four or five years, and this summer we met in Ashland. We cooled off at the coast, reveled in the redwoods, experienced Shakespeare, grazed at the Rogue Valley Growers’ Market, and contemplated Crater Lake. But mostly we were just together, peacefully and exuberantly reconnecting and basking in our comfortable, deep friendship.

Our lives have included pain and suffering. One of us lost her husband to ALS two years ago. Another’s son died from suicide in 2008. We’ve all grieved parents’ deaths, some way too early. We have ailing brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. We have had to learn how to “swim in the deep end” these last ten years, especially.

So it’s really important for us to choose to rest occasionally. As one friend put it, “I like to climb up on a lily pad and sit in the sun every now and then.” If we try to swim in the deep water too long, we drown. We require lily pad moments.

My friends and I made two commitments before we dispersed yesterday. We promised that if we all survived our husbands we would live together in the same nursing home. And we agreed to increase our reunion frequency to every two years. We treasure each other, and the water we swim in will continue to be deep. We need our lily pad moments of relaxed basking in the warmth of our love and shared history.

Photo credit: Larry ostby