Click the arrow above to listen to this post.

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.

Dante

In two weeks, Sally and I will begin a journey that will take us from Indianapolis, Indiana to what was once considered the end of the earth: Finisterre, Spain. Our goal? To walk the 500 mile Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way,” grew out of the legend of St. James the Apostle and his burial in Compostela, “field of stars,” shortly after his martyrdom in Rome in 42 A.D. The Camino became popular as a Catholic pilgrimage during the Middle Ages and now sees over a quarter of a million peregrinos every year.

We first learned of this pilgrimage about seven years ago when we watched 2010’s “The Way“, a movie directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen. The story was compelling and the movie well done, however, the simple notion of pilgrimage captured our imaginations. Soon after, we promised ourselves that we would one day undertake the journey and the target date became the year of our 50th birthdays: 2019.

For those who follow my blog, this trip should not be surprising. I very much see life as an evolving pilgrimage and enjoy writing about things that reflect the challenges, discoveries, and opportunities along the path. Every day, we get the chance to walk another leg of our own journey and, hopefully, move closer to our best self and our best life.

However, this camino, this Way of St. James, is a leg of the broader journey that takes the journey metaphor to a very real, and very broad, scale. Over about six weeks, we will walk over 500 hundred miles in a foreign land, sleep in albergues (hostels) along the route, carry everything for the trip in our backpacks, and open ourselves to the joys and discomforts of such a trek. Even more daunting, we will leave our normal existence for a time longer than any since either of us was born.

To those reading this, it likely evokes emotions of sheer excitement and/or sheer terror. For me, it certainly feels like both as we get closer to our departure.

In describing it to others, there are generally mixed reactions: some view it as a long and exciting vacation while others wonder why take so much time to walk so far and endure so many discomforts? Interestingly, in its Sacred Journeys series, PBS offers an interesting perspective on the concept of pilgrimage and breaks it into six stages:

  1. The Call: The opening clarion of any spiritual journey. Often in the form of a feeling or some vague yearning, that summons or expresses a fundamental human desire: finding meaning in an overscheduled world somehow requires leaving behind our daily obligations. Sameness is the enemy of spirituality.
  2. The Separation: Pilgrimage, by its very nature, undoes certainty. It rejects the safe and familiar. It asserts that one is freer when one frees oneself from daily obligations of family, work, and community, but also the obligations of science, reason, and technology.
  3. The Journey: The backbone of a sacred journey is the pain of the journey itself. In India, pilgrims approach the holy sites barefoot. In Iraq, they flagellate themselves. In Tibet, the more difficult the trip the most merit the pilgrim acquires. In almost every place, the travelers develop blisters, hunger, and diarrhea. This personal sacrifice enhances the experience; it also elevates the sense of community one develops along the way.
  4. The Contemplation: Some pilgrimages go the direct route, right to the center of the holy of holies, directly to the heart of the matter. Others take a more indirect route, circling around the outside of the sacred place, transforming the physical journey into a spiritual path of contemplation.
  5. The Encounter: After all the toil and trouble, after all the sunburn and swelling, after all the anticipation and expectation comes the approach, the sighting. The encounter is the climax of the journey, the moment when the traveler attempts to slide through a thin membrane in the universe and return to the Garden of Origin, where humans lived in concert with the Creator.
  6. The Completion and Return: At the culmination of the journey, the pilgrim returns home only to discover that meaning they sought lies in the familiar of one’s own world.

Though something is lost when we seek to explain or rationalize pilgrimage, the list above helps to frame it for our ordered mind. Though I don’t agree that we have to leave reason behind, I do like the description of the “thin membrane” separating us from the Divine. At its heart, pilgrimage is ultimately about getting closer to the Divine, closer to God.

So why the Camino de Santiago? Why now? Why 500 hundred miles? In 2008, we launched into another pilgrimage, an entrepreneurial path that has, in many, many, ways, mirrored the broader spiritual journey running parallel to it. In fact, what I once viewed as separate paths have become a single journey. Simply the journey of my life running parallel to that of those with whom I have the opportunity to share it.

For me, the Way of St. James is a structured approach to opening myself with intention over an extended period. The time and distance of the journey creates a buffer from the urgent and inserts quiet, empty, moments that may lie filled or unfilled by what the next moment brings. I wonder what may come in those quiet moments?

Of course, such a journey is not just about oneself. I will walk it with my partner in life, Sally. We will walk it with other pilgrims. We will share it with all in our lives. On the Camino, as in life, every encounter along the way will leave an impression. Small ripples moving outward toward every corner of our existence and those edges where it touches another’s.

I draw Dante into the beginning of this post not because I’ve wandered into a dark wood, but because we are called off of the straight path. We aren’t walking the Camino de Santiago to find ourselves, but to experience something more in a raw and elemental fashion. We aren’t traveling so far in search of answers but to walk with openness toward tomorrow with eyes forward, and upward. Reminding ourselves, and those with whom we travel, that we are all part of something grand and meaningful.