Pilgrimage: Ancient Practice Now With Some Modern Tensions

(Blogger’s Note: Roni Jackson-Kerr and I became acquainted, interestingly, by way of technology. We connected between her pilgrimage and mine in the fall of 2015 and remain friends. As she nears completion for the Ph.D in Communication, Jackson-Kerr has become a research leader in a field of interest to us both. She’s in the final days of completing her doctoral dissertation examining the role of modern technology as it blends with the ancient practice of pilgrimage. She has titled her work,  An Ancient Practice in the Modern Age: An Examination of the Camino de Santiago and the Impact of Technology on Modern Pilgrimage. Jackson-Kerr is also the founder of the American Pilgrims on Camino Oklahoma Chapter (Okies on Camino). We visited recently to discuss her work in-depth.)

Roni Jackson-Kerr at the iconic Alto de Perdon in the early stretch of the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona.

Q: Historically, there was a time when the practice of pilgrimage was common, then periods when it was not so much the case. Is technology responsible for what we might think of as a resurgence in the practice?

A: Because the type of research that I did for this project was ethnographic, I am unable to make direct assertions regarding causality. What I can say is that the rise of the Internet and the resurgence of the Camino have run largely parallel to one another. The resurgence has occurred for many reasons — one being the significant investment Spain has made in the Camino routes, particularly the Camino Frances, and the promotion of the Camino de Santiago itself. I can say the mere volume of information about the Camino that is now available online has unquestionably made the pilgrimage more visible — a simple Google search for ‘Camino de Santiago’ yields more than twenty million results. Blogs, forums, books (tech is affecting self-publishing and the sheer volume of books available), podcasts, documentary films, TED Talks, YouTube videos, and web series have all flourished in recent years. People are sharing their journeys on social media, inviting those in their social network to come along. The increase in available information and visibility is undoubtedly significant.

Q: Understanding that your research is objective in nature, what do you see is both the best and worst impacts of technology on pilgrimage?

A: (As an aside) No research is wholly objective. There is an element of subjectivity to even the most empirical of studies. Ethnography does not aim to be objective in nature, because it recognizes the futility in such an effort. We cannot escape ourselves as a vehicle for the transmission of information. That said, we do try to maintain reflexivity and recognize the ways in which we might influence our own work.

With that said, what’s interesting to me about this study is the very tension between the positives and negatives of technology on this experience, and the internal tensions caused by that impact. It is not altogether separate from the concerns we have regarding the impact of technology on our lives and ourselves in general.

In many ways, technology is offering many practical benefits to pilgrims. With respect to pack weight alone, it’s remarkable how many functions our modern devices can service — our cell phone can be our camera, our diary, our map, our guidebook, our compass, our connection to the outside world (for better or worse), and much, much more.

Modern technology is also enabling pilgrims to connect with one another before ever stepping foot on the trail and making it easier than ever to maintain those connections after returning home. It’s changing the very manner in which pilgrims engage with one another in space and time. It’s offering pilgrims access to a network of others who understand the gravity of the experience and who can offer support when perhaps those back home cannot, not having experienced the pilgrimage themselves. This is no small fact. The return home particularly can be quite emotionally complex, and having easy access to a support network can be extremely helpful for those navigating the transition home.

The other side of the coin, the one that has drawn the most attention from scholars and lay pilgrims alike, is what technology may be taking away from the pilgrim experience and the pilgrimage itself. There can be no doubt that the Camino is changing, both as a result of modern technology and as a result of the increasing numbers. There is a clear delineation between the sacred nature of pilgrimage and the profane nature of modernity and commercialism, and this almost intuitive delineation is what is causing such distress among those who see pilgrimage as a sacred act. Many pilgrims complain about the commercialism of the Camino, particularly in the post-Sarria stretch. But the truth is, the merchants have always gone where the people are. This was true in medieval times as it is today. Yet, there is an observable distinction between the merchant selling pendants outside the cathedral and posters advertising an albergue stapled to every passing tree. Despite the qualitative distinction, commercialism is still commercialism. The concept of making money off of a sacred experience is uncomfortable and challenges us spiritually, rightly so.

There is also much to be said about technology as distraction. In our daily lives as well as on Camino, our devices are distracting, pulling us away from the immediacy of our experiences and separating us from those in our immediate presence. For an experience as rich as pilgrimage, that distraction can be quite troubling.

We have a lot of reflecting to do on this, as individuals and collectively. Many pilgrims lament the numbers we are seeing on the Camino today, yet we speculate how wonderful the world would be if there were more pilgrims in it. We have much to reconcile within ourselves.

With colleagues at the University of Oklahoma 2017 spring commencement ceremonies.

Q: Have you detected any common personality traits among those who are interested in pilgrimage?

A: I think those who are drawn to pilgrimage are driven toward something “more.” They see life as more than merely the passage of time, but as something to actively pursue. There is a kind of bravery associated with taking on the hero’s journey, jumping off into the unknown (although there is no doubt that technology is significantly diminishing that unknown.) Time spent on pilgrimage forces you to spend time with yourself, away from the demands of everyday life, and it offers no escape from yourself, at least as long as technological access is still mostly limited to cafes and bars (I believe strongly that we will cross a threshold when Internet access is inevitably available everywhere, all the time.) But, for the time being, I would argue that while each pilgrim is unique, there are common yearnings that drive each of us, and it’s perhaps the yearning that is universal, if not a particular personality trait.

Q: Is there any evidence that technology use during pilgrimage detracts from the experience?

A: In many ways, that is impossible to answer, because our experience is our experience. It’s the only one we know, so to speculate on what might have been can become a bit of a fool’s errand. With that said, most pilgrims I spoke with recognized that their online engagement was not without consequence. They realized that time spent blogging or scrolling through Facebook was time not spent talking with other pilgrims, exploring villages, or chatting with locals. Importantly, time spent online is also time not spent simply thinking, being alone with one’s thoughts. When going through an experience as emotionally and spiritually intense as pilgrimage, offering oneself time to contemplate and process the lessons, thoughts, and emotions of that experience is essential. And there is no question that access to our distracting devices offers a barrier to that reflective time.

“Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?”

Q: What would you classify as the most significant findings of your research?

A: I think among the most interesting findings are the dialectical tension between our desire for the conveniences of modern technology and our sense that something is being lost as a result of it. One of the clearest demonstrations of this occurred at the 2016 American Pilgrims on Camino Annual Gathering. During one session, representatives from Santiago de Compostela came forth to discuss the many investments that were being made on the CF and in Santiago, including replacing the waymarkers, opening a new pilgrim’s office in Santiago, and “putting wi-fi everywhere.” To be clear, this measure was taken in response to pilgrim demand-pilgrims want the convenience of wi-fi access, even as we lament its problems. The next representative from the Confraternity of Saint James made an announcement about a new albergue opening on the Camino Norte. At the end of her announcement she proclaimed, “There will be NO wi-fi in the albergue. That’s not what the Camino is about.” Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?

Q: So from a practical standpoint, someone asks you if they should remain “connected” or disconnect during pilgrimage. How do you answer?

A: This is such a personal decision, and it is not a small one. I find that many people felt that they remained too connected during their journey. The use of our devices has become so reflexive — we do it without even thinking about it. We engage our devices when there is a lull. We’ve become uncomfortable with the mere absence of engagement. To be sure, choosing to disconnect while on pilgrimage requires intentionality and commitment. One pilgrim said to me, “When you’re dealing with addiction, moderation does not work.” And we are addicted to our devices. I believe this is why so many people found themselves regretting the amount of time they spent on and with their devices, because moderation simply did not work. Yet for safety and practicality’s sake, I would not necessarily recommend leaving one’s devices at home. I know pilgrims who did this and for them, being totally disconnected added a layer to their pilgrim experience. However, I also met pilgrims for whom access to their devices provided a level of security or enabled them to take the trip at all. Each pilgrim must make up their own minds about how and if they will engage their devices. The key is to remain committed to the role they wish their technology to play. If it is only for emergencies, then don’t make exceptions. Otherwise the rock will begin to roll downhill and it will gain momentum.

Q: Did your research investigate multiple pilgrimage routes, or primarily the Camino de Santiago? And if more than one route, are findings consistent?

A: For this project, I focused solely on the Camino de Santiago. However, there is evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is in no way unique to this pilgrimage. One out of every three modern travelers is a pilgrim, and technology is undoubtedly affecting pilgrim travel across the board. If you Google “selfies at the Hajj” or “technology and the Kumbh Mela,” you will find that pilgrims across faith traditions are grappling with the profane influence of modernity in their sacred spaces.

Q: Does your research tell us anything about common perceptions or misperceptions regarding pilgrimage?

A: Interestingly, for all those who conducted research prior to the Camino, in an effort to minimize uncertainty and gain a sense of preparedness, most laughingly said that nothing can truly prepare you for the Camino. Yes, you can read up on footwear and footcare and you can study maps and learn how to properly use trekking poles, all of which are valuable, but there will always be unexpected challenges and obstacles, and at some point, you will have to lean on your own fortitude rather than your research. And that is the point of liberation, isn’t it? When we realize that everything we need to move forward is already in us, we don’t have to rely on cell phones or wi-fi or others. We have everything we need all the time.

Q: For many there is a period of societal re-adjustment following pilgrimage. What does your research tell us about this?

A: This is one area in which I see a significant benefit of modern communication technologies. Many pilgrims experience what’s come to be known as “The Camino Blues” after returning home from the pilgrimage. This is largely because recounting what is in many ways an ineffable experience is challenging, and while many people are interested in hearing about the journey, their interest wanes after a while, leaving many pilgrims feeling isolated as they struggle to make sense of the many lessons and experiences that the Camino offered. Today, pilgrims have much greater access to others who can more easily relate to the challenges of re-entry, and anyone with an Internet connection has instantaneous access to pilgrims around the world who can help them sort through some of those feelings as they emotionally and spiritually unpack. Forums such as Ivar’s Forum, CAMIGAS, and the American Pilgrims on Camino forum on Facebook are offering pilgrims greater access to support networks than ever before, and the expansion of local APOC chapters is enabling pilgrims to connect with fellow pilgrims in their own communities as well. All of this has been made possible (or at least made easier) by communication technologies.

Q: It’s a broad question, but did you encounter any common ways the pilgrimage experience effects things like beliefs, values, morals or other qualities that guide us through life?

A: I think the Camino provides many useful tools and lessons for life. The pilgrimage is merely a metaphor for our life journeys, right? We move ever-forward toward the inevitable end, facing many joys, challenges, and heartbreaks along the way. Our bodies slowly deteriorate. We find comfort and support in the beautiful souls who intersect our path (and some who challenge it.) Some walk with us for only a short time, and others become permanently imprinted on the journey.

I think the pilgrimage demonstrates to us our own fortitude. It shows us that we are capable of things we never imagined. It teaches us the value of a kind gesture, of service to others, of laughter, and of pain. I have been fortunate to have been in many classrooms in my life, both literal and figurative, but perhaps never one so prevailing as the Camino.

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Brien Crothers: Not Average. No Way.

 

(Blogger’s Note: Brien Crothers of Hidden Valley Lake, CA and I “met” online a few years ago because of mutual interest in the Way of St. James. Just last year we missed one another at the end by only one day.  But Brien is much more than your average Camino pilgrim … he’s an extreme athlete with dozens of achievements to his credit around the globe. In November, he’ll tackle the world-famous Marathon des Sables, 155 miles across the deserts of Peru. I asked Brien a few questions as he prepares for this incredible event. Brien has written a book on the Camino de Santiago titled Su Camino…  and you can follow his adventures on his blog at grandpasgoneagain.com)

 

Q: What prompted your interest in outdoor activities like hiking, walking, and running?

A: Growing up in a very small rural community on the north coast of California, in a time when we were encouraged to get outside and play, I knew every kid on my street. Hiking, exploring, fishing, building forts and creating our own toys were how we filled our free time. Also, my father and his four brothers grew up on a ranch where we, as I got older, would get together, usually to trek around in the hills hunting deer. It was great passion for them, less so for me, but I enjoyed and came to respect the outdoors. After our daughter was grown and my career brought better finances, running and cycling put me back in the outdoors.

Q: It seems you’re even more drawn to distance events in extreme conditions. Why not just take an easy walk in the park? Why the extreme?

A: There are two answers to that, I suppose: In my late thirties, I was introduced to a group of people who ran marathons, ultramarathons, and did extreme events like Eco Challenge and serious mountain climbing. For whatever reason, I found myself drawn to the extreme stuff. Now, I jokingly say that I am not a fast enough runner (with a 3:52 marathon personal best), so I do the longer events so my slow pace doesn’t show so badly. Second, and more accurately I think I just don’t want to be average. To look at me in a crowd, I’m average, white, and forgettable. I don’t want to be average.

Checking gear and preparing for a 155-mile desert run in Morocco.

Q: List for me the extreme or ultra events you’ve participated in.

A: California 1995 Mt Whitney climb*
Several summits of Mt Shasta*
Washington 1996 Mt Rainier climb
Kenya & Tanzania 1998 Mt. Kilimanjaro climb
Peru 2000 Inca trail and Machu Picchu trip*
Viet Nam 2002 Raid Gauloise ten-day adventure (multi-sport) race
Nepal & Tibet 2005 Everest advanced base camp hike, north face of Everest
Russia 2007 Mt. Elbrus climb
South Africa 2010 Cape Epic 440-mile eight-stage mountain bike race
Argentina 2003/4 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
2009 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
2015 Aconcagua expedition (unsuccessful attempt to summit)
(Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere.)
Morocco 2014 Marathon des Sables 155-mile six-stage foot race
Spain 2015 Camino de Santiago via Camino Frances*
2016 Camino de Santiago on Via de la Plata*
Have completed over forty marathon and ultramarathons, including Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, 3 times (WSER is considered the premier 100-mile trail run in the world).

* = Not terribly extreme, but fun

 

Q: What are the unique challenges in the upcoming Peru event?

A: The unique challenge of such events is why the organizer has created the race where it is and containing what it does. For Peru and the Ica desert, it’s all about sand and distance. There’s also the route. You can pick just about anywhere for a race and take an easy route or a difficult route. Race officials always find the tough stuff. The required course will direct runners over mountain passes and through vast sand dunes rather than through a valley, for example. To top it off, there’s the 50-mile stage that runs well into the night hours.

Q. Discuss both the physical and mental preparation techniques you use.

A: Physical: Run, eat right, rest, run again. I use a progressive training program. One that builds up mileage requirements over four weeks then is reduced, only to build to a higher weekly mileage in the next wave. This schedule has me running 100 miles per week by the first weeks of November. Mental: I’ve never had much trouble here. I know I’m not likely to win a race, having done so only once (it was a small field), so I go out with a pace I should be able to handle and then adjust up or down as the race unfolds. I have a competitive nature, and use that to push myself harder when I can; I see a runner ahead and start tracking them down.

Q: Speaking of mental and physical, what are the unique challenges you encounter in events like this?

A: Finishing such events is all about managing resources and staying healthy as a result. One must manage water, as it is rationed out at checkpoints; manage to repair, or have repaired, blisters and any other injuries before they become serious, race ending; manage input and output, meaning eat your daily allotment on schedule, and run as hard as your conditioning will allow. It’s all about making it to that last mile and putting out that last bit of stored energy before the finish line.

Q: In what ways does the benefit from these experiences carry over into your every-day life?

A: I’ve come to understand that when we push ourselves beyond normal comfort zones [perceived] hassles of everyday life just don’t seem like a big deal. Our capitalistic society is built on a trance of scarcity, one of lack, and a sense of not being worthy, not pretty enough, not perfect. That’s all bollocks, and we (well, I) need to be reminded of that reality, of my own wisdom.

Q: One thing we share is our experiences along the Camino de Santiago. What are your feelings about the Camino?

A: Wow, that’s a big one. I’m not religious, but something called to me when first introduced to the Camino. On one level the Camino is physical, challenging. On another, it’s adventurous and outside normal life, outside that comfort zone. But, the real reason I have enjoyed every kilometer of the two Caminos I have completed is spiritual. I feel as if I am walking in a peacefulness and calmness that I believe to be the combined traces of energy fields left behind by all those that have taken that path before me, for their cause, in common cause, to find ourselves, to find or be with God.

Q: I’ve always said that everyone knows what it’s like to be tired, but very few know the sensation of complete physical/mental depletion. Would you agree, and can you describe that?

A: I certainly agree that most of us won’t actually dig down to complete depletion. In our modern society we just don’t ever have to go there. Sometimes, when I have been in that state of complete exhaustion but still moving forward, I have experienced some freaky hallucinations. Those occurrences have been like what I might imagine it to be when experiencing hallucinogenic drugs. I have marveled at and enjoyed those experiences, enough so that I look forward to them, but not enough to take the lazy approach.

Q: Not everyone is cut out to be an extreme athlete. What words of encouragement would you have for people who just wish they were in better shape and would like to make some lifestyle changes for the better?

A: It takes some serious self-evaluation to know what your own goals might be. I am driven by accomplishment. The best advice I can give is just get out there and walk. I know a lot of people who haven’t walked more than a few blocks in decades. I don’t get that, but to each their own. For those who do ask me, I’ll ask, what do you want from your question? (I’ve not met anyone ready to do what I do.) Nearly all have said they just want to be healthier. There is nothing easier than walking your way to better health. Start with a city block, then a half-mile, working your way up to whatever works for you and have enough time for. This is very important: do what you can make time for. The key is, consistency. I train six days a week. Five is good. Three is okay. For most people, working up to and walking three miles, three times per week will bring a level of healthiness they haven’t felt in years.

 

BONUS QUESTION: In the days/weeks following an event like this do you experience a certain emptiness or depression because the lack of intensity and anticipation in your life is temporarily gone?

A: Yes. I always enjoy the reduced urgency to be out there for hours at a time, but I also feel that something is missing, there’s a hole in my day. The best thing for me at that moment is to find the next event. Even if it’s months away, I have something to sink my teeth into.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your interest in these events?

A: Yes. For several years now, I have been involved at the local level in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life. The Relay For Life campaign is one of the most successful fundraisers in America. And, the advisers and students at my alma mater, Middletown High, are the absolute best. Also, staying on the school track and running as much as 100 miles in 24 hours has encouraged others to get involved, to be healthy, to understand the benefits of pushing beyond perceived limits, or at least question their own self-imposed limits. For the Marathon Des Sables Peru, I have partnered up with our local Rotary club (my wife, Kathey, is president-elect of that club) in a campaign called “Polio’s Last Mile” to raise funds for Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign—to finally eradicate polio from our world.

From a recent article in local papers: “Rotary International has been instrumental in collective efforts around the world to put an end to the dreaded disease that once crippled 35,000 children a year, in the US alone. The Rotary Club of Middletown has long been active in raising funds toward that end.” Year to date, there have been nine reported cases worldwide.

Rotary International and the Gates Foundation with a two-for-one fund match are making a big push this year, because “We are this close.” #poilioslastmile

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Chapter 14 Excerpt: The Meseta – A Long Walk Across Nothing

 

“There is something else I am after out here in the wild. I am searching for an even more elusive prey … something that can only be found through the help of the wilderness. I am looking for my heart.” – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart

If the Pyrenees are where you test your body, and if Galicia is where you test your resolve, the Meseta is where you test your spirit on the Way of St. James. The mask comes off and you look yourself squarely in the mirror along the Meseta. You are completely exposed here both physically and emotionally. There’s nowhere to hide.

Beginning of the Meseta, just west of Castrojeriz.

The Meseta is to the Camino what miles ten through twenty are to the ancient marathon. It’s not as exciting as the beginning, or as dramatic as the end, but it’s there, and it must be done.

This geographic expanse is one, big, wide-open space. It’s the home of the Old Roman Road used 2000 years ago for transporting gold across the heart of the empire. Everything about it sounds so deceivingly romantic.

I cursed the Old Roman Road on a day that seemed it would never end. You don’t realize the importance of reference points until you’re in a place completely without them. It’s a place much more defined by the skyscape than the landscape. There’s an occasional tree every few miles, and the openness of the region means you bear the brunt of searing sun, howling wind, or whatever element Mother Nature offers up that day.

The Meseta is where you understand that your mind isn’t quite set up to comprehend the enormity of distance. If it did, few of us would ever set out on such expeditions. Your mind just doesn’t compute what your feet or your soul will experience across 500 miles. It escapes imagination. Every day, you get out of bed, and you just keep walking.

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Chapter 16: Becoming Tim (excerpt)

“My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” ~ Sheila Walsh

 

Seventeen years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomena of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society has moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.

A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work shows that, while the number of people who bowled during the last twenty years has increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues has decreased. They were bowling alone.

Carried further, his data show dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us—Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care have evolved to fenced-in burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with panicked anxiety when the doorbell rings. We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnoses, where we are less healthy, less happy.

Simply stated, Putnam’s book addresses the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand this in an acute way.

***

It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank God I’m becoming more like Tim.

***

Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among the family herds. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in Leon’s iconic Parador Plaza. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, the antithesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other setting. That’s the very lesson Heinrich shared with me three weeks back in Pamplona.

Visiting with Tim in the Parador Plaza in Leon.

I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim had come to Spain to heal from the unexpected loss of his wife, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so soon about the loss.

A self-described Alaska couch potato who’s always enjoyed watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before—the equivalent of a full marathon—when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked him why he’d come so far.

Right away, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife, who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground, and drowned in a six-inch puddle. Instantly, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.

“She loved long walks. This is for her. She would have enjoyed every step,” he said.

The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz de Ferro, the place where, for a millennium, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.

I understand better as time goes on: Pain doesn’t have to be private. We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might help someone else. One of my goals is that, each day, I become a little more like Tim.

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Chapter 25: Proving Ground – I Could Have Just Walked to Pensacola

It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

“At every stage of life, it’s important to be a rookie at something.” ~ Unknown

 

My youngest daughter, Sophie, (right) with two of her friends on a recent Spring Break trip to near Pensacola.

With only days remaining to the end, it occurred to me I’d jumped through a lot of logistical hoops and come an awfully long way just for a long walk.

For more than twenty years, a favorite annual vacation spot has been the sugar-white sandy beaches near Pensacola, Florida. It’s 501 miles from my front door in Jonesboro, Arkansas to the condo where we always stay. I wondered whether walking those miles would have created the same experience as those produced on the Camino. It would have been an experience, indeed. But not the same.

Just as the fixed nature of the North Star has guided voyagers for years, we all need static points of reference to recall who we are, and find where we’re going. It seems those reference points come most clearly to those go away for a time and think purposely about them. This purpose lies at the heart of pilgrimage. It’s what Eugene Peterson referred to in his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. History is filled with examples of people who used an intentional escape to find their deepest identities.

John Muir went away for months before finding his calling to advocacy for a national park system. Henry David Thoreau secluded himself in a remote cabin in the woods for more than two years to write and “live deliberately.” Jesus spent forty days in the desert in preparation for a ministry that took the gospel message to the ends of the earth. In fact, so much of the gospel’s foundational message can be reduced to two words.

Come and go.

When you’re away and alone, it paves the way for so many things that normally elude us. My senses, both physical and spiritual, come to life when I go out and far away.

A favorite sunset photo from Puerto Cayo.

The modest home we maintain in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador is as much a missional outpost for my wife and me as anything. It’s there where we have an especially unique opportunity to give and share. But just as important are the uncommon learning experiences we enjoy in a far-away place. Everything’s different—language, the weather, customs, transportation, even a lack of certain things we believe, back home, are necessities. It’s also a place where we’ve felt alone at times. As a result, many of our experiences there serve as reference points for a broader, deeper, more far-reaching life.

When I experience certain difficulties, I think back to moments in Latin America—those when we’ve been completely lost, without access to what we think of as the basics, and become dependent on God and one another to make it to the next day. And when I think back to those moments, I remember what sustains us.

In the height of my depression, I’d call my mom at random times through the day. I’m not sure why, but I suppose she was the most familiar thing I had—the one person who’d always had my back. When I’d lament hopelessly about circumstances and the inability to see ahead, she’d often say something I hated acutely every single time she said it. “Son, you’ve forgotten who you are.”

It’s not broken toilets, flat tires, the impending cost of a new roof, or even some ominous medical diagnosis that’s our biggest battle. The most challenging conflict we face every single day is the one we have with self. Some days it’s packed with guilt, regret, shame, and feelings of unworthiness. Other days are more about pride or arrogance. The most difficult days I have, by far, are those when I lose my sense of worth in the fog of depression.

Everything I knew about the Camino told me it was the right place at the right time to take stock of my own integrity. And how, as well, to think through going about what was now most important to me, summed up succinctly in the Gospel of John: He must increase, but I must decrease.

For me, the Camino de Santiago was a Proving Ground, where I rediscovered and reclaimed God’s calling on my life as a storyteller.

SIDETRAIL
Go Away

As he entered the early days of literary success in 2000, novelist John Grisham served as the spring commencement speaker at Arkansas State University, where I worked for six years. I was assigned as Grisham’s “body man,” mostly responsible for getting him safely into and out of town.

Grisham, who grew up just twenty miles from the ASU campus, offered graduates a message that raised eyebrows, and still holds the record as the shortest commencement address (seven minutes) in university history. In a loose paraphrase, he said this:

“Get out of here. Go away. Plant yourself somewhere else for a while. This is home, and it’s always been home, and it’s a good place, but it’s a place to which you can always return. You need to go out, and you need to experience the world. Leave.”

It was bold, and the last thing everyone in the room expected to hear. When it was over I remember looking at parents’ dumbfounded faces across the building. They didn’t know whether to applaud or throw things.

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The WHY Behind the WHAT

A couple of things happened over the weekend reinforcing my belief that Pilgrim Strong has a relevant message for the times.
Chasing the Great American Eclipse, Dana and I enjoyed some quality time with fellow pilgrims, in, and around, Kansas City, MO. During this time a few people asked about my book’s message.
Explaining it’s not the typical “camino” book, I shared with them my personal desire to understand not only WHAT I believed as core truth, but WHY I believed it.
Some people asked immediately, “Why is the WHAT not enough? Why can’t we just know WHAT we believe?”
After an exhausting trip home through horrendous traffic and two days of flooding storms, Dana and I just wanted to relax Tuesday night, and we turned to a Netflix documentary I’d saved several weeks ago about self-help guru Tony Robbins. Interestingly, the documentary is titled, “I’m Not Your Guru.”
It’s a fascinating film featuring a behind-the-scenes look at Robbins’ week-long annual event called Date With Destiny.  In it, Robbins gets up close and very personal with participants who pay $5,000 a head in hope of life-changing revelation.
Watching, I was reminded of these lines in the Pilgrim Strong afterword:
“It’s in the best interest of some of the world’s most prominent public figures that you buy into their truth.
What in the world are we to do? As the apostle Peter begged … Lord, to whom shall we go?
Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be as subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along. This much is true: whether you’re running for public office, or selling books, or preaching a sermon, or organizing and leading groups you may do it either of two ways—appeal to the worst in people, or speak to the best in them. Both methods work, but count the cost.
For all the years leading up to my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, I knew what I believed. But the what was no longer enough. I needed the why in the equation.”
Let me just reinforce a quick line from that text: “Without anchor points and a truth that has a fixed North Star quality, we’ll be a subject to alter our idea of the truth as often as the next convincing guru comes along.”
Never has it been more important to understand deep, down inside ourselves WHY we believe WHAT we believe.