Camino de Santiago Inspires Self-Discovery: Pilgrimage focuses on journey not goal

What is the purpose of pilgrimage? What does going on a pilgrimage tell us about our own lives? And what might the experience of pilgrimage tell us about Jesus and the Gospel of John?

These are the questions Marty Stortz, Christenson Chair of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg College, addressed in her talk “Footprints in the Gospel of John: Pilgrimage and the Body’s Knowing” on April 29 in Dittmann Center 305. The event was sponsored by religion professor and O.C. and Patricia Boldt Chair in the Humanities John Barbour as part of his three year focus on travel and cultural criticism.

The talk focused on Stortz’s experience walking the Camino de Santiago, translated as the Way of St. James, a centuries-old pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, and the way religious pilgrimage helps her understand the meaning of the Gospel of John.

“Jesus puts to words the homelessness in a pilgrim’s heart,” Stortz said, quoting verse Matthew 8:20: “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Using that quote and other examples of Jesus’ language of journeying and wandering “Follow me”; “I am the way”, Stortz argued that Jesus is portrayed as a pilgrim. “Is it surprising, then, that the disciples followed suit?” she asked.

Stortz defined pilgrimage as “a journey to a sacred center that involves intentional dislocation, for the purposes of transformation, that invites the body to mentor the soul.”

Pointing out that many of the world’s major religions recommend pilgrimage as an important spiritual practice, Stortz said pilgrimage is a metaphor for life, the arc from cradle to grave. For that reason, she argued, there is much to learn from the experience of pilgrimage about how to live our lives.

Her journey began, however, not in Spain, but in Tanzania. After her husband died of brain cancer, Stortz set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of friends. While some climbers tend to fixate on reaching the summit, Stortz said she prefered to think of the climb itself as the main point of the journey.

“I realized that we weren’t reaching the top of this peak unless it wanted us there.” Stortz said. “It was pilgrimage, not conquest. We had to find a rhythm of walking, or a pace, no matter how slow, that allowed steady forward motion, without stopping and starting over and over. We had to be steady. This seemed to me a great metaphor for the spiritual life.”

Stortz and her friends did reach the summit, and after returning to the U.S. she quickly found herself searching for another journey to embark on. She and one of her friends decided to walk as much of the Camino Frances, the most heavily traveled route to Santiago de Compostela, as they could in three weeks.

What she learned during those three weeks was that in the end, you have to walk your own camino.

“By the end of the second week, I realized that I’d been walking the author of my guidebook’s camino and not my own,” Stortz said. Many popular guidebooks map out the camino into sections that pilgrims, in theory, can walk in a single day. But Stortz said she realized she was focusing on getting to the end of each section and not on the act of walking itself.

“I realized that I had to find my own pace. I reverted back to the rhythm I learned on Kilimanjaro.”

And in the end, she said, the pilgrimage was more about the journey than it was about the goal.

“We had run into the sacred so much on the path to Santiago that when we made it there, it was almost a let-down,” she said.

But how does this relate to the Gospel of John?

“John relates a journey without a guidebook,” Stortz said. “Jesus simply issues an invitation, ‘Follow me,’ and discipleship appears to be simply a matter of keeping this guy in front of you. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Ultimately, Stortz said, what makes pilgrimage so important is that it “makes the body the vehicle for transformation.”

“Pilgrimage lets the body mind the soul, so to speak,” Stortz said. “In the ancient world, people thought that the soul had to be in charge of the body. But pilgrimage flips that relationship. We learned a lot from our feet on the Camino. It forces you back to the basics.”

Stortz left the audience with a challenge to live as if life were a pilgrimage in the form of a quote by a medieval mystic named Hugh of St. Victor: “He who loves his own country best is yet a beginner; he who loves all countries as if they were his own has advanced far; but he is perfect for whom the whole world is as if it were a foreign country.”