Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Talk on Pilgrimage

For the second time this school year, I had the honor of addressing a group of students at the Waring School in Beverly, Massachusetts, at the invitation of their teacher, my friend, Tim Averill. I wrote about the first time in November.

Waring (pictured) is a private, non-sectarian, bilingual (French-English) day school. The students I spoke with were (a) about to take a spring trip to Angers and Mont-St.-Michel in France and (b) reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Tim thought they might like to hear about my experience walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter.

This is what I told them:

Three and a half years ago, in the fall of 2011, my adult daughter invited me to go on a 500-mile pilgrimage with her. On foot. Each of us carrying a 20-pound pack.

My daughter Marian was 23 years old, I was 60.

Marian proposed that we walk across the north of Spain, virtually from one end to the other. For a thousand years Christian pilgrims from all over Europe have done this, in order to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. If they are from outside Spain, they have to cross the Pyrenees, the natural border between Spain and the rest of Europe. So modern pilgrims like Marian and me often start from the Pyrenees and walk the 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela.

Why Santiago de Compostela? Because there, beneath a massive cathedral, lie the remains of Saint James the Apostle. Santiago means St. James in Spanish. Apostle means that James was one of the twelve closest male followers of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know you’re reading The Canterbury Tales, so first of all let’s have a little perspective. Chaucer’s pilgrims walked from a borough of London to Canterbury Cathedral, about 65 miles, taking them no more than a week. As you know from reading The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s pilgrims had the same kind of destination as pilgrims do on the Camino de Santiago, as the path through Spain is called: a cathedral that holds the remains, the dead body, of another holy Christian person. In the case of Canterbury, this is not an Apostle but what the Catholic Church calls a saint, Thomas Becket.

My daughter Marian was proposing that she and I walk nearly eight times as far as Chaucer’s pilgrims, taking not one week but five weeks to do it, walking every day, an average of 14 miles a day, with those same 20-pound packs on our backs.


Now you might be surprised that my daughter would invite her old man to spend five weeks with her like that. Think of some place you’d really really like to go—a music festival? the home of a famous person you admire and would like to meet? maybe even a religious site like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Would you want to walk there with your father or mother or favorite grandparent? While they huffed and puffed under 20-pound packs? No, if you invited an older person at all, you’d probably drive or fly.

Many of Marian’s friends were surprised that she asked me to do this with her—“You’re what? Walking across Spain with your dad? But why?”

I had spent quite a bit of time traveling with my own father in the years before he died, though all of our trips were in the USA: cross-country by train, Civil War battlefields, and so on.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by Marian’s invitation to me and proud of her answer to friends who asked why she was doing this with her dad. Her answer was, Why not?

Her friends didn’t know the back-story.


I had become a Catholic in 2008 and Marian did the same in 2010. I personally am deeply interested in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church. In fact, this is one of the things that drew me to it, its broad and deep traditions. When I was nineteen and first traveled through Europe for seven months I realized how much of European culture was originally Catholic culture.

When I became a Catholic myself, I wanted to learn everything about this cultural history. So when I heard about the Camino de Santiago, I thought, I want to do that.

I am a long-distance walker. That’s my favorite form of exercise. I walk to Gloucester from Beverly and take the train home. I walk round-trip to Ipswich. In May I’m going to be taking another 400-mile walk, which I’ll tell you about later.

Why couldn’t I walk across Spain? It just made sense.

But I was frustrated by my work schedule, I am a freelance writer, and for some time I couldn’t walk the Camino because other things came up. Then Marian became frustrated with her work, quit her first big job out of college, called me up and said she was planning to spend time off traveling in Asia and Europe.

And then she said words I’ll never forget. She said, “Dad, I’ve always loved the stories you tell about the trips you took with Granddad before he died, and—it’s not that I think you’re going to die or anything, but—I was wondering—if I came back through Europe next spring, would you consider—?”

“Yes,” I said, “I would”—before she completed the thought. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew what she was going to ask.

“Dad, listen, would you consider walking the Camino de Santiago with me?”

“Yes, I said I would. Yes, I will. When do we begin?”

We began on May 14, 2012.


Walking the Camino de Santiago with my adult daughter was a transformative experience in my life. I know that it changed Marian’s life as well.

I strongly suggest that you consider walking the Camino—or something like it—with a beloved parent or grandparent before you settle into adult life and become too busy to do anything as crazy as that.

Of course, I fully expect you to ignore my advice, because I expect that like most people, like me too, you’re going to be too caught up in your own world and your own ambitions and desires to drop everything, especially for a parent or grandparent, so I’ll give you another piece of advice.

Thirty or forty years from now, if you’re lucky enough to have your grown child ask you to spend five weeks traveling with him or her—do it, drop everything, follow them.

You will never regret it.

That was my first lesson from the Camino de Santiago: If your adult child asks you to spend five weeks with her, say yes. Do not hesitate even a single moment. Then thank her from the bottom of your heart.

Everyone could do with a little pilgrimage.

You don’t have to be a Catholic or Christian to go on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages occur in all major religious traditions, to begin with. Every adult male Muslim, who is healthy enough and has the financial wherewithal, is obliged to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his life.

Parallels exist for Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. So Christians do not have a monopoly on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is for all of us.

What is a pilgrimage exactly?

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus, but I have studied Christian pilgrimage quite extensively, and I can tell you that in the middle ages, the peak period for Christian pilgrimage, when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, pilgrimage meant something very specific:

It meant journeying, usually on foot, though not necessarily, to a place where a holy person was buried.

Christian pilgrims made their journeys for at least three reasons, for faith, for a miracle, and for penance:

1. for faith, that is, to honor their own faith, represented by the person buried at the pilgrimage site;
2. for a miracle, because they believed that miracles happened when you were in the presence of the remains, or relics, of such a holy person; and
3. for penance. As Catholic Christians they believed that while their sins were forgiven in confession, they could avoid any penance or punishment assigned to them for those sins by going on a pilgrimage.

Now I know you’re all about to visit France and the amazing Mont-St.-Michel, which I visited with my wife and two daughter. Like the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Mont-St.-Michel has been designated a national treasure. It welcomes more than a million visitors a year.

But in the middle ages, like Santiago, it was a pilgrimage site, visited by many for faith, for miracles, and for penance.

As you may know, the first church on Mont-St.-Michel was brought into being in the 8th century—1300 years ago—by a fellow named Aubert of Avranche.

In the year 708 Aubert supposedly had a vision in which the Archangel Michael instructed him to build a chapel there. Aubert did not pay attention. But St. Michael appeared to him again, this time driving his finger into Aubert's skull and ordering him to complete the task.

After three visits, Aubert finally built a grotto—a chapel in a cave. Then he sent two priests to Italy to search for relics, the remains of someone holy to sanctify the grotto. Well, whose remains do you suppose they brought back?

They returned to what is now Mont-St.-Michel with a scrap of red cloth said to have been left by the Archangel Michael on the altar of an Italian church. They also carried with them a fragment of a marble on which St Michael was said to have stood and in which you supposedly could see his footprint.

Thus the chapel was not only inspired by an angel but contained physical evidence of his presence on earth. Such evidence was common at pilgrimage sites, though it usually came from human beings not archangels.

Pilgrims to Mont-St.-Michel came for miracles and they also came for penance. According to this book on the history of medieval pilgrimage, a man who had battered his mother to death was sent by his bishop from his home in Sens, southeast of Paris, on three penitential pilgrimages (you batter your mother, you need to do a lot of walking). Two of these pilgrimages were to Mont-St-Michel (250 miles away from home) and one was to Rome (nearly two thousand miles round-trip).

Pilgrims were so convinced by Mont-St.-Michel that by the 11th century some were gathering rocks from the seashore and taking them home with them. Some of these rocks were used to consecrate churches, that is, to make them holy.


Now most of the fellow pilgrims Marian and I met on the Camino de Santiago were not openly religious. And when I asked people, as I asked many, why they were walking to Santiago de Compostela, no one said, I’m walking the Camino because of my faith or because I expect a miracle or because I want to do penance.

Instead they said things like:

—My life has come to a turning point and I need time to reflect; or,
—I’ve just been through a divorce and I’ve kind of lost my way; or,
—I want to go back to school but I’m not sure I should; or,
—My mother just died and I am grieving.

Most of our fellow pilgrims were looking for something, some answer, some direction in their lives. They didn’t express this search in Christian or religious terms, usually. They didn’t say they were looking for Jesus or for God or for faith.

Still, they expected that somehow, by some force or inexplicable chemistry or what Christians call grace—this ancient pilgrimage route across Spain would help them in some way.


Honestly, it was the same for me. I am a Catholic and I observe my faith conscientiously, but I didn’t walk the Camino for any of the traditional reasons.

—I don’t believe, frankly, that the body buried beneath the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, which body was reportedly discovered in the ninth century, is necessarily the body of St. James (long story).
—I had no disease requiring a miracle cure.
— I wasn’t looking for forgiveness exactly though I had some things on my mind, some baggage I was carrying, you might say, in addition to my 20-pound pack.

I didn’t walk to Santiago de Compostela for any of the traditional reasons. Fact is, I walked because my daughter asked me to walk and because my heart said yes.

And it changed me. I think that’s partly because of

Sometimes you just have to stop. And walking can help you stop.

I took a sabbatical from work to walk the Camino. I left my home, my habits, my church, my friends, even my wife, Marian’s mother, who stayed in Beverly. Everything I knew, everything with which I was familiar, everything that made me comfortable—left behind.

I cut myself off while walking the Camino. I didn’t call home. I didn’t check Facebook or Twitter. Roaming charges were way too high in Spain. Everything real and virtual about my ordinary daily life came to a halt.

All I did was walk. And walk. And walk. Marian and I walked together. We walked and sometimes we talked.


We talked about everything, from religion to movies, from local food movements to Shakespeare tragedies. One day, as I noted in my journal, we segued from the year of three popes (1978) to “South Park” to the films of M. Night Shyamalan, a sort of random father-daughter riff that has no explanation.

When she was tired of talking but still wanted to express herself, Marian would sing or dance sometimes.

One morning out of the blue she said, "Sometimes, Dad, don't you just want to like—” and then she began humming the song "Tradition" from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" and broke into a shimmy like the Jewish father Tevye, extending her arms and shaking her shoulders, stomping and striding in time with the music.

She pulled out her iPod and played the song aloud and sang along: “The fathers! Tra-di-tion! The daughters! Tra-di-tion!"

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye is the father of five daughters in rapidly changing times, and he says that tradition is what tells us what to do and who we are and what God expects of us. Without tradition, he says, we are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.

I think “Tradition” is a good theme song for the Camino de Santiago and for the whole theme of pilgrimage.

But we didn’t talk or sing or dance all the time of the Camino. Or even most of the time. A lot of the time we just walked, in silence, putting one foot in front of the other.

Stopping your life, dropping your habits, walking a pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago can put you in front of yourself in a way that your daily existence—with its numbing habits and countless distractions, real and virtual—cannot.


I met many striking people on the Camino de Santiago, but perhaps the most remarkable was a Belgian man named André. Seventy years old, André was walking the Camino for the third time. He had been a Catholic all his life, but before he walked the Camino the first time, he didn’t believe in life after death, or what Christians call the Resurrection. His first Camino changed that.

Now, on his third Camino, André was walking for five friends, all of whom were sick at home with cancer or other serious diseases. André prayed for them as he walked.

André was a wise man and with his long experience of the Camino I listened closely when he said to me:

“The Camino will change you. You just have to empty yourself.”

Walking day after day, alongside my daughter, often in silence, emptied me all by itself.

And as the song from another musical, “Carousel,” says, on the Camino de Santiago, “You’ll never walk alone.”

That’s because of

It’s not about you.

The Camino is very well maintained and there is very little graffiti to be seen. In fact, I noted only three bits of graffiti in five weeks of walking. Two of them said the same thing.

The first was, It’s not about you.

The second piece of graffiti was in Spanish: El egoismo hace que viajes solo. Marian, fluent in Spanish, translated for me:

Selfishness leaves a person traveling alone.

The Camino shatters your solitude and selfishness. That’s because so many people walk it. In the twelfth century at its peak, the route from London to Canterbury saw more than 100,000 pilgrims per year; and Chaucer describes a large group of pilgrims walking together and interacting.

The Camino de Santiago sees as many as 200,000 pilgrims per year. And if you’re walking in the warm months, April through September, it is virtually impossible to walk alone.

You can wrap yourself in silence, eyes down, ears turned off. But raise your head for only a moment, look ahead and behind you, and you are likely to see several small groups in each direction. Inevitably, some groups and solitary pilgrims will catch up with you or you will catch up with them. Inevitably, you will walk side by side, breaking into conversation with these strangers, sometimes in spite of yourself. These strangers soon become friends, because you are all engaged in this strange act called a pilgrimage, as others have been for more than a thousand years.

All along the Camino, at each café, albergue, and refuge, you are thrown in with other people. These encounters may be fleeting, but they can be quite deep and fast acting.

These meetiongs with strangers are what made the Camino for me. I loved each of my fellow travelers, even the annoying ones. In five weeks, I got to know more than one hundred people—well enough to recognize them upon seeing them again and to pick up our conversation where we left off.

After our arrival in Santiago de Compostela on Father’s Day 2012, Marian and I ran into dozens of these friends. For each, we already knew a name, a nationality, an occupation, and something personal: a reason for traveling, a favorite song, a private joke we had shared together.

None of these reunions in Santiago was planned. Just all of a sudden there we were together again—embracing in the archway leading to the square, kissing on both cheeks French-fashion in front of the cathedral, and exulting together, “We made it! We did this thing!”

The friends I encountered again in Santiago de Compostela after five weeks were so precious to me that I entered their names in my journal in chronological order of meeting. They were:

Ana from Portugal, Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, Antonio from south of Léon, Vivianne and her future mother-in-law from Québec City, Caro from Rhode Island, Fabian and blonde Sara from Germany (there was a dark-haired Sarah too), Sukhee from Korea and Tom from Florida, Gary from San Francisco and Greg from Portland, Christian from Lausanne, Joan Bosco and Alfonso from Brazil, André and Hubert from Belgium, Mike and Bernadette from Perth, Simon and Sam from Northumberland, the Anglican priest Father Lucas and his wife Meredith from Colorado, Pietro from Italy, Dr. Wendy from Texas, Lucille and Constant from Paris, and Brook from Halifax.

The French Catholic writer Charles Péguy said that when we get to heaven St. Peter is going to ask just one question: “Where are the others?”

I understood this when I arrived in Santiago. I had arrived at the end of a long journey, like the journey of my whole life, in the company of friends.

Effectively, we had brought each other to heaven.


I want to share one more lesson of the Camino de Santiago with you, and tell you briefly about my next pilgrimage, and then you can ask questions, and if you have no questions, I promise I can talk for hours more.

Tradition is real. And we need it.

When you are walking the Camino de Santiago, you are walking not only with thousands of other living human beings. You are also literally walking in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before you—men, women, and children alive on this earth since the first pilgrimage to Santiago more than a thousand years ago.

This may give you a sense of being connected to human history, to tradition, in a palpable physical way.

You can have the same kind of experience when you visit Angers and go inside the chateau or stand in front of the cathedral, as you are going to do very soon. The cathedral in Angers was in fact another medieval pilgrimage site, and as you may learn it contains a special relic of its own: a vial of blood from an entire Roman legion of more than 6000 soldiers who were said to have been martyred (killed, executed) in the third century when they converted to Christianity and refused to worship the Roman emperor Maximian.

Whether you believe that or not, the fact remains that you will be standing where millions have stood before you, and your eyes will be seeing the same things they saw.

Of course, that’s truer in Europe than it is in America. In Europe many of the buildings date to the first millennium after Christ. Our oldest buildings in the USA are less than four hundred years old.

As a Catholic I am proud of my church’s 2000 years of history and all the cultural gifts it has given us. The Camino de Santiago is one of those gifts, and whether you walk it as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist, for that matter, there’s one fact you can’t escape. Like the cathedral in Angers and Mont-St.-Michel, it would not exist except for Jesus Christ and those who followed him.

Each of my fellow pilgrims, whether they knew it or liked it or not, was walking with me toward a Catholic holy site. That made me happy. MONTREAL

So happy in fact, that in May this year, less than three months from now, I am making another pilgrimage.

On May 1, which the Catholic Church observes as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, I am going to begin walking from my home in Beverly to Montreal, 400 miles alone.

I am doing it because I took the confirmation name of Joseph when I was received into the Catholic Church; because I love St. Joseph, who is a model for all fathers and workers, like me; and because in Montreal there stands the largest shrine to St. Joseph in the world, known as the Oratory of St. Joseph.

I hope to arrive there on or about June 7. I’m hoping my wife will pick me up and bring me home.

So you see—you may not believe everything I believe—you may be right in thinking pilgrimages and some of the things about them are superstitions or not scientifically verifiable.

But I am here to testify that today in the 21st century, it’s still possible to be a pilgrim, and that you’re looking at one of them.


I want to thank Tim Averill for inviting me to speak to you, all of you for listening, and my daughter Marian for getting it all started.

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