Friday night, I went to a talk and poetry reading by David Whyte. I’ve been on a few retreats with this deep thinker, listened to many of his talks on CD and read all of his books and always come away both challenged and affirmed. This talk centered on the theme of his new poetry book, Pilgrim, and he spoke a lot about various friends and family members who had walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I also know several who have done it, both Spaniards and Americans, and it’s interesting to talk to both groups about it as the meanings are quite different for each. And quite different for those who initially did it centuries ago.
The idea of pilgrimage is, of course, both universal and ancient. The Muslims going to Mecca, the Hindus going to bathe in the rivers of the Ganges, the Buddhists going to the Bo Tree at Bodhgaya, the Catholics going to Rome— or Santiago de Compestela. These just some of the sacred sites purported to have a concentrated energy and spiritual history and the assumption that any devout follower needs to set aside the business and busyness of daily life to make the pilgrimage and complete their responsibility to the divine has been a large part of human history. And usually entailed difficulty and arduous conditions that tested one’s commitment. One such site I visited in Bogota, Colombia was traditionally visited by pilgrims who took the trip walking on their knees! Nowadays, they came walking or driving and do the last couple of hundred yards on their knees.
Probably with kneepads. Let’s face it, we moderns are wimps!
The idea of pilgrimage has carried over to all the weird things we worship in modern life. Rock fans going to see the King at Graceland, pleasure-seekers saving for the trip to Las Vegas or Disneyland, money-worshippers coming to bow at the altar of Wall Street. It’s a natural urge to hold in your imagination the sites that speak your passion a bit louder than others and to affirm your devotion by making the trip. I must confess I felt a bit like this the first time I heard live jazz in the Village Vanguard and sat there imagining Monk and Miles and Coltrane and Bill Evans on that same stage, all concerts I heard from my record collection.
I attended the David Whyte talk with my old friend Sofia from Spain. She was less than pleased that the Camino trip had become just another hip, trendy thing to do by people who knew little or cared little for its deep religious roots. Though Mr. Whyte told stories of some sense of genuine transformation by those he knew who had done it, the danger is always the trivialization of the profound, the coming to it with different motives and mindsets. I felt this reading Bill Bryson’s book on walking the Appalachian Trail, another kind of pilgrimage. He reported that the people he met were less modern day Thoreau’s leisurely noticing the bounties and mysteries of the natural world, “falling in love with shrub oaks,” and more marathon walkers with pedometers tracking and comparing their mileage each day. Pilgrim nerds, if you will.
Whyte evoked an excerpt from Antonio Machado’s fine poem:
“Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más.
Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.
Al andar, se hace camino.”
Roughly translated as “Traveler, your footprints are the path and nothing else. There is no way. We make the way as we walk.”
So the outside pilgrimage indeed can be important and transformative, but the real deal is the pilgrimage we take everyday as we walk. Every step I take from the music room to the school kitchen and back is an affirmation of the divine nature of my work. Those daily footsteps over forty years have carved my Way and represent my commitment to a work that unveils spiritual promise. As Mary Oliver says, “You don’t have to walk on your knees… you just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” If we carry the pilgrims’ heart with us in each step we take, we can save the plane fare to Spain.