I know a man from England who hoisted a backpack over his shoulders in March, kissed his wife good-bye, clicked the front door behind him, and started walking. We met in May over coffee in Spain, and he’d been on foot all that time, except for a little help getting across the Channel. He taught me some things about being a pilgrim.
At that point I didn’t know why I had come to Spain to walk 500 miles, though I’d been there about three weeks and already clocked a good chunk of the journey. I was up each day before the sun, snapping pictures of churches and the landscape, writing in my journal every afternoon as my clothes dried on the line. The guide books had helped me limit what I strapped onto my back—just 17 pounds, including water and a sleeping bag—but nothing prepared me for how my body would feel, somehow bone tired and rested at once, or the cumulative effect of all that time alone, or this stranger.
Intimacy comes fast on the Camino, if you welcome it. We’d spent about 20 minutes together, mostly waiting in line for the bathroom, when he asked, “What are you carrying with you?” I knew he wasn’t talking about the contents of my backpack, so I waited with my café con leche for a beat or two before answering. “My mom and dad died in the last 18 months,” I told him, “one because her body gave out and the other from loneliness, I imagine. And in both cases, 12 hours after the funeral, I was back at work. I think I’ve got some emotions to untangle, some grief to attend to, some memories I’ve been avoiding. What are you carrying?” He told me about his job and his marriage, the man he’d become compared to the one he aspired to be. “Nobody’s died,” he said, “but I’m grieving too.”
The folks you travel with on the Way (the English translation of Camino) are largely chosen for you, based on the pace of your walking and the length of your stride. My English companion was considerably taller and older than I, so though our hearts were in sync for an hour, our walking didn’t match. We lost touch an hour after we met, but for the next few days he helped me face the burdens I’d brought with me, a sack of hurts I discovered I had the courage to unpack.
Last week I traveled with 13 other pilgrims from Redeemer to Costa Rica, eleven teenagers and two adults. We crisscrossed a mountain on a zip line in a rain forest, bungee jumped, and climbed a hill to discover a graffiti-covered ruin. We fed folks on the street with a local church, cleaned up a city park, and made sure a group of local children made it safely into and out of a crashing surf. But my pilgrimage started three days in when we confronted some ways that the trust had been broken between us through some hurtful words. We sat in a painful circle together, inching our way toward healing. It was hard, and it hurt, and there is undoubtedly more work to be done, but we showed up to each other and listened as well as we could and no one ran away. We modeled community. “We’re in this together,” somebody said in one of our conversations, and that simple truth is what I carry with me from the trip. When one of us is wounded, all of us are diminished, and healing comes through an honest personal inventory, the courage to talk and listen, and then making amends.
What are you carrying with you? What do you have the courage to discover and sort out? What cross do you need to shoulder? And what burden are you able to put down?