It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Growing up, my father used to say to us kids when we were traveling, “Look out the window. Pay attention to everything you see. Don’t be so eager to get to your destination that you can’t relish the beauty all around you.”
As our annual Lenten journey begins this week on Ash Wednesday, I decided to prepare my heart, mind, and spirit by reading Jane Leach’s book, Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims. Dr. Leach is a British pastor and theologian who is Principal of Wesley House, a Methodist theological college in Cambridge, England. She also introduced leaders in the Iowa Annual Conference to the practice of reflective supervision last year.
Walking the Story is a theological recounting of Leach’s 2005 pilgrimage on the five-hundred-mile El Camino pilgrimage trail from Pied-de-Port in southern France, across the Pyrenees, and stretching across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Since Gary and I walked the Camino in 2019, I felt a nudging to use her book as part of my own Lenten journey this year.
The image I often use for Lent is that of “the Way,” which, as every Camino pilgrim discovers, is a journey that mirrors the life of Christ. The night before Jesus was crucified, he instructed his disciples in John 14:1-6. “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
During Lent, we have an opportunity to walk with Jesus on the Way to Jerusalem and the cross. There are three parts to this journey along the Way. First, the Lenten journey always begins with letting go. On the Camino, the letting go starts before the first step is even taken and lasts for the entire journey. In order to walk with Jesus along the Way, we let go of family, work commitments, and ego. We let go of our cell phone and laptop and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to following Jesus on the Way. We let go of pride, as the Way challenges mind, body, and spirit. And we discover in those first few days that if we do not release some of the cherished possessions in our pack, the physical weight that we carry on our backs will not be sustainable over five hundred miles.
The tangible expression of letting go occurs on Ash Wednesday as we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, along with these words from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” As pilgrims walk step after step after step and day after day after day, we sense that we are breathed into life by the Spirit of God at the same time as we belong to the dust of the earth. The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilis, which can be translated as “humble”, “grounded”, or “from the earth” (humus). Knowing that we belong to the earth, pilgrims embrace their weakness, humanity, and humility as gifts. The essence of Ash Wednesday is found in the “humus” (soil) of the earth as well as in the ashes of repentance. We are breathed into life by the Spirit of God, yet we also belong to the earth. Too often, however, we are weighed down by our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual baggage. I feel the humility in my body as I walk the Way and yearn to let go.
Second, our Lenten journey along the Way includes an acute awareness that we walk with the whole human race. When we engage with Christ, the Pilgrim, the one who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), our focus extends beyond our own humanity to the spiritual needs of our neighbors who also walk on the Way. In fact, in many parts of our world, walking is the only form of transportation. Dr. Leach writes, “Mission becomes our continued pilgrimage with others into the living heart of God who has made all of humanity his Home.”[i]
As we physically walk, mile by mile, day by day through Lent, we become more and more aware that our minds, bodies, and spirits have become one. Dr. Leach cites James Nelson, who said, “If we do not know the gospel in our body, we do not know the gospel. We either experience God’s presence in our bodies or not at all.”[ii]
As every pilgrim will attest, we become community on the Camino, and strangers soon become friends. Everyday walkers encounter people who are suffering from blisters, hunger, and all kinds of aches and pains, and they are always ready to help. At the same time, we wrestle with our own private demons that threaten our faith by saying, “You are not worthy. You are not able. Why did you ever think you could do this?”
Those who travel the Camino give up whatever status, education, or power they may have in order to journey the Way together and show hospitality to one another. At the end of the first and most difficult day of hiking, pilgrims cross over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain and spend the night in Roncesvalles, whose monastery demonstrates centuries of unbroken hospitality. What a blessing to see a statue of a weary pilgrim with this 13th-century poem:
The gate is open to everyone: To the sick and to the well,
Not only to Catholics But also to unbelievers,
To Jews, heretics And vagabonds as well.[iii]
Third, when Camino walkers arrive at the Church of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrim masses are held twice a day, we discover that the end of the 500-mile Lenten journey is also a new beginning. Seeing the gigantic swinging botafumeiro send incense across the cathedral and embracing the centuries-old tradition of hugging the statue of St. James remind us that the journey is not over. Rather, the pilgrimage is meant to open doors to new life in Christ. Having been strangers ourselves on the Way, we vow to embody our life’s journey with new commitments to care for the least, the last, and the lost.
Our world desperately needs pilgrims whose primary focus is embodying the grace of Jesus Christ. Our world needs those who journey by taking up their cross, following Jesus, and inviting others to follow. And our world needs those who see our common humanity rather than our differences and respond with compassion and grace.
How will you be spiritually formed during this season of Lent? What disciplines will you practice along the Way? Fasting? Seeking reconciliation with someone who has harmed you? Intentional Scripture reading? Tithing? Reaching out to one of your elderly neighbors? Leading a small group for Lent? However you do so, you walk along the Way of Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, you called your first disciples to follow you, and they left their father and their nets in the boat and went after you. Whether we are called to set out in faith or practice a deeper faithfulness at home, give us grace to leave behind what we do not need, courage to persevere when the way is tough and unrewarding, and find us faithful companions along the way. Amen.[iv]
[i] Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims, Jane Leach, Inspire, Peterborough, England, 2007, p. 65.
[ii] Ibid, p. 36.
[iii] Ibid, p. 82.
[iv] Ibid, p. 19.