Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19

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El Camino

This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for September 15, 2017.

The Camino de Santiago is the well-trod pilgrimage route across the Pyrenees from France to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. I have a few friends who have made that difficult 500 mile trek, as some 100,000 folk do each year. It is an impressive achievement undertaken with a variety of motivations. Some inveterate hikers perceive a worthy challenge, and others undertake the arduous journey to fulfill a vow or to deepen personal spirituality. When I took sabbatical in Spain this past summer, everyone asked if I was planning to walk the Camino.

“Nothing so lofty,” I had to reply. I like to hike, and did so in the Sierra Guadarrama outside of Madrid…but I also felt a need for long visits to the Prado and Madrid’s other signature museums. I had committed to course-work at the Academia Internacionales de Lenguas near Retiro Park, and I wanted to linger too late over dinner at lively Spanish cafes. There is no one way to travel Spain, and I’m drawn to cities as much as to the wilds.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado once wrote: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar…Traveler, there is no road. You make the way by walking.” The signature scallop shell of St. James’ guides the feet of pilgrims along the Camino, but for most of us, the route through life isn’t quite so well-demarcated. There are forks in the path that leave us befuddled as to which route to choose; fog rolls in, obscuring the trail, or we find we’ve gone off-course and are in for a bit of bush-whacking.

Jesus was quite a walker, and so were his disciples. They walked all over Galilee to Judah and over to Jordon, up mountain tops and through harsh deserts. It wasn’t at all clear where they were headed. Urban folk like me can be a bit baffled by so much walking. “Nobody Walks In LA,” sang the group ‘Missing Persons,’ in their hit single, which is pretty much the truth. Trying to keep up with Jesus on the trail is no easy matter: “If any willfully desire to follow me, they must give up their own lives,” the Lord tells Simon Peter.

Does that mean I can’t spend time in the Prado? Are Spanish riojas off the menu? Is the route through the Pyrenees the only way to arrive at Santiago de Compostela? Giving up one’s own life sounds both dour and vague all of a piece.

I don’t think Jesus meant we had to dress like him, replicate his diet, or move to Galilee any more than everyone who visits the Iberian Peninsula is mandated to show up in Galicia. I don’t think he intended us to be dour…he doesn’t seem to have been lacking for humor.
I think Christ meant, as Antonio Machado rhymed, that we should make our way through life with reference to commitments that will move each of us off center-stage. Our lives are not really our own possession, and our lives are not meant to be primarily about us. Any spirituality that tells you anything different is just self-absorption dressed up in a tuxedo. We aren’t the main point, as most ought to discover by late adolescence. We have received the gift of life to press ourselves toward larger purpose. We can’t save our lives, Jesus reminds us; but we can find them.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Houston and its surrounding geography, in the wreckage Hurricane Irma visited upon Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Florida, and following the terrible quake off of Oaxaca, Mexico, we have seen people rise to the moment and put themselves aside in service to the needs of others. None considered themselves heros…nothing so lofty as that. They were just doing what needed to be done. We’ve had a glimpse, in the midst of disaster, of human beings at their best, and human beings are always at their best when they are not first thinking of themselves.

The priority of neighbor-love in Jesus’ teaching has many of us thinking about how we might more effectively advocate with Congress for the Dreamers among us, in peril, not from natural disaster, but from ill-considered public policy. As we make our way in the world, we can stare down only at our own feet, or we can take care for fellow-travelers, and especially for the young, and for those poorly shod who could use supportive companions along the way.

September is upon us and summer vacations have concluded. It may be years before I linger again over coffee on a Spanish terrace. September finds us back on ordinary macadam, and the urban macadam forks as often as the dirt paths along The Camino. September offers opportunity to recalibrate our spiritual GPS, reaffirming that we are most certainly fulfilling our best purpose when we are the least self-obsessed, and when we have found our lives by losing them for others along the way.