Going on a pilgrimage

Mr Krol walking along a gravel road that runs strait to a flat horizon
Henry Krol, a member of Church of the Redeemer in Toronto, hikes the Camino de Santiago in May 2019. Mr. Krol will be co-leading a group to the Camino in September.
 on April 1, 2022
Courtesy of Henry Krol

Church group plans ‘deeply hopeful journey’

Whether from the confines of COVID-19, the ashes of grief or depression, or simply the occasional aridity of ordinariness, pilgrimage beckons. The open road calls. The Spirit draws people out of their armchairs and off their couches. She sets their feet upon the good earth and says “go.” Magnetically, irresistibly, She has been calling followers of Jesus and people of good will across the world and across the ages to step onto the Camino and walk the Way, inviting them to make a journey unlike one they have ever made: to travel by foot (or horseback or bicycle) for hundreds of kilometres to visit the tomb of one of the first apostles and friends of Jesus, St. James, the Son of Zebedee. James – who was sent out as we are sent out and so who made long journeys for the sake of the gospel.

Pilgrimage has always been an important part of the religious experience of humans and of the Christian life. However, like other expressions and disciplines of our faith experience, it has its seasons, its ebbs and flows of popularity and practice. Since the 1980s, both the Camino and pilgrimage in general have been experiencing a renaissance – until March 2020! Yet, as our horizons have narrowed, the idea of pilgrimage has taken on new urgency and even broader appeal. Our present context has not only sharpened the desire to make a pilgrimage, it has also paradoxically – and perhaps serendipitously – been an experience of the very vulnerability that is the lot of the pilgrim on the road. As we have had to sit and shelter at home, our walking shoes languishing on the doormat, our spirits have been untethered and thrown into the great and unfamiliar Unknown of a world discombobulated by pandemic. Unintentionally, and perhaps against our wills, we have all become pilgrims these past two years.

Cathedral in the evening sun
The Cathedral of Santiago, Spain, the end of the pilgrim route.

Dictionaries define a pilgrim as a person who makes a journey to a holy place for a religious reason. While that’s true, it’s a bit flat and non-descriptive. I like to think of a pilgrim as a person of daring, one who says “yes” to the divine call to leave their workaday life for an extended period of time, to venture forth into the great and wild Unknown towards a holy place; one who does so for some deep spiritual purpose not quite understood, but accepting that it will involve surprise, revelation and transformation. Richard Niebuhr once said that “pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.” And, I believe, one of the things they create or re-create is their very own self, and in so doing also the world in which they live and breathe and have their being.

Each pilgrim walks for a different reason. Each person has a different Camino. For some, a pilgrimage is a process of deep discernment, listening for God’s voice speaking to their questions of who they are, where to go or what to do next. For some, a pilgrimage is a process of healing a wound or a lifetime of wounds, mourning a loss, learning forgiveness, finding or recovering a sense of belonging. For some, it’s a commitment to Creation and to the fight against the planet’s degradation, as each step they take in slow time, each vista they enjoy without the barrier of windows or walls connects them more and more to the Earth and all her creatures. And then for some it’s a long rosary of thanksgiving and gratitude for a life of blessing. Whatever it is, the common element and driving force for every pilgrimage – whether conscious or just dimly known – is a desire to be with God. To live in the words of the Godspell song, seeing God more clearly, loving Her more dearly, following Him more nearly. Because pilgrimage awakens God’s Spirit within us in a way that almost nothing else does.

Pilgrimage may beckon for a long time before the first physical step is taken.  This is so for the Church of the Redeemer community, which has been talking and thinking about walking the Camino for a long time. We are now contemplating the idea of doing just that, but also of exploring the lens of pilgrimage for our life in Christ in all of its fullness and varied expressions. The work is being guided by a small group that has named itself the Becoming Pilgrims Committee. It was struck last year, after Mervyn Chin, a parishioner, asked our incumbent, the Rev. Canon Steven Mackison, if the community could walk the Camino together. Knowing that I am passionate about the subject, Steven then asked me to lead it. I agreed in a heartbeat. I then asked a second parishioner, Henry Krol, to co-lead it with me. He agreed in a heartbeat. Mervyn, Henry and I have all been pilgrims on the Camino and so have experienced something of the holy mystery and transforming power of pilgrimage. Not to mention the joy and fun.

Word of the venture got out and the Becoming Pilgrims Committee was formed. It comprises Henry, Tony Crosbie, Joan Robinson, Lee Shouldice (also a Camino veteran, along with his wife Carol Ritter) and me. And now after some initial planning, a group of 30 or so parishioners are contemplating walking a portion of the Camino Frances for a week and a half in September of this year. Many others are contemplating making pilgrimages more locally in the city and the GTA; and still others are hoping to become pilgrims in other, less concrete ways by exploring and cultivating a pilgrim spirituality in their lives.

There is much to do before September! But we are in this together and are connecting internally with other committees and groups within and beyond our parish family to make it happen. We will piggyback on the work of our Indigenous Solidarity Working Group to walk a pilgrimage on the U of T campus in June. We are working with the Bishop’s Committee on Creation Care to develop a Redeemer pilgrimage within our own parish boundaries and will commence that project by walking a pilgrimage following the watercourse (buried) of Taddle Creek. We will walk and walk and walk throughout the spring and summer to ensure healthy, strong bodies for the road in Spain. We will learn some Spanish, sharing tapas and sipping Albarino. We will read and talk about pilgrimage, learning how to pray with our feet.

Above all, we will learn how to embrace vulnerability and liminality without fear or resistance – to take, as Steven said a few days ago in his Charge to Vestry, “a deeply hopeful journey together.” That is what pilgrimage is all about. That is what our life in Christ as the Church is all about.


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