Skip to main content

Pilgrims and Tourists

We're thinking of going back to Spain and walking the Camino Santiago again. This time we'll take the Northern Route, through Bilbao, so it will be a different path but some people nevertheless seem a little nonplussed at the idea. "I thought you had already done that," they say. "Why don't you go to South America instead? Or Latvia?"

It's hard to explain the addictive pull of the Path of Miracles to people who haven't themselves set off  on a crisp Spanish morning wearing a scallop shell on their back. But it's not about the scenery, beautiful though it is, and it's certainly not about adding a list of been-to places to my collection of useless possessions. A pilgrim is not a tourist. When I travel as a tourist, I travel under my own terms. I arrive and stay briefly in some strange place, sleep in places that the local people would never use, eat food which is either exactly what I might eat at home, or a garish parody of local cuisine, visit structures and museums and monuments seldom frequented by locals, and travel about the place by modes of transport they would never deign to use. There is one ritual practiced universally by all tourists: standing in front of the pretty and/or famous bits taking bad photos of each other, and I have my own collection of these snaps. For all this I pay at tourist rates: ie far in excess of what local people might pay if they did something similar. Most significantly, as a tourist I travel something like a diver in a bathysphere, taking my own little insulating bubble of culture with me and viewing the "foreign" landscape (usually) at speed and (usually) through glass.

Pilgrimage is undertaken not to see the sights or to broaden one's experience. It is conducted at 6 kph and with full tactile engagement with the earth and the elements. The scenery and the local cuisine may indeed be wonderful but that's not the point. When the shell is tied to my pack and I step out onto the senda there is a profound change. I no longer travel under my own terms and in token of that, a new name is given: Peregrino. On The Way my own name fades into insignificance as do all the markers of status I might have accumulated over the years. Age, gender, occupation, income, possessions, religion, nationality, race, education, employment history, sexuality and all those myriad things we use to categorise and stratify each other simply disappear. On the track I am one person amongst several hundred others walking towards the great goal, all of us equal, none of us privileged. I form strong bonds across the barriers which might, in my ordinary life, have prevented them. The bonds of community form quickly and just as quickly are let drop.

Early in the walk I learn to surrender whatever possessions are not absolutely necessary. I learn not to think too far ahead or back, and as the rhythm of days settles, learn to live almost totally in Now. Most of all, I learn to surrender the nonsensical fantasy of my own self sufficiency. I survive on the Camino because of the goodness and generosity of others in building up, over centuries of selfless giving, the infrastructure on which it all depends. Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice because it is an exercise in dying to self. That is, it is not about relinquishing stuff to make God impressed with me, but rather, it is about releasing those things upon which I imagine I depend. In letting go the mirages (security, affection and esteem, power and control)  with which I am ordinarily so enthralled, I see them for what they are and see also where my true identity lies.

It is not for nothing that people call the Camino Santiago The Path of Miracles. As I walk it I am blessed. I am Gobsmacked by God -Godsmacked - on an almost daily basis in matters both small and not so small. I am reduced, but in that reduction something strange happens: several times people would ask me, sometimes with great passion, Rece por mi cuando llegues Santiago - Pray for me when you reach Santiago. There was a sense that the blessing goes both ways. The pilgrim is blessed by walking and blesses in return.

And all of this is a long way around to saying why in three weeks time I will walk and cycle through my diocese. I'm not going to see the sights -after all there aren't many of them I haven't seen already. Although my badge will be a tokotoko staff rather than a shell, I am going to walk as a pilgrimage;  to bless with prayer which is the act of walking and to be blessed by the roads of Otago and Southland which, as much as those of Northern Spain, are also holy ground.


Kate said…
Ah. Lovely.
A little envious, but it's my choice to simplify my life here at home (getting rid of a lot of Stuff) first before I go on my pilgrimage. Lighter.

May you have a wonderful experience Kelvin. You will make it so, I expect.
Merv said…
Rece por mi cuando llegues a Kurow.
Pray for us all on your way - as we will you.

Popular posts from this blog

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared. Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they

Centering Prayer Retreat

    A 3 day taught retreat in the practice of Centering Prayer.   Saturday October 2 2021 - Monday October 4 2021 Centering Prayer is a form of Christian silent contemplative prayer. This retreat is suitable for beginners in silent prayer, or for more experienced practitioners wishing to refresh their practice.  The retreat will be held in the En Hakkore retreat centre in the hills above Waipiata in the Maniototo. There will be daily sessions of silent prayer, instruction and discussion. The venue is spacious and set in an expansive landscape. there will be some time for personal reflection.  The cost is $175 per person which includes 2 nights accommodation and all meals.   Since the beginning, following the example of Jesus, there has been a tradition of silent prayer in the Christian Church. Over the centuries this tradition faded from the popular view and became confined to monasteries. It was kept alive by a largely ignored, but never fading lineage of Christian contemplatives.  


This photo was taken by my daughter Catherine, when I was about 50. I think she did a pretty good job.  The number 70 has a kind of Biblical gravitas. It’s the number of elders appointed by Moses to lead the recalcitrant Israelites, and the number of people who went down to join Joseph, in Egypt. Jesus sent 70 disciples out to minister in his name, and the first Jewish Sanhedrin had 70 blokes in it. And, of course, there is Psalm 90:10:  “ The days of our life are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away ”. All this has some personal import because I turn 70 today, and can no longer fool myself that I am middle aged. I’m old. And before you feed me one of the lines of balderdash that pass for wisdom in our culture - “you’re only as old as you feel”; “70 is the new 50”; “age is just a number” or some other such nonsense, let me tell you that I am happy to be old. Deliriously