By Denise Utter
Vibrant Faith Coaching Team
I get a little restless at the first signs of spring. I want to hike. I want to plan a road trip. I want to take a drive, windows down, music blaring. And I start lengthening my walks. My goal for April is 100 miles. Walking is a simple practice that can also be a spiritual one. Philosophers, authors, and theologians have all had something to say about walking. Hippocrates said walking is man’s best medicine. Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” John Muir—author, naturalist, and mountaineer—said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” I agree with them. Walking renews me. I think I may be most open to God’s voice calling me when I am on a long walk.
This year I am planning a really long walk. I will turn 60 in 2024. I want to do something big to mark the occasion, so I am in the early stages of planning a pilgrimage. I’m not sure if it will be the Camino de Santiagoor, the Via Francigena, or perhaps some portion of one of those two paths, broken into annual journeys over the course of a few years. I am still praying about that.
When I was in Italy last year, I walked part of the Via Francigena (inadvertently) through the Val D’Orcia region of Tuscany. I saw the pilgrim icon on buildings, rocks, and signs along the road. I think that’s where this tug, this calling to make the journey, began. It’s hard to describe what it was like to walk in these places (Sienna, Assisi, Rome) where many Christians have made the journey before me. Dan Horan, author and Franciscan priest, observed this while he was on a pilgrimage a few years ago: “When in the mode of a pilgrim, we are invited to recall all who went before us and all that will come after, for we are united to them in this place and throughout the world.” So much of this describes our Christian journey, recalling St. Augustine’s description of us as pilgrims, temporary residents of this world, on the journey to our eternal home.
As I research this pilgrimage, I’m listening to the stories of other pilgrims. I can’t speak yet to the experience of being on the Camino or the Francigena, but in reflecting on all that I’m learning, I wonder if there aren’t lessons in this for daily life practices. The stages of such a journey seem to model the spiritual life:
I am in the discernment phase of the pilgrimage now. God what are you calling me to? How can I best listen? How can I respond? For me, this means spending time in prayer, sometimes with Scripture, sometimes in quiet, sometimes walking. Discernment is a spiritual practice that helps us surface our callings and discover how we might respond to them, and to the Caller. I know I might do better to remember this in my daily spiritual life.
Pilgrim travelers prepare for the trip mentally, spiritually, and physically. They make their way to some significant, perhaps sacred, spot—sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, but almost always with a sense of community with the others who travel the same route. As I mentally prepare for this journey, I am learning about what I can do, and where I am challenged. I am pushing up against that voice inside that wells up when we try something new, the one that says, “You can’t do this.” I am learning, instead, to depend on that other voice, the one that says nothing is impossible with God. This is part of the spiritual preparation as well. Leaning on faith. Leaning on the lessons of those who have gone before us. Trusting the Holy Spirit to move in each of us.
As I physically prepare, it is more than just adding miles to a walking plan. Sure, I must increase my stamina, but I also need to be ready to travel light. I have to let go of the extra baggage. Any pilgrim knows it just weighs you down. If I depend on having all my “stuff” with me, I may get injured, have to fall back, or even fail to complete the journey. Carrying too much keeps me slow and dependent on that which I don’t really need to make this journey. As I age, I feel this letting go—a kind of unlearning, undoing, unknotting—is most helpful in my spiritual life. Keep it simple. Strip the rest away.
Isn’t this the spirituality of detachment? Shedding old ways, shedding things we do not need, or simply not being so attached to that which may make us a little too comfortable. We are not meant to stay in the same place, spiritually or physically. In Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage, Christian George writes: “Pilgrimage is rooted in the soil of the human soul. This intentional mode of travel has been practiced through the centuries by Christians who are seeking to stretch their faith radically by discovering the God who invites us into sacred and risky intimacy.” If we are to grow spiritually, we must risk. We must be willing to be vulnerable.
After discerning and preparing, it’s time to travel. We put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Whether we’re on a pilgrimage or simply taking a walk in the springtime, the experience of moving forward on a path can be a powerful symbol of personal growth and renewal. On the journey we learn to pay attention. We see things with fresh eyes, renewed hearts. There’s a kind of self-discovery as we move and act in the world. On the path, one must be mindful of their surroundings. That requires us to be truly present in the moment.
Going on a pilgrimage also often involves action and interaction with people from different cultures and backgrounds. It requires open-mindedness, respect, and empathy towards others. I need to take on the posture of listener and learner. In daily life, I can lean into these same qualities by seeking to understand and connect with people who are different from me.
When a pilgrim arrives at the destination there is usually some kind of participation in a ritual. At some sacred places this is a ritual washing, a cleansing before entering the holy site. There are also other rituals, such as prayer, meditation, chanting, or offerings. In our daily lives the same is true. We prepare ourselves to participate in our faith communities, our liturgies, and communal practices. We participate in cleansing and reconciling to one another and to God. We participate in prayer, singing, and feasting.
Finally, there is the practice of reflection. We reflect on the lessons learned, the progress made, and hearts transformed. Our reflection may be silent and individual, or it could be communal, in small group or large, in a retreat-like setting or in an online group. The reflection isn’t a one- and-done process. The reflection continues, beginning even before the journey, on the path, upon arrival at our destination, on the journey back, and even once we’ve arrived home. We go home a new way, like the wisemen leaving the nativity. Once we’ve encountered “God with us” on the road, we are transformed. This is true in our spiritual lives as well. Reflection is necessary. In the practice of the Examen, we reflect on our day. We call to mind our interactions, our choices, where we failed to love, where we loved well. We review this day and look to the next one as an opportunity to be renewed, to start again.
Transformed, we are called to this resurrection path, the Easter life…
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.