On the Great Good Way

I’ve been a pilgrim for the past two weeks in Portugal and Spain – and that place of prophetic miracle, Fatima – on the via Portuguesa. The Devil likes to play his little tricks when something good is about to happen. So before our Camino even started, the airline lost my luggage – with most of my walking gear and all my formal wear – in Rome, where I was covering the recent consistory. (The bag re-appeared at my home a few days ago, the night before I returned – infernal mockery.) One of our group discovered an expired passport right before departure, miraculously replaced in time by the interventions of several canny Catholics. But on pilgrimage, you commit yourself to dealing with whatever arises for the sake of the ultimate goal. Under the Mercy, we did.

I intended to write en route – and appreciate the messages from those of you worried over my absence. But writing about a pilgrimage – especially for someone whose everyday business is words – is not to be on pilgrimage. Even now, I’m a bit reluctant writing about the experience. Someday I may resurrect my notes here, or save them for – ahem – my Confessions. For now, though, a few reflections.

As I never tire of repeating, the great French writer Charles Péguy, whose death anniversary fell earlier this month, inspired the walking pilgrimage that thousands take annually from Paris to Chartres. He made a vow to the Virgin to make that trek if one of his children recovered from a deadly illness. Péguy says that the whole question of the soul opens on the road.

Don’t think that’s just the kind of thing great writers say. It’s profoundly true. But the pilgrimage requires a pilgrim.

For instance, the soul’s sense of time changes on pilgrimage – something I’ve also noticed when you go on retreat. Nature knows not days of the week. All days “dawn” the same – whatever may happen later. The sun comes up. Trees and plants, birds and other animals do what they do.  On a walking pilgrimage over long rural distances, that gives each day a real sense of timelessness.

Which opens out to other thoughts.

The way we took went through forests and towns, but also cornfields and grapevines. Which, of course, suggest the Bread and Wine to a pilgrim. But in a way far deeper than what I’ve always regarded as the new Mass’s liturgically limp, “which earth has given, and human hands have made.” Really? “Earth” has given?

If a plant could talk – the imagination flourishes on pilgrimages – it might ask a pilgrim: Why all that moving around? (More on this below.) And how do you do without roots and leaves – and chlorophyll? (Plants, being down-to-earth, wouldn’t put this quite so technically). Chlorophyll enables plants to tap directly into the energy of the nearby star we call the sun. And through the sun’s formation, all the way back to the first energies of the Creation.

Reverent plants might be as amazed as we are to learn that things have life only thanks to that energy source – they, directly by sunlight, we by eating them and the animals that eat them.

That’s a better account of Bread and Wine. Even before Transubstantiation.


On pilgrimage, of course, there are also practical, providential, urgent matters. Like weather. At home, you say, “Looks like rain.” And maybe take the umbrella. A pilgrim wakes up and says, “It looks like RAIN!” There are distances between shelters to consider, what the trail will be like underfoot, what gear needs to be near to hand.

On the Way, there are no emergency backups. Only being prepared. It’s just God and the pilgrim, land and sky.

All glorious, of course.

In recent centuries, the Romantic movement has given some people a renewed sense of the glory of wilderness. But like the usual environmentalism, that doesn’t go nearly far enough. Both often stumble off into the blinkered view that man in nature is already divine.

The Bible tells many stories of people – even Jesus Himself – going into “the wilderness.”  But they don’t stay there because that’s just the start. To be fully human, we also have to be on the Way.

One name for the people of God on earth is the Pilgrim Church. Being on pilgrimage is the reality, for all of us, even those who never leave home. Early Christianity was often just called “the Way” (Gk. he hodos), i.e., both the kind of life Christians were to lead and the universal spiritual journey. (Cf. Acts 9:1-2, 19:8-9, 19:23)

In the spiritual life, traditional teachings point the way, as the trail marks do the Way. But the actual pilgrimage is something each person has to make on his own, even when traveling with others. You may set out with various intentions, but – this is the really great thing – God insists on His own intentions for you, both large and small. Even in one group, there are many Ways.

When the road is flat and the weather good, stories start (that’s how The Canterbury Tales gets going) – some just fun, others significant memories. Time passes. Distances grow. The Way and daily life run along, smoothly, together.

Then there are steep ascents – and equally demanding descents. The group alternately splinters and re-forms. Some turn inward to keep going. Others pause to catch breath. Still others develop blisters, sprains, cramps and worse that must be endured somehow. And are, while making physical and spiritual efforts you’d think impossible at home, because you must. And that leave you stronger and more rooted in the universal pilgrimage.

At the start of Purgatorio, some newly-arrived souls ask Dante and Virgil, for directions. The great Roman humbly answers:

                                                            You believe
Perchance that we have knowledge of this place,
But we are pilgrims [peregrin] even as yourselves.

That’s the condition of us all.

Faith is a kind of knowledge, of things hoped for. But also found, on the Way, and finally, when we find ourselves, at home.


*Image: St. James the Pilgrim by Juan de Flandes, 1496-1497 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

You may also enjoy:

Bob Royal’s Walking a High Road

Russell Shaw’s Ignatius and the Moor

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.