Arthur Paul Boers is an associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. He is the author of several books on prayer. His most recent book is The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (Baker Books, 2007). After reading it, Jeannette suggested that our readers might enjoy this conversation as much as she knew she would.
Jeannette Bakke: Arthur, in The Way Is Made by Walking, you describe walking 500 miles “to go to church.” What made you decide to undertake the ancient pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain?
APB: In 2000, I visited Taizé, Iona, and the Northumbrian Community. As I traveled, I read about pilgrimages and about the Camino de Santiago. It was the third most important pilgrimage route in medieval times, and I learned that it was becoming popular again. After I came home, I found out that somebody I know had walked it, and I read his book. I wondered, “Why would anybody do that?”
Then I read a newspaper article about middle-aged women walking the 500-mile-long Bruce Trail in Ontario. I’d lived most of my life near this trail and decided to walk on it, a day here and there as I was able. I soon discovered it was reorienting me. I was seeing things differently—time moved more slowly when I walked. Days would stretch out. The scenery surprised me. I was stunned by how beautiful it was. Then I noticed that what happened to me was very similar to what happens when I go on retreat. As I walked, I started to recognize where life was off balance. I was reminded of my priorities and made resolutions to live according to them. I became convinced that long-distance walking was a spiritual discipline. Remembering the Christian tradition of pilgrimages, I quickly decided to go to Santiago. And within a couple of years, I did.
JB: That’s a long stretch from walking for a day or two to walking 500 miles. What attracts people to choose the hardships involved in walking 500 miles?
APB: Less and less in our culture do we find practices that engage us totally—mind, body, soul, emotions. Pilgrimage is a practice where that happens. I think that is deeply attractive.
JB: For the first ten days you walked with your wife, while the last twenty-one days you walked alone. What was it like to walk alone?
APB: When I walked by myself, there was more freedom. I could sing or pray out loud. I spent time reviewing my life. I had prayer lists and Scriptures. It worked well to have a balance of some time with people and some time alone. I’m an introvert. But there was more solitude than even I needed. I was always ready to engage with people, to exercise hospitality and be the beneficiary of others’ hospitality.
JB: If you could divide your pilgrimage experience into chapters, what titles might you choose?
APB: Well, the first would be preparation, followed by a chapter on the transition from regular life into pilgrimage. Here I would address physical challenges, engaging other people, things you see about yourself—including struggles, temptations, and shadows. There would be a chapter about God’s providence along the Camino and in life. There would also be a chapter about figuring out what God was inviting me to address. One clear theme was that I work too hard. Also, how we live in a culture that is not hospitable to listening to others and how important that is. There would also have to be a chapter on the joy of making it to the end, and then one on returning home and reengaging with daily life.
JB: In your book you describe some of the pilgrims you encountered and their reasons for walking the Camino. What was most significant for you about those encounters?
APB: I’d heard beforehand that not everybody walked the Camino for Christian or even religious reasons. It struck me forcefully that I live in a kind of Christian world. I work at a seminary. I’ve been a pastor. I’ve never really had to pay attention to people who are not Christian or not interested in being Christian. When you’re on pilgrimage, you deal with whoever is in front of you. You help each other, share food, rest together along the way. I came to trust that God was arranging whom I talked to. I ended up spending hours with people from all around the world who thought very differently from me. People who didn’t know each other very well talked about things that were important—memories, values, priorities, struggles, quandaries.
There was one particular situation where I realized God was at work. I stayed in a hostel where there were ten of us in a room, including a couple from Germany. I knew their names, but that was all. The next day I got up early and walked until about noon. I signed into a hostel. After a nap I decided to look around the city. A few blocks from where I was staying, I saw this German couple at a table outside a café. After chatting for a few minutes, he told me he wasn’t a Christian but that he was carrying a Bible. He began to talk with me about the Sermon on the Mount. He described himself as spiritual but not religious. I realized that I often write off such people as lazy, individualistic, or not grappling seriously enough with issues. But suddenly I saw that these people had a deep yearning for God, and the traditions of the church had simply not worked for them. But they had not given up; they were still searching. We ate together and talked all evening. All those other conversations I had with “spiritual, but not religious” people suddenly came back to me. It was clear that God was saying, “Pay attention to these folks, not just Marcus and Susanna, but people like them.”
JB: That does seem like an invitation.
APB: Yes. And one of the reasons I’m happy about this book is that it’s being read beyond the church—the book is literally fulfilling that call from God.
JB: What would you say about the walking itself?
APB: I didn’t know what to expect, so I gave myself six or seven weeks. In fact, I did it in thirty-one days. Every once in a while I started speeding up, and then I got into trouble. I did better in that regard when my wife, Lorna, was with me. Two people usually walk more slowly than one.
When Lorna left, I couldn’t imagine the weeks without her. The day she left, I ended up at a hostel where nobody was friendly. Everybody was in groups, and nobody seemed willing to include me. I thought, “Who needs this?” I resolved I would walk faster to make things go more quickly. Within a few days blisters landed me in the hospital, forcing me to slow down. Toward the end I started picking up speed again. I hated when people passed me. I developed tendinitis and walked very, very slowly and in pain for the last four days. Then I saw lots of people pass me all day long, and I realized it was okay and that things would work out, and I didn’t need to worry.
JB: Would you call your injuries an interruption or a necessary part of the journey?
APB: They were definitely an integral part. It was so striking, because here I was on this spiritual pilgrimage communing with God, walking on this path trod by the cloud of witnesses ahead of me, and making the same old mistakes that I make in my daily life at home. Which is exactly what it’s about, right?
JB: Exactly! We see the same person in the mirror. When you walked, did you watch your feet a lot, or did you notice the surroundings?
APB: I remember listening to my feet and to the feet of other pilgrims. I liked that sound. Mostly, I celebrated my feet. I marveled that my feet and legs could do this day after day. I paid a lot more attention to my feet than I ever had in my life. I noticed how often feet come up in scriptures.
I loved looking around, whether it was woods or fields or mountains or sky. Sometimes I could see the trail stretching miles ahead toward the horizon, and I’d think, “Am I crazy enough to try to walk this?” I’d remember Psalms 116:9, “I will walk in the presence of the Lord.” I prayed and sang the Doxology and the Lord’s Prayer. I had a strong sense of heaven and earth being connected.
JB: What a gift. What kinds of expectations did you have when you were preparing?
APB: I didn’t know what God was going to give me. I’m a J (Judging) on the Myers-Briggs. If I assign myself something to do, I’ve got to do it. One of the hardest things about my going to the hospital with blisters was being afraid the nurse was going to say I wasn’t fit for walking the Camino and I should give up.
JB: What surprised you?
APB: I think one of the things was that my body could do this. I’ve never seen myself as an athlete. It surprised me that 500 miles isn’t as long as you would think.
JB: Did anything surprise you about how God was with you or didn’t seem to be with you?
APB: I was amazed how many synchronicities happened along the Camino. Who knows what to make of them? Over the years I’ve grown reluctant to ask God for small favors. But here, I really felt like God was actively tossing me bouquets along the way, and I appreciated it.
JB: So God was in the details—by God’s choosing. Is there anything you would call the heart of the pilgrimage experience?
APB: I would probably say that walking the Camino paralleled my life journey. I did a prayerful review. I had lots of time to replay scenes, think about crises, remember significant people, and revisit disappointments or losses. I did this intensely every day. I had a strong sense that God had been at work in my life. That God is a God of providence. This did not diminish the hard things that happened. There have been a lot of deaths in our family. I’ve had some pretty spectacular failures. It wasn’t a simplistic or naïve revisiting. There was a deep, undergirding sense that God had been present and was caring for me. That was vividly experienced on the Camino—God was speaking to me through the surroundings, through people, and within my heart. The Camino was a place of some hardship and struggles, but there was this strong sense that God was at work. It was very reassuring and encouraged me again to be a person of trust as I reentered regular life with all its challenges—to remember that God is at work, to trust God.
JB: I hear you saying that God was showing you that everything had meaning.
APB: There is this quote from Meister Eckhart: “Whatever happens to you is the best possible thing for your salvation.” I believe that. The Camino itself, and how the Camino helped me read my life, reechoed that theme.
JB: Were there things that became life changing, or were you reminded of things that you know but tend to forget?
APB: Both. I get too busy. I heard the theme of God’s being at work and my being grateful to God and trusting God. My experiences caused me to pay attention to those who are seeking spiritually. I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. They wanted to talk about faith, spirituality, God, meaning, purpose. They were hungry for this. They would complain to me if churches were locked or if churches charged money as if they were museums. Lots of pilgrims would go to every single service that was offered, though they didn’t consider themselves Christians. It made me wonder how the church can walk with these people—on the Camino, but also within our culture.
I think we could make more of churchgoing as pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a purposeful movement toward God or the things of God with the hope of being transformed by God. That ought to describe what could happen when we go to church. Prepare to go to church, and as you come away, do so slowly. Try to take in what God was saying to you on that occasion, rather than church simply being one more thing in a busy schedule.
- Do people comment about changes they see in you?
APB: The main thing that I hear is that I’m a lot more interested in visiting with people now—having meals together and relaxed conversations. Being an introvert means I have to work at it, and it’s tiring. Once in a while I’ll remind myself, “This is a Camino moment. It’s worth doing.”
JB: Have you noticed anybody changing his or her behavior because of your pilgrimage?
APB: Some people have decided to walk the Camino. I know people who are influenced by the chapter on focal living, which is probably my favorite part of the book.
JB: What is focal living?
APB: Focal living is a phrase I derived from the work of Albert Borgmann. He’s a philosopher of technology at the University of Montana, who is interested in how technology shapes us: our characters, lives, communities, churches, neighborhoods, cities, and country. He is concerned that we are being formed in ways to which we are not paying attention. He says that the disturbing thing about our culture is the way we use technology to displace focal things and focal practices. We bring technology into the center of life, and crucial things get pushed out. For example: A family buys a television set. After supper the discussion is not, “Shall we go for a walk? Visit the neighbors? Invite somebody over? Sit on the porch? Have a conversation? Play cards? Paint? Read? Play musical instruments?” Life gets collapsed into, “What shall we watch on TV?”
Borgmann says that focal reality has three kinds of qualities. The first quality is commanding presence. This is something that demands discipline, sacrifice, or effort. When I hike, I have the effort of walking, engaging the terrain, and weather. The second quality is that there are deep and meaningful connections. My kids are musicians. When they play an instrument, they are connected with whoever wrote the music, with whoever taught them music, and whoever made the musical instrument. They are connected with the people who listen to them and with their parents, who made them take lessons. There are connections in all kinds of directions. Music is a focal practice. The third quality of focal reality is that it has centering or orienting power that helps us recognize our true priorities. When I hiked, I saw where my life had gotten off course, and I got clearer about getting on course.
More and more our lives do not have focal practices at the center of them. I believe this is part of what’s driving the interest in spirituality. We have this sense that our lives are hectic. We are not living according to our priorities. This awakens a longing in people that I don’t hear the church addressing. The church tends to buy into the drivenness of our culture.
JB: What are your hopes for your readers?
APB: I think it would have to do with my emphasis on focal living—to make deliberate choices to live in different ways. It doesn’t mean it’s easy or that society is going to make it happen conveniently. But it is worth pursuing.
JB: I realize that while you have been describing pilgrimage, you have also been speaking about everyday life. As you say, the way is made by walking—walking with God, one step at a time.