Wednesday, May 16, 2012


As I write this meditation, I am listening to a wonderful 2-CD set, The Pilgrimage to Santiago (L’Oiseau-Lyre 433 148-2), including to the song “Non E Gran Causa,” also recorded by Loreena McKennitt (The Mask and the Mirror, on this disk simply titled “Santiago”).  This is “required listening” as I am reflecting on The Way, a movie made jointly by Emilio Estevez and his Father, Martin Sheen.

What is “The Way”?  It seems to me that the title of this movie is a multiplex play on words and meanings.  It clearly refers to the pilgrimage route(s) to the shrine of St James, Santiago de Compostela, on the north coast of Spain.  It also refers to a method:  it is the “way” by which we do things (or things are ‘done’ to us)—it’s the ‘way’ in which things need to or ought to or in fact happen.  It is also an allusion to the earliest name for Christianity (Acts of the Apostles):  the new Way.  Finally, I think there is buried in here an allusion to the famous statement of Jesus (John 14) that He is the “Way, the Truth & the Life.”  If I may paraphrase a bit, the movie suggests that the Way reveals the Truth of one’s Life…

I have done pilgrimages (walking ones) in the past, while a student in England—both in England and in the Holy Land.  Let me assure you that there is nothing more likely than meeting up with unlikely companions!  As a footnote, there were, in the Middle Ages, three major pilgrimage destinations:  Rome, Canterbury (whence Chaucer’s Tales), and Santiago.  For over 1,000 years people have made this pilgrimage (and there are actually several routes one can take from France through Spain to Santiago).
Why make such an arduous trip?  That is the question one might ask of Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), a quasi-depressed lapsed Catholic.  His only son died while setting out on this pilgrimage, and Tom (ostensibly) wants to finish the journey for his son (whose cremated ashes he carries).  He is joined by three other characters:  Joost, an overweight man from the Netherlands who says he wants to lose weight to fit into a suit for his brother’s third (!) wedding; Sarah, a woman from Canada who says she wants to quit smoking; and Jack, an Irish writer with writer’s block.  Not one of them easily (or at all) admits to the others the real reasons for their trek—despite it all, they all have religious reasons.  Should we be surprised?

The writing for the script is sometimes very forced, as for Sarah’s early encounter with Tom, or most of Jack’s effusions.  Beyond that, though, the characters are strong enough to deal with the occasional lapses in their dialogue.  In ways redolent of the personalities and fates of the characters in Brideshead Revisited, they are attractive in strange ways.  I wouldn’t want to be around them all the time, but I would enjoy visiting them from time to time.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one” Tom’s son, Daniel, tells him.  It is clearly a statement intended to evoke the significance of the opening of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven:  “All endings are also beginnings.  We just don’t know it at the time.”  But it’s not that simple, as Peter Brown suggests in his monumental biography Augustine of Hippo:  “Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love” (p 373).  Choosing and living have to go together:  we choose (how, we don’t really know), then we embrace what we have chosen and have joy:  or do not embrace the choice, and experience misery.

And we are also on pilgrimage, even if not to Santiago, or Rome, or Canterbury.  The Church itself, after all, is a “pilgrim people” (see, eg, Lumen Gentium 8, 14 from Vatican Council II).  We are on a journey toward self-realization, self-actualization (not that we achieve this, but that it is our selves—individually and collectively—that seek this transformation).  What would we gratefully lay down at the feet of St James (or St Thomas a Becket, or Ss Peter and Paul), and what would we want to pick up to enable us to continue the journey?  “I come to you with nothing in my hands,” once said one monk to a master.  “Then drop it at once,” the master replied.  Even “nothing” can be something (especially when permeated with pride).  What should we/must we “drop at once”?

Pilgrimages, at their best, can end in this transformation.  Think also of the “pilgrimage” of the mercenary Rodrigo in The Mission, carrying his armour and weapons up the hill to the tribe of Native Americans he’d been in the business of enslaving.  What transformed him, and how might it do the same for us?

This is why, as Chaucer wrote (in the title to this post) that people do, indeed, long to go on pilgrimages.

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