The last days have been a whirlwind: finishing a list of 42 projects that all had to be done before I could leave, moving all my things (a few into storage and the rest to Theresa’s place), preaching my final sermon at First Church, enjoying a grand retirement celebration, speaking at a press conference for our new non-profit, the Center for Gun Responsibility, saying goodbye to my now-former roommate, Luke Brown, and preparing my documents, backpack and duffel bag for the big trip to Italy. I leave from Seattle tomorrow and I won’t be back for a few months. In fact, I don’t even have a return ticket yet since I’m not sure exactly how long it’ll take me to research The Way of St. Francis.
The emotions are coming in waves. A wave hit on Sunday as I walked out the door with my robe in hand, knowing I’d preached my last sermon at First Church. It was a tugging in my chest and a brief tear. Then another wave hit as I stood in shorts and t-shirt and said goodbye to the staff in a brief visit to the office today. It was a tightness in my throat and a deep sadness in my heart as turned and walked out the door. Then tonight at dinner with Theresa another wave washed over me. I’ll miss her for almost two months until she joins me in mid-July. I looked across her in the light of the candles she’d lit on her patio table as we shared a last supper. I know tomorrow will be an emotional day as she drives me to the airport and I kiss her goodbye and I say farewell to my Seattle life and become a pilgrim again.
That’s the part that gives me the most joy as I look ahead. Yes, I’ll be a student of the Italian language for the next month in Perugia. Yes, I’ll be an author as I write this guidebook for Cicerone Press. But, yes, I’ll be a pilgrim again. Starting on June 26, after language study in Perugia and a quick trip to see friends in Vienna, I’ll be a pilgrim once more. I’ll walk 600 kilometers from Florence to Rome, arriving around July 31 in the Eternal City.
To be a pilgrim means to travel deliberately and with reverence toward a clear goal. In Spain or Italy I’ve been a pilgrim — for a month every year but one since 2008 — logging over 3000 km on dusty roads, through mountain passes, in rainstorms, in thundershowers and sunshine, with other pilgrims or alone, looking for the saints, sleeping in strange beds or under the stars, eating too little food and drinking too much wine. And I’ve cherished every moment.
I love the rhythm of pilgrim days. Morning light appears out of a strange window above me as I awake in an unfamiliar bed. The road pulls me from warmth and comfort of bed out into the fresh morning. If there’s a cafe there’ll be a slow coffee and a quick croissant. Then an uphill morning. Every morning is uphill, even if the elevation points downward. The first kilometer is cold, then walking warms up my legs and I start to see the day before me. I enter an odd mental and spiritual state between quiet and rapture as I walk, a state that is interrupted only as I look for way marks to assure myself I’m walking the right way. Then lunch — either from the pack or from a restaurant or cafe along the way. Then back to the road as it pulls me downward — the afternoon is always downhill — toward the day’s goal. Then there is a conversation, a bed, some laundry, a meal (again, too much wine) and a blessed night of rest. And then…. repeat. And repeat again. Repeat it three or four dozen times until the grieving begins on the last days when the pilgrimage is nearly complete, which is followed by the grieving that is mixed with joy at the pilgrimage goal, which is followed by the same grieving that begins again after the return home when the feet have stopped aching and the last year’s pilgrimage begins to fade into memory and the next year’s pilgrimage slowly and quietly begins to beckon.
Most pilgrims I know aren’t satisfied with just one pilgrimage. After they’ve tasted the depredations of pilgrim life they beg for more. After a second pilgrimage there’s no happiness until the third. And so it goes.
Today between two of my errands I saw another pilgrim — another soul enriched by the joy of walking. I stopped at Starbucks near the stadiums and paused to take photos of a group of people dressed in colorful body suits and dancing in the streets. This sort of thing always happens in Seattle. Anyway, I turned and was stunned to see Ed Tennyson standing there. Ed is another long-distance pilgrim who’s walked the camino many times and who has become a friend and colleague in all things camino over the last few years. He’d walked from his home in West Seattle and was heading to REI — a 20 mile walk round trip. A normal pilgrim day whether he is in town or on camino. We laughed and hugged, he wished me well on my upcoming adventure, and then he turned to continue his walk. As I watched him walk away I realized how I — or rather “we” who bear the name pilgrim — must look to others. A little hunched, a little weary, a little slow, a little contemplative, a little ecstatic.
It’s still a month of language classes away before I actually begin to walk, but I am ready. I am really ready to really walk. It feels right to walk while writing a guidebook for others who will come after. It’s right because I will have to watch carefully and fall in love with it in words and photos and maps. It feels right because it is about sharing this walk with others.
I know, too, that as I walk I will be doing the pilgrim work of contemplation. It’s been quite the year — separation, moving, divorce, dating, signing a book contract, building a new relationship, retiring, choosing to run for office next year, working hard on important justice topics, rooming with Luke, loving Theresa …… so much. I’m ready to walk, to think, to pray, to write and to be in the new way that God is calling me to be.
I said to Theresa on Sunday afternoon that I felt like I’m stepping into the future right now. “No,” she said. “You can never step into the future. You are always in the present you know.”
“No,” I wish I’d said. “The future is now.”