One of the great things about summer is all the people out walking in the evening. Whether it’s a quick walk around the block alone or with a dog, or something longer, people take advantage of the warmer weather to exercise and reacquaint themselves with neighbors. Would we even say hello to neighbors if it weren’t for summer?
At the beginning of June, I joined five other church friends on a very special walk known as the “Wisconsin Way.” Modeled after the famous pilgrim route through Spain, the “Camino de Santiago” or “Way of St. James,” the Wisconsin Way starts near Green Bay and ends near Milwaukee, with stops at religious shrines along the way. While we were shuttled by van for most of the distance, we did walk ten miles per day before arriving at place to pray with each other. It’s one thing to visit holy places by car or bus, and quite another to arrive there by foot.
You sort of get the idea after a few miles that a pilgrimage walk is a metaphor for life as a whole and our one common pilgrim journey from God and to God. Especially on a 90-degree day, which was every day for us, you get in touch with your need for water. This reminded me of the frailty of my physical existence and my need not only for water, but for other people, and for God. Also, in a group, needs bounce from one person to the next. Someone needs to cushion a blister; another needs a bathroom. Often, one person is in really good shape and has to slow down for the rest of the group, while another person has more physical challenges than the others. Accommodating each other in a spirit of love and community mirrors our life in society, leaving no one behind.
I learned this lesson while on a previous walk, backpacking through the mountains with three others. As it happened, I was the strongest in the group. It was years ago and I hope I’ve matured since then, but I have to say I was less than gracious at being “slowed down” by my companions. I wanted to see more, do more, cover more miles! Then, guess who sprained his ankle? Suddenly I was “the slow one.” In response, my companions could not have been kinder. They treated me with a compassion that I had not shown them. It was an experience of grace: a love I did not deserve. I think it changed me; I hope it did.
A few years ago, a Benedictine sister shared a quote with me from the spiritual writer, Ram Dass, who described the meaning of life by saying “We’re all just walking each other home.” I thought of that line often on the Wisconsin Way, as my fellow pilgrims and I wended our way through wheat fields, county highways and state forest trails. Walking with others, I could see clearly that that in life our individual journeys all flow in and out of each other, each of us dignifying the others’ journeys with our care and attention, certainly, but also by simply walking alongside and sharing the road.
One of my fellow pilgrims had just lost his job a week before our journey began. After our four days together, walking and praying, eating and laughing, he reflected on the ride home. Minutes before, we had concluded our journey on a high hill, “Holy Hill,” and celebrated mass there. Now next to me in the back seat of the van, he exhaled a satisfied sigh, and said, “That was just what I needed. I’m OK. It’ll be OK.” When life deals us hard blows, it is good to be walking with others. Together, we will make it home.