You may recall that every time we dedicate a child in our church and welcome them into our covenant, we bless them with water from the North River. I scoop water onto their heads using a scallop shell to hold the water, and I explain that the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage used on the 400-miles medieval pilgrim route from France through the Pyrenees mountain range to the small city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Scallops are the symbol of hospitality on the road -- "El Camino: in Spanish --, and if you see a scallop shell over a door it means that pilgrims are welcome there, whether or not the place is a formal refugio, or stopping-place.
The scallop is associated with the legend of Saint James, who is said to have preached on the Iberian peninsula before returning to Jerusalem and being beheaded there by Herod. His body is said been put in a stone boat that came back ashore on the western shore of Spain and his body buried in what is now the little town of Padron. To see the remains of St. James is the end of the pilgrimage, but it is not at all the point of the pilgrimage. But you already knew that. You already knew that because you know that any journey worth the making is about the journey itself, and that the quickest way to ruin it is to focus on getting to the finish line and ignoring all the amazing vistas along the way. Sometimes the vistas are beautiful landscapes. Sometimes the view is an interior view; sometimes beautiful, sometimes sobering. But when we are on the road with no distractions, we see with special clarity.
Of course being a church together is being on a pilgrimage, being on a road together, which is why we use so many metaphors for pilgrimage in church. "We are on a spiritual journey,: we say. Unitarian Universalists have a particularly strong and authentic connection to the pilgrimage metaphor because we have no one holy land, no one Mecca and no one shrine. As the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote, "Let ours be a religion which goes everywhere... its shrine, the good heart.: In the history of American religion, we are indeed special sojourners and meanderers, who take more delight and inspiration from moving along from revelation to revelation, wisdom to wisdom, experience to experience, than in pitching our tents and making camp at a final destination. Our own Henry David Thoreau, an inveterate walker himself, reminds us that the root of the word "saunter: is sans terre, without country. But lest people misunderstand, let us be clear: we are not wandering aimlessly but attentively. Not randomly but reverently. We know we will get there, but as the man who went out fishing said to his wife, who commented that the fish would probably not be biting much that day, "It's not the fish I'm after. It's the fishing.:
For pilgrims who make their way to Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage begins the moment they shut their door behind them at home and start out. Nancy Fuller, the chair of our Finance Committee, is a devoted walker who takes a walking tour every year with friends. Last year, Nancy walked part of the path from France to Spain to Santiago de Compostela. She will tell you that magical things really do happen on the road, el camino. Simple miracles. Great coincidences. Like, pilgrims talk a lot about their feet. That makes sense. People who are walking between 15 to 40 kilometers a day carrying all their traveling necessities on their back have good reason to think a lot about their feet. A blister is no small thing when your full time occupation is walking. Nancy remembers a woman who, although she was a very experienced walker, made the huge mistake of buying a new pair of hiking boots before setting out on her pilgrimage. Of course the woman was in agony before too long, and would have either lost a lot or drop out altogether if she hadn't just happened to meet up with another female hiker who just happened to have an EXTRA pair of comfortably worn-in hiking boots just her size that she just happened to be hoping to get rid of.
Now, if you take a little microscope to that coincidence for a moment, you see a beautiful opportunity not just for someone to practice kindness, but for someone to practice dependence. For an experienced hiker who thinks she knows what she's doing, it's hard to accept that you've made such an error in judgment that you put your own pilgrimage in peril. What grace, then, to be saved from your own errors by something that's so perfectly convenient as to unburden a fellow pilgrim of an extra, unwieldy pair of boots taking up room in her pack!
There is an expression used on the pilgrim's path. It is "su camino,: which simply means, "your road.: You don't have to keep up with anyone-- it's su camino. Do you need to rest, take some sun, stop to pray, write a postcard, sing a song? It's su camino. Do what you need to do to get there. It is your pilgrimage, and no one can make it for you.
But the pilgrim's journey is not a solitary one even though it may be undertaken in solitude. No one completes a pilgrimage without learning dependence, which may come in the form of a fellow traveler with just the right sized pair of boots, or in a light in the window of a refugio that gives you strength to walk that one more kilometer knowing that there is someone dedicated to hospitality who will open the door for you when you get there.
We know the world is a dangerous place. We all know it. One of the scariest books I ever read was Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, which simply tells of a couple who travel to Tunisia hoping to strengthen their marital bonds. For no particular reason and in no huge crisis, one of them dies. It has been a long time since I read the book and I don't remember the details, but I do remember the sense of shock and futility I felt at the death. It seemed so avoidable. If only Port and Kit had met someone helpful at the right moment. If only someone had noticed them, or had the right medicines. The story was terrifying because it was so much like real life, where things happen for no big dramatic purpose but they just happen and leave us gasping in the dust.
The pilgrim spirit cannot keep such things from happening - the road is rough, the journey not guaranteed for any particular length of time, the guides not always reliable, but the pilgrim spirit does promise companionship and understanding from others who walk side by side with us. "Travelers look out for each other,: the old mantra goes, and that's what it means to have a pilgrim spirit. Not just to set out alone for adventure or enlightenment, but to be mindful and appreciative of the others who will make up what becomes "su camino.:
Here in this congregation, every one of us is walking "nos camino: (our camino) -- our own road, but not alone. It hardly seems necessary to say it, but it needs to be said, at least once a year and perhaps more often: part of looking out for each other is for each and every one of us who walks together on this path as a church is to contribute to it financially. Jim is going to expand more on that general idea, but you might think about it this way: not only are we assisting each other along the path as fellow pilgrims, we are running a refugio here, a place of refuge, retreat, healing, nurturing, learning and strengthening that helps us gather our wits and guts about us before we head back out on the road.
Nancy Fuller taught me this wonderful phrase. "Buen camino!: Good road! Wherever she walked, people of all ages in all walks of life would stop what they were doing to wish the pilgrims well. "Buen camino,: they would wish them.May we share a buen camino, as individual pilgrims, but also as a community walking together.