It was on Maundy Thursday that my husband and I began our pilgrimage in the south of France. Our walk on El Camino –the way. It was night, we were in an old stone church, hearing the readings about the children of Israel walking out of Egypt, and slavery, and starting their long walk to freedom.
Easter Sunday came quick, but our journey wasn’t over. We still had 28 more days of walking ahead of us. We were talking through Eastertide, and at the little chapels we stopped in, there were the familiar passages being read about other pilgrims- wandering, doubting, wondering:
the pair on the road to Emmaus
Thomas, perhaps the bravest of them all, who had encouraged the disciples to go with Jesus into Jerusalem and die with him the week before, and now unable believe the good news that Jesus was alive
We met other pilgrims, too, not in the Mass, or in the pages of the Bible, but on the road with us. The German couple with their donkey companion who were walking to figure out how to live their lives. The gay guy Terri who shared his story of fighting for marriage equality in Massachusetts, the Germans who thought they might be Buddhist, the Korean-American couple who had got their American dream and now didn’t know what to do with it.
All of us walking. Not knowing what was ahead, just walking.
There is a book about Camino, it’s quoting something, I’m sure, titled, “The Way is made by Walking.”
When you start walking, you don’t know why. You just are. You just muddle through. In that, the way is made.
Sometimes we talk about God in the western world like he’s this lovely, easily digestible “how-to” guide. We think we know how God works. We have the formula: my life was bad, empty, meaningless, I found Jesus, and now my life is meaningful and heavenbound.
But what if it’s more like the Emmaus road? What if it’s more like we’re walking along, confused and wondering, upset because the way we thought God would work, or life would work, or the world would work, is all screwed up? And Jesus finds us on the road, and asks us to tell him about it. Can you hear the sadness in their voices as they tell (a disguised) Jesus what they’ve been talking about?
“How can you not know what has been going on in Jerusalem?” they ask him incredulous. “We’re talking about the prophet from Nazareth, who did such wonderful miracles. He healed the broken, the sick, and even the dead. But the religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and they crucified him.”
“We had hoped,” one of them, Cleopas, continues, a quiver in his voice. He pauses on that phrase. Had hoped. It hurts, you know. It feels like betrayal when what you thought about God and the good, and the way it was going to work, is shattered.
“We had hoped,” he tries again, voice breaking with suppressed tears. “We had hoped he was the One sent by God to rescue us.” He pauses, there is only the crunch of sandals on gravel as he pulls himself together.
They trudge on. Jesus trudges next to them, listening, waiting.
“But then,” Cleopas continues when he can speak again, “then some women from our group arrived today saying that they were visiting his tomb, and they saw angels saying he was alive. And some men from our group ran to the tomb, and sure enough, it was empty!”
There is maybe a bit of hardness in Cleopas’ voice as he tells this part. A bit of skepticism. He has hoped before. It didn’t work out.
And as they walk together, walk the whole seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus listens and talks with them. He talks them through their scriptures, he shows them that their understanding of the one God was sending to rescue them was upside-down, and that it was all part of the plan for the Chosen One to suffer and die- but also to rise. And as they walk and talk, Cleopas’ heart slowly starts to warm. Hope, that had be crushed out with the crushing of Jesus on the Roman cross, slowly starts to grow. Maybe, maybe his understanding of the world was wrong, but maybe, maybe that didn’t mean God was wrong, or hope was gone. The dead, cold embers of hope that had been snuffed out slowly begin to warm and blaze.
And then they offer this stranger, who is explaining a whole new way to read their Holy book and read the world, a place to sleep. They offer him space, hospitality, a meal. And when they’re eating together, that’s when they see it: It’s been Jesus walking with them all along.
He’s alive. It’s true.
I think of the passage in Isaiah where God says, “And you will hear a voice behind you as you turn to the right or to the left, saying, “This is the way, walk in it.“
I think of the German guy, with his donkey companion, and his girlfriend, and their hand-knitted socks and hand-sewn tent, and their dream to live without hurting things, and his wish to live a life centered around family, and not around money. A real life. A meaningful life.
And then I hear the hospitelaro, an evangelical Christian on a short-term missions trip, share his story. “I lived just for myself. I knew about Jesus, but I spent my time in college chasing girls, and alcohol, and drugs, and then I went to law school and it was all about frat parties and getting the most money possible. I had everything in the world, but it was empty and meaningless. And then I found Jesus and he saved me and gave my life purpose and meaning.”
I know this story. But it sounds tinny, flat, and frankly un-compelling when presented in American accent by a pale-faced, neatly manicured successful lawyer who has been in the country only a few days. It’s hollow when confronted with this earnest young German pilgrim with sun-bleached hair, blistered feet, worn-through boots, hand-patched clothes who passed over the meat that night because he feels convicted about animal cruelty. This pilgrim whose walking to find a way to avoid the emptiness of worldly success.
I can see it. The German can see it. I’m not sure the American can.
And I think, maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t just present himself with a flash and a bang and a three-point sermon after Easter. Maybe that’s why he walked with people. He lived and ate with people.
Maybe, for all of us, the way is made by walking. It’s not who’s in and who’s out, and checking a box on a form. It’s about walking with Jesus, walking towards Jesus, walking together.
PS: I originally posted this April 2016, a year after completing Camino. But I find myself thinking of these pilgrims we met every year around this time.