November 14, 2019 — It’s hard to get lost along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, but that didn’t calm my nerves.
The Way of St. James is one of the few spiritual endeavors that answers the prayer “God, give me a sign” with a resounding yes. There are literal signs everywhere. Scallop shells — a traditional symbol of the pilgrim’s journey — are emblazoned atop small, stone pillars, clearly demarcating the path. Arrows in bright yellow paint are slapped on walls, barns, trees, even the ground.
And yet, as I walked alongside my wife this past summer, I found myself more than a little preoccupied with those little yellow signs: I was eager to find the next one, to know we were on the right path. At the same time, every sign we passed meant we were closer to the end, to our destination, the conclusion of our vacation and time away together.
A pilgrimage is not, of course, just about the destination. Trite though it sounds, it is about the journey. And that’s exactly what the Camino de Santiago is meant to be. The ancient pilgrimage traces the evangelizing footsteps of the apostle St. James, winding through northern Spain (along the Camino francés, the French Way) to Santiago de Compostela, where, tradition holds, the apostle is buried.
St. James isn’t a Jesuit saint. But the very nature of a pilgrimage — a slow, steady, meandering toward God — is very Ignatian. It is an outward expression of an inward desire to encounter the Divine. It is a recognition of uncertainty, that the pilgrim’s desire may lead along unplanned paths to the heart of a God who surprises. Even the right path is unsettling at times.
Prayerful reflection on our desires — on what we want in life for ourselves and for our world — is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius encourages us to sit with our desires and find God resting within them, the God who is both origin and destination of those very desires.
Our desires, then, are not unlike little yellow arrows pointing the way to that which is holy. They make up our path, they point the way along the path and they remind us of what it is we ultimately seek.
But it’s not always so simple. There are three temptations that I encountered along the Camino that reflect the pilgrimage of our lives:
1. A desire is not an end in itself. It serves as a guide, ushering me forward, out of myself, showing me how to better serve God and neighbor.
Put simply, the scallop shell signs didn’t get me to Santiago. My own two feet accomplished that task — tired, sore and blistered as they were. Tempting as it was to stop and observe the signs along the way — and we did! — ultimately, they served as a motivator to keep going forward.
In life, then, recognizing a desire for marriage isn’t enough; I need to actively cultivate a relationship that leads into a new way of living. A desire to write or tell stories is all well and good but if I don’t intentionally put pen to paper and reflect on my own experiences, that desire dries up and never creates the space for God to work.
St. Ignatius challenges us to be contemplatives in action.
2. Contemplating my desire for myself and the world is necessarily done in context and community.
My wife and I saw a lot of scallop shells and yellow arrows. But what was most interesting about them wasn’t the icon itself but where those icons were found — and the conversations that followed. What did that crumbling wall that now hosts a yellow arrow once support? Who else has walked along this ancient bridge, past this scallop shell symbol?
Our desires can bring us out of ourselves, break down our self-imposed barriers and allow us to encounter other people. We do so precisely because our desires can help us manifest our unique gifts — gifts God invites us to share with the world. We are called to live out the magis, the more, to take what we are and give it to the greater glory of God — and the greater glory of God’s creation.
3. My desires reflect patterns in my life — both when I’m actively seeking them, and when I’m not.
At the end of our journey, my wife and I spent a few days in Santiago de Compostela. We walked through the same streets but as tourists, not pilgrims. We still passed those pilgrim symbols, but I hardly noticed them; I was no longer paying attention.
When I have a decision to make, I look for the signs. I reflect on the patterns in my life and try to identify God’s hand. But those signs and patterns are just as evident and important when we’re content in our lives, when we have no major decisions to make, perhaps even more so. As I walked the streets of Santiago, no longer a pilgrim, I wondered: Do I ignore the desires God places within me because I am not actively looking for them? Because I am too content?
As my wife and I passed coffee shops, clothing stores and restaurants, I could feel my awareness of those little yellow scallop shells drifting, my attention focusing elsewhere. And yet, those signs and symbols meant the same thing; they pointed to the same place: the holy, the sacred. If I so chose, I could resume my journey. And should I? No matter the city through which I walk, those questions remain.
The heart of Ignatian spirituality is a recognition that God is in all things, whether we’re looking for God or not. To that end, we probably should always be looking.
Ultimately, the lesson of those little yellow arrows was this: trust that there’s another sign just up ahead, and trust in the God who has orchestrated them. Because sometimes it is scary to near the end of a journey; drawing ever nearer into the heart of God can be uncomfortable, disarming. God’s dream for us is not always what we have imagined.
And yet, as we encounter those little yellow arrows in our own lives, we might do well to turn to gratitude. God does not abandon God’s people. And God is currently at work in each of us, drawing us out and beyond ourselves through the desires placed in our hearts.
In the meantime, we all continue along our slow, steady meandering toward God. Our pilgrimage.