The Contemplative Dimension of Pilgrimage: “Solutio in eundo” — The solution is in the walking


by Thomas Hall
(this article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Contemplative Outreach News)


Burgos slept as I slipped passed the Catedral de Santa Maria and walked alone under the vault of stars, into the sunrise and the Spanish Meseta, the high, arid plateau in the heart of Castile.  I was not the only pilgrim leaving the city on the Camino de Santiago this morning, but I kept to myself as I considered the seven or eight days of hard walking necessary to cross this relative nothingness.  Where had I felt this mixture of feelings before – excitement, loneliness, beauty, vulnerability, anticipation and fear of the challenge ahead?  I remembered this constellation of feelings from 45 years earlier while gazing up at the stars on the front deck of a mammoth car ferry crossing Lake Michigan during a lonely nighttime passage.  I began to understand that my contemplative spiritual journey spanned from that pilgrimage to this one.

Pilgrimage is a universal spiritual activity found in every major religion.   Islam has the hajj to Mecca as one of its five pillars.  India has at least 1,800 Hindu pilgrimage sites.  Western Europe has over 6,000 Christian sites, which receive more than 60 million religiously-motivated visits annually.  Pilgrimage is a journey, a search for something, a rite of passage that can take an organized form involving many people, or a spontaneous private odyssey.  There are also secular pilgrimages, such as visiting Ground Zero in New York or Elvis’ Graceland in Memphis.

Being a pilgrim is different from being a spiritual tourist, although the border between both is flexible and one can move back and forth between these different ways of being and relating.  The difference between pilgrim and tourist is not merely one of the traveler’s intention. Pilgrimage implies a larger context, and this feature points to its contemplative dimension. A pilgrim relates their experience to a larger framework of meaning, and embarks on the classic hero’s journey — separation from one’s ordinary life and place, a liminal stage and sacred encounter, and a return.  Pilgrimage aims towards inner growth, the expansion of the pilgrim’s awareness and worldview, and the transformation of the pilgrim’s identity by connecting with a meaningful value or reality beyond the limited self. Pilgrimage functions as a ritual container where the limited self can consciously move in service to the larger Reality.  The act of pilgrimage invokes a universal prayer form involving sacrifice, surrender and transformation.

From a psychological perspective, the act of pilgrimage and the role of pilgrim can be considered an archetype, that is, a primordial pattern and dynamic agency residing in the collective unconscious.  Fr. Keating touches on the role of archetypes in our spiritual unfolding in Session 19 of The Spiritual Journey series in relation to the night of spirit, but encounters with archetypes are common at every level of growth.  Archetypes often appear in one’s life during times of transition, when one’s way of being in the world is collapsing, when events sweep away the old understandings which offered security and control in the face of life’s great problems. When an  archetype is activated, it tends to direct the individual psyche to line up with its lines of force, like iron filings ordered by a magnetic field.  Gripped by an archetype, one feels in contact with some overwhelming power or compulsion, fascinating, life changing, numinous. But how best to work with this energy at our edges? How are we to respond to this invitation from the mystery beyond? Consciously or unconsciously, we define our reality in terms of these symbols and then act on the basis of these energies. When we consciously relate to an archetype in a meaningful way it can transform our consciousness.

I gradually came to understand that my compelling desire to walk the Camino was an encounter with archetypical energy. I first heard about the ancient Christian pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, from a member of my Centering Prayer group in 1994 who had just returned from walking “The Way.”  However, I was a new father of four children aged four and under, and just entering the legal profession. Though I dismissed the impulse, the hook was mysteriously set.  In May 2008 my oldest sons were graduating from high school, and my wife was diagnosed with cancer.  Inexplicably, the desire to walk the Camino resurged, but again the timing was not right.  Finally in 2014, my wife and I were empty-nesters, and I was considering whether to continue my legal career.  All of these were times of transition where I encountered this activated archetype.  I was also approaching my 60th birthday.  I was the same age as my father when he received his fatal cancer diagnosis.  He died when I was 15.  And I left home less than two months later on my first pilgrimage – hitchhiking 1,200 miles from northern Wisconsin to New York City, crossing Lake Michigan on that midnight ferry. I was not running away from home, but blindly trying to connect with some larger reality that would help me cope with overwhelming grief.

On my first pilgrimage I was ignorant about the archetypical energy fueling my hitchhiking journey and the potential for transformation, and in my selfishness I caused those I loved great pain.  While planning and walking the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I determined to consciously encounter whatever was being birthed, and channel the arising energy in the traditional ways recommended by the contemplative tradition: service to others, ritual, and practice to foster reverence and dependence on God.

I was aware of my own self-serving motivations for making this pilgrimage, and determined to expand the focus of the pilgrimage beyond myself.  So I created the 2014 Camino Walkathon to raise money for each mile I walked to benefit three charities: Food For the Poor, The Southern Poverty Law Center, and Women for Women International.  We raised enough money to dig water well in Haiti, help distribute Teaching Tolerance educational material free to tens of thousands of U.S. schools, and pay for 16 women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to attend a one-year job training program as a way to bring lasting change to this conflict zone.

Ritual is an important tool for channeling emotionally charged material in the direction of transformation. At the highest point of the Camino, the Pass of Irago, stands the Cruz de Ferro – a large iron cross on a wooden pole. Legend says that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute by bringing a stone. The tradition is to set a stone at the Cruz de Ferro, brought from the pilgrim’s place of origin, symbolizing what the pilgrim leaves behind to prepare for rebirth on the last stage of the Camino. So for centuries pilgrims have left their stones, or other tokens of blessings or burdens. I carried a small stone in my pack – a brown piece of sandstone from the southern shore of Lake Superior where I grew up.  I used the stone as a way to focus on those habits, self-definitions and understandings that I wished to surrender, to honor the transition I was making from middle age, and to express my gratitude.  Before I left for Spain I circulated a picture of this sandstone to family, friends, co-workers, donors and supporters. Many people joined me in adding their prayers and intentions to this token.  I carried it for all of us, and laid it down at Cruz de Ferro on our behalf.

On the Camino, especially during that long walk across the Meseta, there was plenty of time each day to practice walking meditation.  On long Centering Prayer retreats everyone is instructed in the practice of walking meditation between periods of Centering Prayer.  Over the years I developed a more articulated version of walking meditation, based largely on guidance from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

There are many similarities between walking meditation and Centering Prayer. It is best to begin both by affirming our intention to pray – to be in relationship – during the practice.  Just as in Centering Prayer, the secret of walking meditation is to learn to let go, to walk without wanting to get somewhere. To walk with presence so that our footprints bear only the marks of peace and joy, we must let go of conflict, sadness and worries – like shaking off raindrops clinging to a coat.  On the Camino, I used prayer phrases to count the number of steps in relation to my breath.  My pace was usually four steps breathing in and four out, and I often used the scriptural phrase, “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit” synchronized with my striding.  The click-click-click-click of my walking poles often held my rhythm. The instruction for handling distractions during walking meditation is familiar.  If you become aware that the mind is engaged in some interesting sight or thought along the way, simply return to the practice.  After learning to coordinate the elements of walking meditation, the practice creates a marvelous balance of simple open awareness and equanimity.  This quality of stillness is similar to my experience of deep peace in Centering Prayer, except that my eyes are open and the body is fully engaged. Walking meditation energizes the unconscious and produces a similar dynamic of purification as Centering Prayer.  And Grace attracts outer experiences onto which the false self can be projected so it may be dismantled. Walking meditation creates the necessary state of mind to see that every path, no matter how fearful, is welcomed as our path so that we do not hesitate to proceed. The soul is fed where action and contemplation meet, where the inner and outer co-operate as one, where words become embodied, where God’s presence becomes our heartbeat and the rhythm of life itself.

All growth requires movement away from the place we have known. Although it is not necessary to go on pilgrimage to make the inner journey, Thomas Merton suggests both.  “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.  The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage.  One can have one without the other.  It is best to have both.” (Thomas Merton, Mystics & Zen Masters, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967, p. 92)


Thomas Hall is a long-time Centering Prayer practitioner. Together with his wife, Colleen, they founded Nebraska Contemplative Outreach in 1990. For 17 years Thomas taught a summer course at Creighton University in the Christian Spirituality Program on “Centering Prayer and the Experience of God.” Thomas was also a member of the governing board of Contemplative Outreach for several years.