I was skimming The New Yorker and saw a review of the book, A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. The review mentioned that the author went on three pilgrimages: the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, and the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov pilgrimage in the Ukraine. I paused at the description and added it to “my books to read” list. Pilgrimages are a popular activity for Big Trippers and something I’ve always wanted to do myself for precisely the reasons that Lewis-Krause shares in his book: to separate myself from daily life, to create space and stillness, and to meet other pilgrims.
The book begins in Tallinn, Estonia where Lewis-Krauss meets up with his friend and future-fellow pilgrim Tom. Lewis-Kraus can’t remember it, but he agreed to hike the Camino with his friend after a night out partying. Back in Berlin and remembering the commitment, the author describes his distraction-full, but directionless-life. He moved to Berlin from San Francisco thinking “I’d been living in lovely provincial San Francisco and had moved to Berlin because I’d felt I was missing out on something exciting, and now I was on the brink of leaving lively, provisional Berlin because I was afraid of mission out on something serious.”
With Tom, who is on the verge of settling down into a relationship, he starts the Camino, his first of three pilgrimages. On the route, he meets a Japanese couple who tells him about the Shikoku pilgrimage and that it’s “very hard but maybe you try someday,” After the Camino, Lewis-Krause commits to Shikoku, Japan as his second trip, circumnavigating the island by walking to 88 temples. Finally, Lewis-Kraus embarks on the third faith-based pilgrimage to the Ukraine with his brother and father to resolve long-standing family issues. On each journey, there are characters, trials, and lessons. The pilgrimages are the stage for the author’s finding clarity, strength, and compassion for himself and his family.
Here are some quotations from the book that revealed to me the many facets of a pilgrimage. Overall, I highly recommend this book. It’s not just the journeys that are very interesting, but Gideon-Kraus is hilarious and real. There are parts that read like a dissertation, but I took the time to dissect the complex thoughts and loved the elegant insights about life revealed through the analysis.
The Reason to Do a Pilgrimage
“The pilgrim could step outside of all roles and just be a person, someone without responsibilities or expectations or any constraint besides continuous forward movement to a distant goal.”
“[In religious life] Actions are justified because you are commanded to do them, and commanded by somebody or other who’s got a plan. Secular pilgrimage is a little vacation into that sort of plan, but the thing about that vacation it that it has very little to say about what happens next. What it can do is show you that the line between obligation and desire is rarely clear, that what we often label obligations are really desires, and that each step forward is some blurry function of choice and necessity. It can suggest that there might, in the end, not be so great a difference between saying “I felt like it” and “I had to.”
On Meeting and Walking with Other Pilgrims
“I also think it has to do with the fact that we’ve come to share this experience with all these other people – Tim and David and everybody – that I think we’re sorta happily stuck with from here on out. They might be a bunch of crackpots and buffoons, but so are we, and I feel some new sense of belonging, of responsibility.” – This is a quote from fell0w pilgrim, Tom
“We’ve all come together so effortlessly, and we all see to feel so fit and so vital, so warm with roaring blood, so similar in stride and gentle in conversation. We pause for a moment, and when we continue, we do it wordlessly.”
On Walking Alone
“The one time I’ve proposed being alone was right when Tom was criticizing me, accurately, for being unsympathetic to his needs and his pain. All along I’d had such a romantic idea of what it would mean to be alone – how heroic it would be to do this without any diversion or any support from anybody at all – but now I see it as the desire to be able to walk away. To Buen Camino. As an evasion. As an attempt to get away from my close friend right when he’s called me out for being selfish and stubborn and uncaring. An opportunity to meet some strangers, people who won’t know that I’m selfish and stubborn and uncaring. Maybe my desire to be alone is my desire to preserve some image of myself that I know won’t stand up to Tom’s sustained attention.”
On Receiving Help From Locals
“Most accounts I’ve read talk about the osettai custom in terms of the pilgrim’s experience: This walk is equal parts hardship and exactly what JR’s referring to: the gracious, humbling acceptance of support. The one exception I’ll come across is an academic study of the pigrimage by a Manchester professor called Ian Reader, who writes, of osettai, that it’s the patent neediness of pilgrims that allows the locals to rise to the occasion, to be their best, most generous selves.
On How the Pilgrimage Makes The Pilgrim More Focused…
“I’ve noticed that I’m especially able to focus on work despite the noise and my physical exhaustion. I can spend two hours writing up my notes rom the day – in anticipation, of course, of the next email dispatch – without looking up once; I’m more productive in the two hours between four and six p.m. on the Camino than I ever was in an entire week in Berlin.”
…And Quieting the Mind
“Even when I can’t fall asleep right away, I don’t mind just lying there. There are so many things I find I don’t think about at all, like what’s going on at that moment anywhere else. All were doing is walking and then stopping, but somehow that sense of structure and organization affords me so much productivity and calm.”
On What A Pilgrimage is Really Like
A fellow pilgrim shared, “There are so many books in Germany on this [Camino], but nobody mentions the pain! Maybe it is because afterward, when you get back to your real life, you remember only the good parts.”
In response to a fellow pigrim stating he wouldn’t get any more out of walking. “Right, but that’s precisely when it gets the hardest. Right when you feel like it’s no longer hard, because the hard parts kept it from being truly hard, you know? That’s what so much of what this was about for me, at least in the end; continuing to walk when both the discomfort and the novelty have passed. Like, I don’t know, a long-term relationship.”
- Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Amazon or better yet, buy it at your local bookstore.
- Camino de Santiago FAQs by Sherry Ott, who walked in 2012 and blogged about the practical side of the trail.
- Lonely Planet’s Guide to the Shikoku
- The Wikipedia entry on Rebbe Nachman
- Trek-Worthy Trips as an AFAR Wanderlist
Photo credit: Photo by ramkarthikblogger on Flickr