At the age of 15, I traveled to mainland Europe for the first time. It was one of those bus tours that takes you to several tourist attractions each day and drops you off at a nice hotel each night. I had a big camera bag (no smartphones with cameras) and took pictures of everything.. I was unmistakably a tourist, always on the look out for the perfect photo op, the perfect souvenir, the perfect experience that I could share with friends and family upon my return. And yet, I don’t remember a whole lot of details from that trip. I have a photo album and a collection of souvenirs somewhere in storage. And that’s about it.
Several years later, following my graduation from college, I took another trip to Europe that was very different from my first experience. I had decided to walk the “Camino de Santiago,” an ancient pilgrimage path through northern Spain that leads to the tomb of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There would be no bus, no tour guide, no nice restaurants, no hotels. I was determined to make the 500-mile journey on my own two feet, carrying everything that I needed in a backpack and staying at simple “albergues,” or pilgrim hostels, each night. My motive was also different. I wasn’t traveling to collect pictures and souvenirs and experiences; I was walking the Camino as a kind of offering to God, a way of giving thanks to him for the many blessings that I had received during my time in college. And it was also meant to serve as a time of preparation. I had just been accepted into seminary, and after the rush of comprehensive exams, final papers, and graduation, I craved time for silence and prayer. So, I exchanged my bookbag for a hiker’s backpack and flew to Spain. This time, I was traveling not as a tourist, but as a “peregrino,” a pilgrim.
Since I had to carry all that I needed for the trip in a backpack, I left my camera at home – only packing the bare essentials. I had three changes of clothes, which meant I had to hand wash my clothing every few days. To save money, I rarely ate meals at restaurants. Instead, I would cook simple meals with other pilgrims in the albergue kitchen and share stories from the day’s walk and what had inspired us to begin the journey in the first place. I can still feel the cold, misty mornings of hiking through the Galician mountains, the blazing sun beating down on us in the desertous Meseta. I can recall the vineyards of La Rioja, the red poppies sprouting out of a stone wall. I remember the sweetness of the cherries that I plucked from a branch that hung over the trail, the joy of singing with fellow pilgrims as we marched closer to Santiago.
All in all, these two trips to Europe couldn’t have been more different. And the more that I think back on the two experiences, the more I have come to appreciate the benefits of being a pilgrim versus being a tourist – not just in traveling, but in life.
Here are a few habits that can help us to be more like pilgrims and less like tourists in life. First of all, a pilgrim seeks to fulfill deep desires and not just shallow ones. On the Camino, I wasn’t so motivated by a desire to find the perfect souvenir; instead, I focused on my friendship with God by making time for silence and prayer, and spent time getting to know my fellow pilgrims. Second, a pilgrim seeks to be a joyful companion rather than one that complains when expectations are not met. The tourist sets his or her expectations based on a picture from a postcard or a travel guide; the pilgrim is open to the presence of God in the present moment, regardless of the circumstances. Third, a pilgrim embraces sacrifice and hardship as a necessary part of the journey, rather than always seeking comfort or pleasure. The hardest hikes on the Camino were also the most rewarding because they provided beautiful views of the Spanish countryside, but also because they challenged what I thought I was capable of.
In life we can often become distracted by shallow desires; choose to pursue deep desires rooted in your relationship with God and with family and friends. These are the desires that will ultimately fulfill us.
We are often distracted by forming false expectations based on the opinions of others; choose instead to focus on the joy of God’s presence in the present moment. Be a joyful companion, not a complaining one.
We are often given a choice between remaining in our comfort zone or being challenged; choose to do the difficult things in life. Taking on challenges isn’t likely to bring comfort, but it can bring peace.
We’re all on a journey. Are you a pilgrim or a tourist?