The Biology of Pilgrimage

Earlier this year, John Philip Newell visited The Seattle School and shared about an upcoming interfaith pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, led by his Heartbeat Journeys organization. Ryan Kuja, ‘14 MA in Theology & Culture, was selected to join this year’s pilgrimage. Before leaving, Ryan wrote here about his anticipation of the journey and a previous experience of healing through pilgrimage. Here, Ryan reflects on grief, love, and the embodied nature of being a pilgrim.


It’s 9 AM. I am walking up a steep hill along a country road in the north of Spain, surrounded by undulating hills that descend to the Bay of Biscay, where waves lap at the emerald cusp of the seashore. All would be well, except for one thing: I can’t breathe.

My chest is tight and I am short of breath. A very disconcerting feeling it is, sucking wind like this—and not because I’m out of shape or sick. I know exactly why I can’t breathe. But at this moment, halfway up this way-too-damn-long of a hill, with four fellow pilgrims in front of me and nine behind, I feel powerless to do anything about it.

Grief is like that, at least for me. It sneaks up on you.  It’s hard to know what to do with it, and even harder to face it head on. And when I ignore it, stuff it down, refuse its voice, this is what it does. It heads straight for my lungs, often at the most inopportune of times. Like now, on the morning of the second day of the Camino Peace Pilgrimage, the second morning of grief-clogged lungs.

I am feeling foolish. I had prepared for the physical aspect of this 100-mile journey by hiking, walking, and running for a few months leading up to the trip. I had prepared intellectually and mentally by spending time reading, writing, and reflecting on religious conflict, its root causes, and how it has been approached through an interfaith perspective. I was well prepared for the outward aspects of the pilgrimage, for walking ten to fifteen miles each day and for engaging in sensitive dialogue with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews about enhancing religious understanding.

But I had not expected that this interfaith pilgrimage would be such an intensely personal, inner journey that would become the context for such raw grief to emerge. It shocked me, and it certainly shocked my lungs. I was not ready for what the Camino was going to do with me and my emotions and my organs.

As we near the top of the hill, one of the other pilgrims walks up on my left side.

“How are you doing?” she asks.

Though I don’t know her, I sense a degree of sincerity in her face.

“I can’t breathe.”

“What are you feeling?” she responds.

“Grief. It’s in my lungs.”

As I say it, a single tear slides out of my eye and rolls down my right cheek. I inhale again and notice the tightness has eased ever so slightly.

“I think they’re opening,” I say to her with a bit of relief. We continue walking as I allow the feelings to rise. I stay present to the grief. I feel it, really feel it and let it be, let it rise, let it have its way.

Pilgrimage is such an embodied experience, even without grief-choked lungs: tasting unfamiliar foods, good wine, clear, cold water from village fountains; listening while in conversation with others, to the inner voice, and to the ever present voice-in-the-head; walking the road, taking step after step after step with pain in the feet and legs. The walking induces a plethora of benefits in the body. Being in close contact with the natural world can itself release a salve of neurotransmitters that calm, soothe, and restore. But none of that is at the core of the biology of pilgrimage as I have come to know it.

In part one of this series on pilgrimage, I told of the physical healing that my body experienced after visiting Lourdes, France. It was nearly a decade ago in that place that the biology of pilgrimage became a real, enfleshed reality: the blood disorder I had been diagnosed with was no longer a biological reality in my body. Medical science had confirmed it. In that post, I talked about how the healing of my blood offered me hope of the eschatological sort, regarding the future and the Kingdom manifest in its fullness. For me, healing is an eschatological category as well as a very present one. The tension between the two is what the pilgrim intentionally bears. The pilgrim is a vessel for unifying the duality between the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom, of the restoration of body, humanity, all of creation.

The biology of pilgrimage is about blood and healing, as I had experienced at Lourdes. But the biology of pilgrimage is also about lungs and another type of healing: the shifts that occur when we allow grief to rise and we let ourselves enter into it and emerge connected to more love and joy than before. The Camino taught me that pilgrimage can expose the places in us where we have carefully hidden pain away, neat and tidy. Pilgrimage, if we surrender to it, can unzip our core—especially when we’re not prepared. Walking on the Camino, I became very aware of the particularity of my body and lungs and their interplay with grief.

The hill finally begins to level as we arrive at an ornate old church, probably from the 17th century if not earlier. We stop to take a break and one of the pilgrims leads us in contemplative silence. My breath is now smooth and free, lungs doing what they are designed to do. By this time my whole body is at rest. A shift on a biological level has occurred, leaving me connected to a felt sense of love, a love very present around me and inside of me, subtle but real.

Pilgrimage, it turns out, is about more than blood and eschatology. It is an encounter with the biological as much as an encounter with the spiritual, one that is walked—and lived—in the tension between grief and love.

Ryan Kuja is a spiritual director who writes about psychology, spirituality, world mission and the intersections between them. He is a 2014 alumnus of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, where he completed the MA in Theology & Culture (Global & Social Partnership), and also holds degrees from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and University of Vermont. Ryan has spent a significant part of the last decade living in economically marginalized communities in South Sudan, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, India, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. He currently resides with his wife near Seattle, Washington. You can find him at ryankuja.com.

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