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. Here, Ryan writes about what is drawing him to this journey and what he is hoping to discover. Check back later this summer to hear what the experience was like.
The first time I went on a pilgrimage, I cheated. I didn’t walk at all. There was no grueling test of legs and feet and mind over days or weeks of demanding terrain, as is often the case for pilgrims. I knew walking to the sacred destination was meant to be a metaphor for the journey through life with all its pain and trials, beauty and delight. But I had neither the time nor the desire to walk, so I opted for the train.
The year was 2006. I had recently been diagnosed with a rare blood clotting disorder. The doctor who ran the tests said I’d have to take medicine every day for the rest of my life. It wasn’t necessarily a life threatening illness, but it came as a disheartening shock. I remember receiving that phone call and listening to the words as my stomach knotted up tensely and the muscles in my body went limp.
I had recently planned a trip to the Netherlands to attend a training with a humanitarian aid organization that I would be working with in sub-Saharan Africa. After the training, I decided to visit Lourdes, the sacred site in the Pyrenees of France where, in the 1850’s, a young girl named Bernadette received a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Since that time, scores of faithful have come seeking healing. There are hundreds of stories of miraculous cures, 69 of which have been officially verified by the Catholic Church.
I arrived in Lourdes by train from Paris, clutching a hope that a cure lay in wait, too, for me. I was a pilgrim seeking physical healing from the disorder in my blood.
One morning I spent some time at the Grotto—the place where the young Bernadette had received the apparitions. The birds were chirping. It was sunny and pleasant. I sat and listened to the silence, allowing my desire for healing to rise up fully. It was then that a voice—unmistakably feminine, so gentle and sweet that not even a child could become afraid—reverberated in the hidden, deep space within: “You will not have to worry about this problem anymore.”
After arriving back in the United States, I decided to see a hematologist to be tested again. The results confirmed what I had heard: no trace of the condition. Gone. Healed, as if it had never been.
That was my first experience of pilgrimage. A train. A Voice. Healing of my blood.
I am preparing to embark on another pilgrimage, this time to take part in the Camino Peace Pilgrimage, an interfaith pilgrimage to enhance understanding across religious boundaries with John Philip Newell’s organization, Heartbeat Journeys. I was selected as a representative of the Christian tradition, one of 12 participants from the Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian faiths. We will come together on the Camino de Santiago in Spain to engage the global need for greater understanding and dialogue among the world’s religions.
Together we will walk a 100-mile section of the Way of St. James, representing a small step on the way toward healing all that remains in a state of dis-ease within each of us and within our respective traditions. The cure of dis-ease—physical, emotional, spiritual, religious or otherwise—has pointed me toward a cosmic renewal and the restoration of all things. In the restoration of my blood, I find hope for the world, hope of the eschatological type.
It is a vision of heaven on earth, of the Kingdom of God manifest in its fullness, arriving in the midst of broken bodies, broken places, broken religious traditions, the broken body of Christ, the broken body of humanity. It is something I won’t live to see. But I have lived to see the miraculous. I have lived to hear a Voice, and I cling to the hope that it will make itself heard in the midst of this upcoming journey toward religious understanding.
I embark again seeking healing, this time not of my blood but of the blood spilled through religious conflict, for the blood of humanity. I leave again bound to hope, that the blood of Christ will awaken religious understanding, rather than suspicion and violence.
That first pilgrimage to Lourdes has, nine years later, left me with an eschatological hope, the hope that is embedded within the art of pilgrimage itself, that we will one day, together as faith traditions, claim: no trace of the condition. Gone. Healed, as if it had never been.
Pilgrimage, it turns out, is more than metaphor. It’s about eschatology and blood.