Physical Spirituality

Pilgrim Ritual: Soaking Feet by photographer Jill K H Geoffrion

Pilgrims can do the stupidest things! To say that many move in ignorance would be a gross understatement. For those who begin without paying attention to the physical nature of their journey, reality introduces sacred invitations to embody truth with greater awareness.

When I asked a man hiking up a mountain why he was wearing sandals, he told me, “I didn’t hear that we needed good walking shoes until it was too late to buy and break them in, so I just bought a pair of sandals. I figure they will probably last for the eight hundred kilometers between here and Santiago.”

A woman answered my inquiries about the blood-stained gauze wrappings on her feet and legs. “A podiatrist treated me in the last town. He told me that I needed to stay off my feet for three days before continuing, but I don’t have any time to spare! I’m just going to see what happens.”

One night on the way to dinner I saw a man limping with a torn Achilles tendon. He expressed hope that it would heal overnight. If it did, he could continue on to Santiago, more than twenty days of walking away.

On the thirteenth day of our pilgrimage my right shin began to hurt. I rested it the fourteenth day and bought a leg brace that gave me support. I continued walking on the fifteenth day. Every step was sheer pain. Julio, a man who saw me crying on the side of the path suggested that I switch from hiking boots to sandals. Walking in them didn’t hurt as much, but I developed blisters from the lightweight sandals that weren’t well suited to the uneven terrain.

What were we thinking? We weren’t. We had a goal we wanted to reach. We believed we could make our bodies follow the lead of our wills. Throughout the centuries pilgrims have sacrificed their physical health to the cause of reaching a “holy site” of their desires. The cumulative stress of an extended pilgrimage is hard to anticipate, but ever so real. Pilgrimage often takes a physical toll; some have paid the ultimate cost. On the way to Santiago, one finds markers honoring those who have died, recently and in the distant past.

All along pilgrimage routes, one can also find remains of hospitals as well as modern-day facilities where the physical needs of those who are traveling can be attended to. Embodied spirituality is not an abstract concept as one is faced with soaring spiritual desire and limited physical resources.

What is the importance of knowing that our bodies cannot always take us on the spiritual journeys we can imagine? How can our bodies serve as our spiritual teachers, especially as we encounter our physical limitations? In what way is God present in us, inside our fleshly inhabitation, especially when our bodies are sick, suffering, weak, or dying?

These questions matter to pilgrims. The answers that are discerned when the body refuses to move, matter to us all.

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Photo: Pilgrim Ritual: Soaking Feet © Jill K H Geoffrion

Colossians 1:24-29 (NRSV)

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of Christ’s body, that is, the church.  I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to God’s saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that Christ powerfully inspires within me .”


Explore: “In what ways have my experiences of physical limitation drawn me towards spiritual maturity?”