Pilgrimage is a nearly universal element of religion. Christians and Jews go to the Holy Land, or to other places associated with sacred events or individuals in history. Devotees of many religions go to sites associated with sacred geography—mountains or rivers or wells. Seventh-day Adventists go on pilgrimage, too, to those shrines we call, “Adventist Heritage sites,” and to sacred convocations such as camp-meetings and General Conference sessions.
For some, pilgrimage is an option, freely undertaken—for others, a sacred obligation, as in the Muslim’s duty to go on the Hajj at least once in a lifetime. For all, pilgrimage is not mere religious sight-seeing, but a transformative experience.
The motives to go on pilgrimage are as varied as the individuals. For some, the change of season is enough—April showers, spring flowers, and “small fowls making melody” prompted Chaucer’s pilgrims to set out for Canterbury. For others, the quest is more profound—to find an answer to anguished prayer, to discover one’s true self, to fulfill a vow made in time of crisis.
Since the eighth century pilgrims have been walking to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain. Legend says that the body of St. James was brought to Spain some time after his death; the shrine was established in the eighth century, and the Way, or “Camino,” became a major pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages. It followed an old Roman trade route across northern Spain, through the strip of the Iberian Peninsula first liberated from Muslim rule, the Kingdom of Asturias (after 942, León). The pilgrimage, and James himself (under the title, “Matamoros,” or “Moor-slayer”), became symbols of the Reconquista. In 1214, when the present cathedral was three years old, St. Francis of Assisi made the pilgrimage. In 1993, UNESCO named Santiago de Compostela a World Heritage Site. In 2009, 145,877 pilgrims completed the pilgrimage on foot, receiving the “compostela,” or certificate of completion (for additional statistics: http://www.archicompostela.org/Peregrinos/Estadisticas/estadisticas2006.htm)
In Emilio Estévez’ new film, “The Way,” Tom Avery undertakes the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela upon the death of his son, Daniel (who died during a storm in the Pyrenees, having just begun the journey). Tom, an ophthalmologist from Ventura, California, goes to France to retrieve Daniel’s remains, thinking he’ll be gone a week. Once there, he resolves to take a month off and walk the 800 km pilgrimage with Daniel’s ashes, which he spreads along the route.
“The Way” is a family film: Emilio Estévez wrote and directed it (and plays Daniel), cast his father, Martin Sheen (aka Ramón Estévez) as Tom, and dedicated it to his Galician grandfather, Francisco Estévez (d. 1974). Emilio’s brother, Ramón, is executive producer; his sister, Renée, plays Tom’s secretary, Doreen; his son, Taylor, is associate producer.
Estévez filmed it on location along the actual “Way of St. James”—specifically, the Camino Francés, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrim path is a star of the film in its own right, from the Pyrenees, to the sweeping vistas of Galician valleys, to the ancient cathedral of St. James, where the swinging botafumeiro bathes the victorious pilgrims in pungent clouds of sweet incense.
Following Chaucer’s lead, Estévez weaves together strands of various pilgrims’ tales (some of which he has taken from Jack Hitt, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain). Tom’s primary companions are Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian rebounding from a failed marriage, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Dutchman who says he merely wants to lose weight, and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer complaining of writer’s block. They pop in and out of Tom’s journey until their journeys meld through sharing their stories with one another, and the four become true friends and companions.
From Tom’s words, and through flashbacks, we learn about his relationship with Daniel, his only child. Tom can’t understand Daniel’s decision to cut short his doctoral studies to travel the world. Daniel invited him to go along, suggesting they make it a father-son trip. But Tom sees this as irresponsible. Daniel pleads, “Don’t judge me. Don’t judge this.” Tom can’t help but judge it. He has worked hard to be where he is today. He can’t understand the life Daniel is choosing. But that’s just the problem, Daniel tells him: “You don’t choose a life, Dad—you live one.”
A phone call on the golf course leads to a hurried trip to France. An emotional scene in the morgue. A late night going through Daniel’s belongings, stuffed in his backpack. The pack is adorned with a scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrim on the Camino, along with the “Om” symbol of Hinduism, and the “rising sun” flag of the Japanese navy. Within the pack, a photo scrapbook of his travels. Turning these things over in his hands, and in his mind, Tom knows what he must do. He awakens the police captain to tell him he wants the body cremated. “We are leaving in the morning. Both of us.”
“The Way” is a very personal journey. Hours are spent walking, alone with one’s thoughts. And yet part of richness of the pilgrim experience is meeting others along the way, traveling together for short stretches or for days, gathering each evening at refugios to rest, to tell stories, and to celebrate the day’s journey. And the pilgrim experience would be impossible without the warm hospitality of the people in the towns and cities along the way, always on the lookout for pilgrims.
Each person’s journey is different, and those differences can be the source of misunderstanding and conflict (and insight into oneself). When Tom first meets Sarah, she launches into a tirade against everything she thinks he represents. She calls him “Boomer,” and pictures him as a stereo-typical “Baby Boomer,” down to an iPod playing James Taylor. He has no iPod, he tells her—but he does like James Taylor. She smiles and shows her own iPod and cell phone—her tethers to the outside world. The scene shifts to show them continuing down the Camino, with the sound track playing Taylor’s “Country Road.”
“The Way” is a profoundly religious film, steeped in Catholic history and imagery. At the same time it is accessible to Protestants, and even non-believers, because the pilgrimage motif is viscerally human, and thus “catholic” in the broadest sense of the term. Some might call this story “postmodern” for emphasizing individual stories that nonetheless connect with ancient symbols and rites. I guess that would make Geoffrey Chaucer the first postmodern poet.
Visual and verbal metaphors abound, but this is no crude allegory. Instead, “The Way” tells a simple story in a beguiling fashion, subtly pulling us in, transforming us into pilgrims along the way, inviting us to lay our individual stones at the foot of the cross, and leaving us, at the end, at the shores of a mighty, deep ocean.
Take to the highway, won't you lend me your name?
Your way and my way seem to be one and the same, child.
Mamma don't understand it, she wants to know where I've been.
I'd have to be some kind of natural born fool to want to pass that way again,
But I could feel it, Lord, on a country road.
(James Taylor, “Country Road”)
Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and is a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard.