Your God Is Too Big

For the second week in Advent, I’m thrilled to host friend and author Phil Steer with a guest post that challenges the way we’re usually told to think about God. Read on to see how the “offense of the Incarnation” changes everything about our relationship to God and the world.

Your God Is Too SmallIn 1952 the English Bible scholar, translator, author and clergyman J. B. Phillips published a book, the title of which has since entered the Christian lexicon: Your God Is Too Small. In this book Phillips argues persuasively that:

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for their modern needs… It will always be by [a great effort of will that a person] either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

King Solomon would have agreed. Dedicating the temple in Jerusalem, Solomon prayed:

The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built. (1 Kings 8:27)

And how much less any box that we build for God from our own understanding. For no box is big enough to contain the One who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13)

We cannot grasp God.

We cannot know the unknowable.

Our minds cannot contain the uncontainable.

Surely Phillips was right: Our God Is Too Small.

And yet…

Whilst I agree with Phillips’s diagnosis (it is a superb little book, as relevant today as it was 60-plus years ago) I am convinced that we suffer equally from the very opposite malady: Our God Is Too Big.

When God gave humanity the ultimate revelation of himself, he didn’t come in greatness and power and glory and splendour and majesty. Instead, he came as a little child, as a helpless baby, totally dependent on his parents for protection and provision, for all that he needed to survive and to grow.

Indeed, more (or rather less) than this – for before becoming a child, before being born as a baby, Jesus was conceived and carried within Mary’s womb. He became for us God the Foetus, God the Embryo, God the Single Cell.

Do these names for God shock or offend you? I’ll admit, I hesitated as I wrote the words. But perhaps this just goes to show how far we have failed to fully grasp the scandal of what God has done for us. Paul writes of the “offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11) – is there not also the offense of the Incarnation? God becoming one of us, with all the messy humanity that entails.

And this matters, because our view of God fundamentally affects how we relate both to God and to the rest of the world.

Think about it. God humbled himself – literally, came down to our level – that we might see him as one of us and relate to him as one of us. Our God knows what it is to be human and is able to empathise with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus came as the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34) that we might be called his friends (John 15:15). If our God is too big, we will never grasp this essential truth.

Just as importantly, our view of God affects how we relate to the world. If our God is big and powerful, then we can think ourselves big and powerful too. “We are children of the King!” Yes, children of the servant King – the One who made himself nothing and came to the world in humility – in littleness. This is how we are to live in the world.

God is so much bigger than we could ever conceive. But our Big God made himself small – smaller than we can truly believe. This is how he chose to reveal himself. This is what he wants us to see. And this is how he want us to be. For when God makes himself small, we have little choice but to make ourselves smaller still.

As a Child-2Phil Steer is the author of As a Child: God’s Call to Littleness which is being serialised in the prayer and spirituality journal ‘Quiet Spaces’, published by BRF. He is married with three children, works in the City of London, and lives in Romford, on the London/Essex border.

A Medium Aevum Advent (a post at the Ancient-Future Faith Network)

Rogier van der Weyden, Columba Altarpiece, ca. 1455

This week I’m over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network with an Advent reflection. How does a medievalist mother experience the coming of Christ? What does a battered manger scene have to do with it? Here’s a peek:

I’m heartened to see more and more Christians keeping Advent— not rushing to the feast, but spending time in holy expectation. The historian in me approves. When we observe Advent, we deepen our preparation for Christ’s coming by embracing the liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church. Some historical Advent practices, such as fasting, most of us do not keep today. Others, like the annual Christmas pageant, are still going strong (in the medieval Church the pageant was performed by choirboys).

This year, as I watch my daughters perform one of their own practices, I’ve been drawn to some wonderful medieval teachings on Advent. Perhaps I should say Advents. In one of his sermons for the season, written in the mid-twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of not one but three comings of Christ. A century later, Thomas Aquinas adds yet another. That’s three more comings than most of us prepare for. It has taken my two children to help me absorb what these four advents might mean for me.

Christ’s first coming, no surprise here, is his historical advent. My daughters have developed an elaborate practice to prepare for this event. That practice? The manger scene. My girls set up their scene with the precision of an HGTV reality show. Everything must be just so. The picture on the box is consulted: Mary must stand here, Joseph there. The manger must be centered. Then and only then is the baby tenderly placed therein. But he’s not there long; Jesus requires much more attention than that. I sometimes think God sent his son as a baby for the benefit of maternally inclined four-year-olds.

Click here to read the rest at the Ancient-Future Faith Network!

Packing for a Pilgrimage


Are you traveling for Thanksgiving this week? What kind of suitcase are you taking?

These days, given the madness of airline travel, most of us are doing better at packing light. Even when taking Southwest—bags fly free!—I strive to follow the advice given for a walking trip. Take less than you think you’ll need. Bring only the essentials. Pack your bag and then take half of it out.

What do you pack when it’s a sacred journey rather than an ordinary trip? If any of you have gone on a pilgrimage, I’d love to hear about what you took and what you left behind.

And then there’s spiritual pilgrimage. We often hear it said that life is a sacred journey. What do we take on this kind of trip? What do we pack for our heart’s pilgrimage to Jesus?

We find some advice in packing lists from medieval pilgrimages. Cavalier Santo Brasca, a Milanese, went to the Holy Land in 1480. In his description printed a year later, he told pilgrims exactly what to take on the sea voyage from Venice to Jaffa. Brasca’s list includes an overcoat, a thin mattress, and plenty of food items: white biscuits, loaves of sugar, and good Lombard cheese.

Above all he should have with him a great deal of fruit syrup, because that is what keeps a man alive in the great heat; and also syrup of ginger to settle his stomach if it should be upset by excessive vomiting . . . (Casola, 11-12)

Wow, sounds like pilgrims were in for a delightful trip.

Brasca also says,

Finally, he [the pilgrim] should carry with him two bags — one right full of patience, the other containing two hundred Venetian ducats . . . (Casola, 10)

Here the packing list begins to take on a different character. Brasca introduces a spiritual item: patience.

Pietro Casola, a Milanese Canon who went to Jerusalem in 1494, expanded on this packing list:

Each one who goes on the voyage to the Sepulchre of our Lord has need of three sacks — a sack of patience, a sack of money and a sack of faith. (Casola, 225)

Venetian galley
Venetian galley from Epistola de insulis nuper inventis”, Basel, 1493

Casola reports with humor how he dipped into one sack or another during the voyage. For example, when half the pilgrims in his group were kept on the galley waiting for permission to disembark in the Holy Land, he said:

[A]s well as possible, we laid hands on one of those sacks we had brought on board the galley — I mean the sack of patience. Many of the pilgrims, seeing how badly we were treated, told the captain that he should not hesitate to lay hands on the other sack if necessary — I mean that of the money — rather than suffer such torments. (Casola, 230)

Later, Casola says that when visiting holy places  that are not venerated by the Muslims in charge,

. . . it is necessary to open the third sack, called the sack of faith, otherwise the voyage would be made in vain. (Casola, 247)

A sack of patience, a sack of money, and a sack of faith. So much for packing light! In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage to Jerusalem required the heaviest baggage of all.

So it is on the journey to our interior Jerusalem. When preparing for our journey to Jesus, we pack every spiritual gift we have. All our faith and patience, all the hope and anticipation and perseverance God has given us. It will be almost too much for us to carry. During our pilgrimage, we will dip into our sacks liberally. We will spend everything in them and arrive at our destination depleted. But we shouldn’t worry too much about that. When we kneel at the foot of the cross, Jesus will fill our sacks again.

Did you pack enough patience and faith for your pilgrimage today?

Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem In the Year 1494, trans. M. Margaret Newett (Manchester: At the University Press, 1907).

Photo of backpack by Benutzer:Sjr, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

A Jerusalem Moment: The First Church Lock-In

Welcome back! Lately we’ve been looking at “Jerusalem moments”—wonderful little moments in medieval pilgrims’ journey to Jerusalem that give us insight into our own faith. Today’s moment will sound familiar to anyone who grew up in church or who has been a youth group leader—it’s the first church lock-in.

Church of_the_Holy_Sepulchre drawing, 15th c
Drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 15th c.

For medieval pilgrims, the highlight of their journey to Jerusalem was a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But it wasn’t just any visit. For three nights, pilgrims were voluntarily locked into the church for an all-night vigil. The Muslims in charge (remember that Jerusalem was held by the Mamluk sultans during the fifteenth century) actually locked the door to the church from the outside and let the pilgrims out in the morning. Lock-in!

The vigil included a guided tour of sacred sites in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, such as the Chapel of the Virgin, the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross, and the Sepulcher itself. A Franciscan friar would guide the pilgrims, who held candles, in a procession. The vigil included free time for private devotions and a meal. Masses began at midnight and concluded at dawn, after which the pilgrims were booted out of the church.

Graffiti in CHS
Ancient graffiti on columns outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Old City of Jerusalem Photo: Gila Brand via Wikimedia Commons

Friar Felix Fabri, a late fifteenth-century pilgrim,  writes of misdeeds that occurred during some of these vigils. By the third night, devotion and behavior had deteriorated. Some pilgrims drank, caroused, and slept; they bought and bartered for trinkets; they carved and painted their names on the walls. One pilgrim stretched out on the sepulcher itself. Fabri writes:

The hand of the Lord was laid upon him, and struck him with the palsy, so that his body began to grow stiff, and he could in no wise raise himself up. . . . he never thereafter recovered the free and natural use of his limbs, returned to his home lame and sickly, and died a paralytic! It is a wonder that he did not perish on the spot.*

That sounds far worse than a youth group lock-in. Yet we should also remember that it was during one of these vigils that Margery Kempe reports having a vision of the crucified Christ:

And when, through dispensation of the high mercy of our Sovereign Saviour Jesus Christ, it was granted this creature to see so vividly his precious tender body hanging upon the cross . . . then she fell down and cried out with a loud voice, writhing and twisting her body amazingly from side to side, spreading her arms asunder as if she would have died. Nor could she prevent herself from crying, nor control these bodily contortions, because of the fire of love that burnt so fervently in her soul with pure pity and compassion.**

Margery’s vision reminds us that the vigil was designed to bring pilgrims closer to Christ. It was a kind of resurrection – three nights locked in the tomb with Jesus, after which the pilgrims hopefully emerged, in a kind of re-birth, into the light.

A few years ago, my church held an all-night prayer vigil (the adult version of a lock-in). Each person signed up for hour-long slots (or longer), some in the dead of night, to pray alone in the church. Being alone in a room with Jesus for one hour of the night is challenging, especially if you’re not used to it. It makes me rethink the pilgrims’ vigils. What would you do if you were locked in the tomb with Jesus for three nights? Would you succumb to sleeping? Ask for a vision? Is it just possible that you might emerge reborn?


*The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri, vol. 2, part 1, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1896), p. 84.

**The Book of Margery Kempe: An Abridged Translation, trans. Liz Herbert McAvoy (D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 38.

A Jerusalem Moment: Worshiping with the Enemy

Schedel's Jerusalem in color

Medieval pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a long and difficult journey over land and sea. What happened when pilgrims finally reached the Holy Land? In last week’s post, we read about one Jerusalem moment, when a group of pilgrims saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and, according to the German friar Felix Fabri, “shrieked as if in labor.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was without question the highlight of medieval pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But pilgrims wanted to see other sites as well. This sometimes proved difficult.

When Felix Fabri traveled to the Holy Land in 1483, Jerusalem was under Mamluk control. This did not make for an easy visit for Christians. Western pilgrims were allowed to tour the sacred sites only if accompanied by Franciscan guides (the Franciscans were the only western Christians allowed to live in Jerusalem). Even then, some sites were off limits. Saint Anne’s house and the burial site of David and Solomon, for example, had been turned into mosques.

What was the good pilgrim to do?

Well, if you were Friar Felix Fabri, you saw the sites anyway. In his travel account, Fabri describes repeatedly shaking off his guides. For example, he sneaked (more than once) into the mosque covering the burial places of David and Solomon.

Other times, pilgrims fought with their Muslim hosts. Fabri describes trying to visit the Fountain of the Virgin, located in a cave at the foot of Mt. Sion. As the pilgrim group went in, a “fierce Saracen” appeared, waving his arms and screaming and attempting to shoo them out of the cave. What ensued plays out like a fight scene in a movie:

But a certain Lombard knight from Milan went boldly up to this Saracen, seized him by the arm, and dragged him forcibly away from the fountain. Hereupon the Saracen became enraged against the knight, fell upon him, and began to beat him with his fists, and the knight, on the other hand, defended himself with his fists . . .

The Saracen wrangled free and ran to get help, but the pilgrims grabbed him.

[S]ome of the knights untied their purses, and showed the Saracen some money . . . I need say no more: as soon as he saw the money, he changed into a different man . . . and he offered himself, cheerfully and without reserve, to serve us in whatever way we might choose . . . *

The pilgrims drank of the fountain in the cave and ascended.

When I began reading about Jerusalem pilgrimage, I didn’t expect to encounter subterfuge, fights, and bribery. I thought the record would show that visiting the holy sites was like walking a giant labyrinth—quiet, contemplative, and worshipful.

But pilgrimage doesn’t always take place in ideal conditions. In fact, medieval pilgrimage to Jerusalem appears to have been one hardship after another. Fabri, in truth, seems to have reveled in his pilgrimage-turned-adventure. He describes his feats of daring with relish. But his travel narrative does point out that Jerusalem pilgrims endured a good deal to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. They had to enter the land of another faith fully to experience their own.

There’s a lesson for us here. Like Fabri’s journey, our pilgrimage sometimes leads us into battle. We expect a peaceful journey and instead find ourselves worshiping with the enemy—and I don’t mean a political enemy or what medieval pilgrims would call the infidel. We fight a battle within. When I journey to Jesus, I come face to face with the infidels of my heart. Distraction. Sin. Pride. Fear. They do everything to block my path. No sword is enough to defeat them. No bribe will pacify them.

Fortunately, I don’t have to defeat these enemies on my own. I worship someone who, using a cross rather than a sword, can overcome the infidels of my heart.

*The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri, vol. 1, part 2, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1896), 524,

A Jerusalem Moment: Pilgrims in Labor

Schedel's Jerusalem in color
View of Jerusalem from Hartmann Schedel’s “Nuremberg Chronicle,” 1493 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lately I’ve been reading about medieval pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What a fascinating and daunting journey that must have been. For the next few weeks I want to share some of my favorite “Jerusalem moments.” Most of them come from the Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri. Fabri was a Dominican friar who journeyed from Ulm, Germany to Jerusalem in 1483.

Today’s “Jerusalem moment” comes from Fabri’s description of pilgrims being led to the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Upon being told where they were, the pilgrims erupted in sobs and groans, flung themselves to the ground, beat their breasts, kissed the earth; others lay prostrate, “forsaken by their strength.” Do pilgrims to Jerusalem react in these ways today? (Serious question—I’ve never been to Jerusalem.)

One phrase of Fabri’s stood out for me. He says:

Above all our companions and sisters the women pilgrims shrieked as though in labor, cried aloud and wept.*

Church of_the_Holy_Sepulchre drawing, 15th c
Drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 15th c. (via Wikimedia Commons)

What an incredible image! Pilgrims in labor, not because they were pregnant, but because their time had come. If Jerusalem pilgrimage could be described as a pregnancy—with several months of preparation, anticipation, sorrow, and trials, arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the moment of birth. It was the moment pilgrims had been waiting for, the moment they had undertaken a long and dangerous journey for. At the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they witnessed the rebirth of their faith.

Fabri links labor specifically with women, but his description has larger implications. It’s fitting, for example, because in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was called the navel of the world—the place where Christianity was born.

It also recalls what the Apostle Paul said in Romans: every person who follows Jesus goes through childbirth.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together as in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

All Christians, Paul says, are groaning with the painful expectation of what they are becoming. Do you ever find following Jesus to be such an intense struggle that it’s almost physical? It’s because you are giving birth to your faith; it’s at once a sorrowful and joyful occasion. (For more on this idea, see my essay from a few years ago.)

I don’t know whether or not Fabri had the book of Romans in mind when he talked about labor. But I like the echo. After a lengthy journey, the pilgrims’ time had come—to moan, weep, and shriek. To give birth to their sorrow at Jesus’ crucifixion and joy at the new life of resurrection. Their “labor” not only tells us about medieval pilgrimage. It’s also a picture of the sorrow and joy of our spiritual life today.

*The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri, vol. 1, part 1, trans. Aubrey Stewart (London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1896), 283.

A Faith Walked: Pace and the Christian Journey

For the past couple weeks we’ve looked at physical pilgrimage, especially the Camino de Santiago. Today, my friend Richard Littledale – a pastor, author, and pilgrim – tells us why our faith can be likened to a pilgrimage – a slow, sacred journey taken one step at a time. He introduces this idea in an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Journey. Enjoy!


The onward way – Ceredigion, Wales

“Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

These are the words of Edward Whymper, the Victorian mountaineer who was the first European to climb the Matterhorn. Though written well over a century ago, they still ring true – and not just when it comes to climbing. Our Christian life is lived one step at a time – neither more nor less. I have been a Christian for over 30 years and for most of them I have been unable to sing the words of Francis Ridley Havergal’s hymn ‘Take my life and let it be’ without a smile. ‘Take my feet and let them be, swift and beautiful for thee.’

My feet will never be swift or beautiful. However, as a Pastor it has fallen to me to act as a kind of spiritual courier – guiding people from the plains of unbelief, into the foothills of faith, and pointing out the path to the higher slopes of God’s goodness. As I have done this, I have become more and more convinced that this is a journey made on foot – step, by step, by step.

Steps, of course, are so basic that we don’t even have to think about them. From the day we get up off our bottoms and toddle our first upright steps, we never give them another thought. Every step is, in fact, a fall caught just in time. As we walk we transfer our body weight forwards, with front leg bearing the weight. As that front foot strikes the ground, so the knee bends slightly with the impact, bringing the rest of the body almost to the point of overbalancing. This triggers a response in the psoas major of the brain, telling the trailing foot to come around and take the strain in order to avert disaster. With that done, the whole cycle begins again and so we propel ourselves across earth’s surface. On a good day we may perform that cycle of actions over 10,000 times – whether around our place of work or across the wild earth.

To make any journey on foot is counter-cultural in a world where speed is of the essence, and a person may be isolated from their global neighbours by the relative speed of their broadband connection. Few of us walk to work, and walking as a leisure pastime has become part of an expensive and highly technical outdoor sports industry. The idea of a long walk which seems more about the journey than the destination seems alien to our driven and performance-oriented society. Setting out on his journey on foot, journalist Jack Hitt commented that:

What the modern pilgrim is exiled from is not a place but velocity. I haven’t left the world of the city; I have left the realm of the car. What distinguishes me is not that I am out of town but that I am on foot.

Pilgrimage signs outside Garda, Italy

In recent years there has been a marked resurgence in the appetite amongst Christians and ‘spiritual enquirers’ of every hue for pilgrimage. In 1985, for instance, 491 people received a certificate of completion on the pilgrim route , or Camino to Santiago de Compostela. In 2010 the number was over 270,000. Amongst those thousands not all are Christians nor even religious. Some walk for the physical benefits, some walk to unravel the threads of a complicated past, and others look for some form of enlightenment. Often it is the journey itself, rather than the destination, which seems to matter most. This is a kind of mobile therapy, where the knots of a tangled and complex life can be unravelled as the miles roll beneath the walker’s feet. Whatever their reasons, ancient pilgrimage routes such as the Camino de Santiago now bear more modern footprints than at any point in my lifetime. This seems like a good time to consider the Christian life as a journey lived at walking pace.

To say that the Christian life is ‘just’ lived at walking pace though makes it sound like an easy thing – as if we can just saunter our way from first calling to heavenly arrival without even breaking a sweat. Anyone who has ever travelled a substantial distance on foot will know that it is not so.

Churchyard gate at Ysbyty Cynfyn church, on the former pilgrim trail to St David’s, Wales

In his youth my father was a very keen walker – travelling great distances between Youth Hostels with his canvas knapsack on his back. Years later, when my brother and I came along, he was still keen to walk. With our much shorter legs we often found it hard to keep up. What was a pleasant stroll to him often felt like more of a route march to us, and I often struggled at the back. Realising this, he took me on one side and explained that the secret to enjoying a long walk was not to concentrate on the distance, but on the contents. In other words, it was better to savour the sights and sounds as you passed through, rather than spending the whole journey thinking about its end. In this way, the miles passed quicker and the journey was a whole lot more pleasant. It is in such a spirit that I write the following chapters.


This is Lisa: I really like Richard’s idea of the Christian faith lived at walking pace. Let’s have a conversation! Feel free to leave comments below.

  • Do you agree that in today’s society, walking is counter-cultural, even a form of exile? What does this say about the common idea of Christianity as a “walk of faith?”
  • When you consider your own faith journey, do you think of a walk or another form of movement?
  • Is the Christian faith about the destination (the end) or the journey itself?


Richard Littledale is the Pastor of Teddington Baptist Church in London, England. He has written books on preaching, storytelling and communication, as well as a narrative exploration of Jonah and two children’s stories. His next book, with Paternoster Press, is due out in 2017. The book is entitled Journey – the way of the disciple, and explores pilgrimage as a metaphor of discipleship.

Motivations of a Modern Pilgrim

Welcome to the seventh post in this series on pilgrimage. Last week we looked at some medieval motives for walking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Today I’m delighted to introduce Jeremiah Gibbs, who has walked the Way and is here to tell us about the motivations of a modern pilgrim. Please enjoy his post!


The Camino de Santiago has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. But why it’s been a great gift to me is a complex question. In 2014 I made a very brief pilgrimage with my wife in preparation for leading a group of undergraduate pilgrims this past May. My first pilgrimage was a gift to me because I had the opportunity to share a diverse and rich adventure with my wife. When we walked into the cathedrals in Leon and then in Santiago, there was unexplainable magic to a place with such a long tradition of worship of God and hospitality to pilgrims.

Students Walking 2
Walking the Camino de Santiago

Returning with 14 other hungry pilgrims this year was less magical, because I had experienced so many of the places the previous year. But the shared experience of a 165 mile walking pilgrimage taught us about the interdependence of the Christian walk. While I know that my wife and students also appreciate these aspects of our pilgrimage in retrospect, our expectations and motivations for Camino were more diverse.

Last week Lisa rightly noted that many medieval pilgrims were motivated by a desire for miracles or even as the prescription of a criminal court. But it is also telling that Martin Luther’s primary objection to pilgrimage was that pilgrims would earn their righteousness by effort and not receive it by grace. He objected to the notion of indulgences that was attached to the practice. It seems that primary motivation of a majority of pilgrims was a desire to receive some special grace or forgiveness from God.

With more than 250,000 pilgrims expected this year, the motivation of modern pilgrims is far from homogeneous. There are plenty of pilgrims on the Way as an act of self-discovery. There are many others that are simply walking adventure seekers. For young people living in Spain, where more than half of all Camino pilgrims live, having made pilgrimage is often an important entry on your CV as you begin job searching. I talked with so many more that simply needed a sabbath from the stress of everyday work, a kind of meditative vacation.

Being the pastor of a large group on the Camino, I had the opportunity to meet many of those that were making Camino as an act of Christian devotion. Pilgrims and hospitaleros would often learn that a pilgrim was a devoted Christian and tell people about our group.

But it’s clear that Christian pilgrims making the journey for religious reasons are now the minority. For that large minority, there were really three motivations that were prominent. There were a few seeking a miracle. But those were few. Many more understood their time to be sabbath, either from the stress of work or time to process a life-changing transition in their life: such as a new retirement or the death of a loved one. I would say that the overwhelming number of Christian pilgrims were seeking a blessing from God. We don’t like to use the term “indulgence” among modern Protestants, but these were people hoping that God would bless them with divine direction for their future or that they would establish some radical new relationship with God. I think I even promoted this idea within our group of pilgrims. (Here are the four characteristics of a Christian pilgrimage that I gave my students.)

Students at cross 2
Pilgrims at the Cruz de Ferro

We certainly had a few pilgrims that discovered a more radical way of following Jesus, mostly from seeing the devotion of other members of our group struggle aloud with their faith. They grew in devotional practices. One started attending church for the first time in a decade. Another began a daily Bible reading regimen. Our experience at Cruz de Ferro, a pilgrim ritual that invites pilgrims to cast their burdens at the foot of a iron cross, was powerful for most. The prayers we offered in the courtyard outside the Cathedral of St. James and then again when we celebrated our Protestant Communion in the courtyard the next day were a powerful memory of the religious significance of our journey.

Most of our pilgrims didn’t leave the Camino with their Protestant version of an indulgence, however. When our group of pilgrims talk about the Camino they normally talk about the way of life entailed. They talk about the simplicity of the voyage. They talk about the difficulty of getting up each day and the routine of caring for feet, doing laundry, and finding a place to rest. They talk about perseverance when they were hurting. They talk about the depth of relationship and care that they received from other pilgrims.

Students praying (Gibbs)
The Cruz de Ferro

It seems that many modern Christian pilgrims begin the Camino with the same motivation as some of the medieval pilgrims: they seek a special blessing from God. But by the end of the journey they realize that Camino is like life. It’s like life done rightly.

When I teach on monastic communities in my classes, I often make the point that monastic communities are intended to be the kind of communities where they truly live out the lives of devotion and community that all are called to live. By their constant witness they display the life of the church done rightly, for both the church and the world. They help us all to see what church can look like.

I think there is a valuable lesson here that we can learn from the Camino. Analogous to the monastic witness, Camino is life done rightly. It places priority on the everyday routine of getting up and doing one’s work for the day. It invites the pilgrim to make prayer central to the pilgrim vocation of walking, just as all of our work would ideally be girded in prayer. And the Camino invites pilgrims to stop at the hundreds of little churches and grand cathedrals along the way to take a moment to pray and worship.

Students in Courtyard 2
Praying in the courtyard of the Cathedral of St. James

It teaches us to do relationships rightly as well. Because so many are open to spiritual conversations on Camino, the pilgrimage invites conversations of faith and heart and life to become a natural fabric woven throughout our relationships. The pain and stress on the body make us dependent upon on a friend who will carry our pack for a little while, hold watch as we relieve ourselves just off the path, “thread” our blisters on our feet, and massage our aching muscles and tendons. Those same friends will pray with us and for us. They will laugh and play with us. And they will do the everyday work of walking with us.

I suppose not everyone can be a monk or nun. And I suppose that we cannot be on Camino for all of our lives either. But Camino does invite us to embrace the model pilgrimage for a little while that we may learn to make all of our life a pilgrimage.


GibbsJeremiah Gibbs (Ph.D.) is University Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Indianapolis. He is the author of Apologetics After Lindbeck (Pickwick, forthcoming) and blogs at

The Man Behind the Camino

On Tuesday we explored medieval motives for walking the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. It struck me that, although we hear a lot about the Camino—the walk itself and the pilgrims who undertake it—we don’t hear nearly as much about St. James, or at least the St. James enshrined in the cathedral and imagined by medieval pilgrims.

Do pilgrims today even walk the Camino in order to visit the shrine of St. James? It seems that the journey has become more important than the destination.

In keeping with my idea that (in the Middle Ages, at least) the destination is key, I thought we’d take a look at some facts and legends surrounding St. James, the man behind the Camino.

St. James - Codex Calixtinus
S. James from the Codex Calixtinus

Facts: You probably already know that James the Greater was one of the twelve disciples. He was the brother of John, the beloved disciple. James was one of three to witness the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17:1-13; Luke 9:28-36) and Jesus’ agony in the garden (Matthew 26:37-46; Mark 14:33-42). He is the only disciple whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament (Acts 12:1-2).

It’s certainly understandable that the Camino became so popular. James was part of Jesus’ inner circle. His relics brought a bit of the Holy Land to Europe. Pilgrims (whatever their motives) could touch and pray to a saint who had been close to the savior.

Uncertainty: We move into uncertainty, if not legend, when we consider the belief, popular in the Middle Ages, that James brought the Gospel to Spain. According to medieval sources, he preached in Iberia before returning to Judea, where he was beheaded.

Legends: There are several stories about what happened next. According to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1260), James’s disciples loaded his remains onto a boat and, without sail or rudder, were conducted by an angel to Galicia.

And then the disciples of S. James took out his body and laid it upon a great stone. And anon the stone received the body into it as it had been soft wax, and made to the body a stone as it were a sepulchre.

More miracles ensued as James’s disciples dodged an angry Spanish queen. My favorite is when they split a fire-breathing dragon in two by making the sign of the cross. You have to love how dragons are incorporated as often as possible in medieval stories and hagiography!

St. James Moorslayer
St. James Moorslayer. Photo by P.Lameiro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
One more tidbit about St. James – in the medieval era, he was especially known for aiding Spanish Christians in what is often called the Reconquista. He was a militant saint, even a crusader saint, and was, on occasion, called St. James Moorslayer. I can’t help wondering if affection for the Camino would remain as strong if more people were aware of this aspect of St. James.

Why Walk? The Camino de Santiago Then And Now

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
In last week’s post we discovered that it’s easy to idealize spiritual pilgrimage. As my friend Richard Littledale put it in his comment, “In allowing [pilgrimage] to become a metaphor of self-discovery we have chosen to gloss over its harsher aspects and cut it so free from its anchors that it can float free and attach itself to any worldview or philosophy.”

There’s nothing wrong with pilgrimage being used to describe many kinds of journeys or experiences. But it’s helpful to remember that, in the Christian tradition, spiritual pilgrimage describes, above all, our daily and life-long journey to the Jerusalem of our heart—to Jesus. There’s no way to idealize that journey! It is, at its best, lengthy, difficult, and unsafe.

It’s also easy to gloss over some of the harsh historical realities of physical pilgrimage. Take, for example, the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James—the network of routes leading to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. The Camino was one of the most traveled pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages and is experiencing a surge of popularity in our time. It’s estimated that in 2014, over 200,000 people walked this route.

I’ve yet to walk the Camino, but I certainly want to. One reason? It’s become so romanticized that it looks appealing. I don’t like physical exercise of any kind, yet when I see photos of pilgrims on the Camino, I’m ready for a three-month trek, just me and my backpack. I’m not so sure the Camino was this enticing in the Middle Ages. In fact, I would argue that this route has been almost entirely cut off from its medieval meaning.

Camino de Santiago. Photo by José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, Spain [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Today, the Camino is a journey of self-discovery. It’s leisure travel. It’s a hiker’s challenge. It’s a piece of history. It’s 5 of 5 stars, according to one travel site. “Anyone can do it, and you can’t beat the scenery and the wine!” (I’m paraphrasing but you get the point.)

“Anyone can do it.” So why did medieval pilgrims do it? What made the Camino so popular? I assume the scenery was just as beautiful in the Middle Ages, but for the most part medieval pilgrims didn’t walk the Camino for adventure. I’d like to think they walked it as a way to practice or renew their faith. St. James, after all, was said to have brought the Gospel to Iberia and was thought to have been buried there after he was beheaded in Jerusalem. Compostela was a little piece of the Holy Land brought to Spain.

I’m sure faith was one goal, but there were others, and not all of them were pretty. I doubt the spectacular scenery would have made up for some of the situations that brought pilgrims to this route.

Let’s take a brief look at three reasons medieval pilgrims hit the road to Saint James:

Vows – People who were sick or in danger often called upon a saint to help them, making a vow to go to the saint’s shrine should they be delivered. Reneging on such a vow could prove dangerous! The 12th-c. Miracles of St. James tells about a French soldier who vowed to go on pilgrimage to Compostela if St. James helped him in battle. St. James came through. The soldier went back on his vow and became ill to the point of death. Only when he began making plans for a pilgrimage did he regain his health. He completed the journey with the help of the saint. Making pilgrimage vows that were subsequently regretted seems to have been common, which means that many travelers on the Camino didn’t even want to be there.

Miracles – Most pilgrimage saints were revered for performing miracles of healing. St. James was no exception. Many pilgrims on the Camino would have been ill, perhaps even (literally) on their last leg. “The old pilgrimage roads must have been choked with the sick and dying,” muses historian and pilgrim Conrad Rudolph.* For such travelers, a pilgrimage was a journey of desperation.

Warwickshire-skeletonsIn fact, sick pilgrims have just made the news, some 900 years after their journey. A news story from yesterday reports that around 50 graves have been found at the pilgrimage site of Lichfield in England. The graves may belong to pilgrims who traveled to the relics of St. Chad in hopes of healing but died there or en route. The photo of archaeologists digging up these graves is sobering and drives home the point that not all pilgrims survived their journey.

Penance – We think of pilgrimage as a voluntary journey. But in the Middle Ages, many pilgrims were ordered by a civic court to walk to Compostela. Pilgrimage was considered to be an appropriate sentence for sexual and political crimes and even for murderers, who might walk the road with models of their weapons chained to their bodies. Read my recent essay about one of my favorite 15th-century artists who got sent on a penitential pilgrimage to a shrine along one of the Camino routes.

These weren’t the only reasons to take to the road in the Middle Ages. But even this short review shows that pilgrimage was not quite the enchanting walk pictured in travel photos today. In the Middle Ages, your traveling companions would not have been like-minded friends on a bit of a hike or a journey of self-discovery. They would have been distinctly . . . unsavory. They were people who had reneged on vows; who carried disease or were near death; who had committed crimes. Was pilgrimage comfortable or safe? No. Was it worth it? I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question.

Have you walked the Camino or another pilgrimage route? What was your motive or experience? I’d love for you to leave a comment below.

Be sure to tune in next week. I’m excited that Jeremiah Gibbs will be here to tell us about his experiences with the Camino!

*Conrad Rudolph, Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 5.