The Power of a Pilgrimage: Part Three in a Series

Date Posted: 1/14/2016

Rev. Jeff Dungan (St. Luke’s UMC, Bryan) experienced a quest of faith at the world-renowned Camino de Santiago in Spain as a part of his Advanced Pastoral Leadership training.
Rev. Jeff Dungan‘s story of spiritual renewal in Spain also includes details such as blisters and exhaustion mixed with stunning landscapes and hours of deep thought. When walking the 500 miles of this ancient pilgrim path known as the Camino de Santiago, the experience is different for each of the millions of people who have traveled this trail for over a thousand years. The arduous trek is the destination for over 270,000 people a year that are seeking adventure through this unique personal journey.
Reflections: In His Own Words
The English translation of Camino de Santiago is The Way of St. James, which essentially means the path to the final resting place of the Apostle James. There are many routes all over Spain and Europe, but the most historically traveled is a route from France to Santiago de Compestella. The route begins at St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, and travels nearly 500 miles over the Pyrenees across the northern part of Spain to Santiago de Compestella. I had never heard of this pilgrimage until a missionary friend in Spain suggested I watch the movie “The Way.” After watching the movie, I knew that the Camino de Santiago was a pilgrimage I wanted to do for an extended time of spiritual renewal and connection with God.
Last summer, my congregation at St. Luke’s UMC, Bryan blessed me by allowing me to take my vacation and spiritual formation time together to go on this journey called the Camino de Santiago (Camino for short). Throughout my entire 500-mile journey, God opened my eyes to a number of observations and metaphors regarding things going on in my life and ministry. 

  • One observation was the backpacks of the hikers.  Most pilgrims pack too much stuff into their backpacks, and after several days of hiking start considering what they can leave behind or mail home (I personally shed almost six pounds of unnecessary stuff). How often do we do this in our regular lives, with both materialistic and emotional baggage? What stuff do we need to let go of and leave behind?
  • Another observation was a practical one… The tiniest pebble in your boot can cause big problems. Often we notice little irritations, yet we tell ourselves they don’t matter or they aren’t that big of a deal. On the Camino, if you ignore a sore spot on your foot or a tiny pebble in our boot, you can get painful blisters that can sideline you for days. We do the same in our day-to-day lives.  We often avoid conflict, don’t resolve issues, harbor resentment, don’t apologize, and a whole long list of other seemingly “little” things… but how often do these things fester into big things? Far too often.
  • Another observation was that there are several phases of the Camino. It is said the first third of the Camino is for your body, the second third of the Camino is for your mind, and the final third is for your soul. After 10 days of hiking 15 to 20 miles per day, I totally agree with the first third.  Likewise I felt very mentally alive during the second third of the hike.  However, I mistakenly assumed the final third would be a spiritual high. After three weeks of hiking an average of 18 miles per day, when I started the final third I found myself thinking… “I’m tired… how much longer to the end?” How was this feeling a rejuvenation of my soul and spirit? What I was really feeling was this last 150 miles was about character, commitment, and persistence. Then God revealed to me that this is much like our journey through life. Some seasons are tough physically for us.  Other seasons are exciting and full of learning and activity. And other seasons are hard, and require commitment and persistence. These seasons are totally about our character and our soul.  Then I wondered, “Where is the Spiritual “third” of the journey?” God also revealed to me that the Spiritual part is also just like our journey through life… its all the time! Our Spiritual journey goes along side the other things happening in our lives, and if we are not mindful of our Spiritual journey, we may feel like the day-to-day part of our journey is missing something.
  • Another observation was how one approaches their Camino hikeAre you on a tight schedule --or taking it day by day? Are you subconsciously competing with the other pilgrims-- or are you OK if you are passed by lots of hikers? Are you focused on your stopping point for the day --or do you stop and talk to every person you can?  These are all mini reflections of how we live out the real journey we call life.
  • Another observation has to do with signs. Along the Camino, there are yellow arrows or seashells as trail markers telling you which way to go. Sometimes pilgrims get lost on the Camino because occasionally the signs are hard to see, have been painted over, or have weeds growing up over them. Other times we are talking, daydreaming, or maybe even praying… and we miss the signs. Sometimes the signs are so far spaced out that we doubt the way we are going before we reach the next sign. Just like on the Camino, this happens to us in life, too, including our Christian walk. Sometimes we have a hard time reading the signs, which is where asking someone comes in. Sometimes we shouldn’t be walking alone so we have someone with us. Sometimes we simply need to pay attention and listen for what the Holy Spirit is communicating to us.
  • Finally, I experienced that all quiet time is not equal.  Spending 15 minutes in meditation is not the same as an hour, and an hour is not the same as five hours, and five hours one day is not the same as 5 hours for several days in a row. What walking the Camino de Santiago offers its pilgrims is the opportunity to have an abundance of quiet time, and use that to listen to God in a way they have likely never been able to at any other time in their lives.  I know that was true for me.  This was by far the most dedicated time with God I have had since discerning a call into ministry… and this was my biggest blessing of walking the Camino.
I am very appreciative to my wife Kristin as well as the St. Luke’s family for allowing me the space and time to go on this journey.  I am also thankful for the St. Luke’s Lay Servants and other clergy who supplied St. Luke’s pulpit while I was on this pilgrimage.  It was truly a wonderful experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a time of spiritual renewal.  If you would like additional reflections about my Camino experience, you can find more on my blog at