“FEW people can claim to have changed the course of history with respect to pilgrimage,” opines Alastair McIntosh in the foreword to Richard Frazer’s Travels With a Stick. While that may be true, nothing is truer of pilgrimage itself; for it has “reconfigure[d many] lives”, Frazer’s included.
A Church of Scotland minister, he sets out on a drizzly August day in 2012 to walk the near-700 miles from the Haute-Loire in France to the shrine of St James the Great in north-west Spain. His initial excitement soon wanes as the route’s provocations take their toll. But in his chronicle of fleeting encounters — in mere mundane interactions with humanity, which he holds dearly memorable — he finds the “essential goodness and grace that is at the heart of all”.
Although pilgrimage fell out of favour in Scotland during the Reformation era, Frazer sets out to revive the tradition as a spiritual exercise — a pathway to the true meaning of Christianity in the modern age, faithful stick in tow. What his eventful travelogue makes abundantly clear is that the Camino is no hike; nor is it a race.
Through spiritual and physical challenges, his journey of self-discovery uncovers pilgrimage to be much more about stopping than going; of looking in through looking out; and of stripping away all that is unnecessary and familiar to hear the voice of God. In the midst of his vulnerability and self-proclaimed vigour, he reveals, in beautiful prose, the freedom and trust that the Camino brings: communities of faith and friendship, and empty-handed strangers “who just might be Christ in disguise”.
This absorbing account reveals how the pilgrim journey can be nourishment for the human soul. After all, “the way of Jesus” is the “way of weakness”: it takes you by the hand, whether standing still or travelling an ancient pilgrimage route. I implore the reader to find it.
Dr Emma J. Wells is an Associate Lecturer, Programme Director, and Research Associate within the Department of Archaeology and Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She is the author of Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016).
Travels With a Stick: A pilgrim’s journey to Santiago de Compostela
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