Over this season of Lent, our weekly Wednesday evening liturgies have been built around the theme of “pilgrimage.” On March 11, the liturgy included a reflection on the violinist Oliver Schroer’s Camino project, in which some music was played and the following meditations were offered.
Part 1 – In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage was one of the most common acts of devotion; whether to Canterbury – as was the case with Chaucer’s characters – or to Rome or Jerusalem… or along the Camino de Santiago, a 1000 kilometre walk beginning in France and continuing across the north of Spain to the city of Santiago, the reputed resting place of the bones of St James. Often undertaken as an act of penance, the pilgrimage was understood to be an act at once physically taxing, emotionally exhausting, and spiritually renewing.
Protestant traditions have not typically been interested in such things – often misreading the act of pilgrimage as an attempt to gain God’s favour by works… which it probably was for many of those medieval peoples – and so the Reformation marked an end to the practice, at least in those contexts. Even within Roman Catholicism, the practice seemed to fall away with the arrival of the Enlightenment and the age of modernity. Could walking in such a manner mean anything?
“It is all solved by walking,” said Augustine in the 5th Century. He was not even referring specifically to pilgrimage, but rather to the experience that many of us have in taking that long, long walk; clarity comes, things fall into place, perspective is granted. C.S. Lewis and his Oxford colleagues were known for their walks. Walking holidays, that would carry them across miles and miles of the English countryside, but also daily walks in and around the town. Lewis’s final conversion to Christianity took place on a long night’s walk in the company of J.R.R. Tolkien. “It is all solved by walking.”
The tradition of pilgrimage faded, but it never disappeared. Interestingly, it has now, over the past 50 years, made a significant return. People are walking the ancient pilgrim routes again. And one of those pilgrims was the Canadian violinist Oliver Schroer.
From his notes:
“This album is the record of an intersection, the story of a line… music born of a particular landscape and time. The line- an ancient path… during May and June of 2004, I walked a thousand kilometers of the Camino de Santiago – an eleven hundred year old pilgrim trail through France and Spain – with my wife Elena and longtime friends Peter and Diane. I recorded this album on the road. In my backpack, I carried my violin like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic, carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and waiting to work a miracle. My pack also contained a portable recording studio… an open church, with appealing acoustics… I played and recorded in these spaces. In some churches I played for many people, in others, for a single listener. New pieces came – one hill, one valley at a time. I stopped to play my violin…”
Part 2 – To walk so far, in the company of friends, of 100’s of strangers, but mostly in the company of the Spirit of God; it is a powerful thing. What can you learn from such a pilgrimage? Something of your limits? Something about the friendship of strangers? Something about the wildness of God, whose Spirit recklessly meets us out on the edge of experience?
In a world in which we can fly across an ocean in a matter of hours; drive our cars to and from work or school; jump on to the internet and with a few clicks google an image of a place 10,000 miles away… why are people drawn like this to walking? Is it because so much is so easy and so fast for us, that some at least are drawn to a practice that predates all of modernity’s ease?
Again, from Oliver Schroer’s notes:
“Sometimes the recording was challenging…I was driven to make it count. Would I be allowed to finish even a single piece? My violin sang, and I forgot the crippling pain in my feet. The music still sings on these recordings. And the sense of place is strong – pilgrims praying, children playing, passing snatches of conversation, the voices of the buildings themselves.”
Part 3 – Of the end of the journey, Schroer’s traveling companion Peter Coffman wrote the following:
“There was a time in our lives before the Camino, and there is a time after it. At the climax of the pilgrims’ mass, a giant incense censer roars past us, a massive arc, leaving a sweet trail of smoke. It is joyful, celebratory, and incredibly exciting. As I walk out the door of the north transept, I know the pilgrimage is truly over.”
Yet the story doesn’t end at that celebratory mass in Santiago.
On July 2, 2008 Oliver Schroer succumbed to leukemia, a death noted in a moving article in the July 5 edition of The Toronto Star. Schroer was only in his early 50’s, and his battle with leukemia was short; it was less than 18 months from diagnosis to death, but even during that time he continued to record (Hymns and Hers, a project he described as “an album of hymns and introspective ensemble pieces”) and to play concerts. The final concert of his life took place on June 5, 2008, less than a month before his death.
In the interview with Toronto Star reporter Diane Flacks, Schroer spoke of death as being the “waterfall we’re all facing.” “We’re all dying, you know,” he remarked, and then in response to Flacks’ question about his expectations around his death, calmly explained his perspective:
At the moment we pass through that portal, things rearrange themselves so thoroughly (that) it cannot make any sense to us now. I have the feeling that, at the moment that I slip across, it will make ultimate sense. And I’m not going to look back.
This strikes me as being akin to what the medievals would have called “a good death.” With time to prepare to die – with time to put one’s life in perspective and one’s soul in order – death can be faced with calm confidence.
I can only speculate here – and I suppose such speculation might be either naïve or irresponsible – but if you listen carefully to the Camino CD, it is not hard to imagine that the long walk had something to do with Oliver Schroer being able to die well. He seemed to have learned something out there on that road; something about the One who named himself as the Way … and the Truth and the Life…
And that, finally, is why anyone goes out on a pilgrim’s trail.